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Understanding the Purpose of Hreflang

There seems to be persistent confusion about the purpose of using hreflang on your website and what it does and does not do, and why it is more important than most global website owners understand.

Let me try to illustrate what hreflang does using Nike.com. Nike’s country selector lists 78 market-specific websites across five geographic regions, of which 37 are in English. All English language market websites use the nike.com global top-level domain with a two-letter folder representing the market.

Without hreflang, Nike is at the mercy of Google to figure everything out. Google can easily determine the page is in English but is there a strong enough signal on each page to not flag one or more of the English variations as duplicates and then present Nike’s desired version in the correct search results for that market? That is a lot of work for Google, with little to no benefit to Google when they only need to show the searcher a local language version of the desired product page. It is Nike that hopes that page is the website for that market.

Very simply, websites using hreflang removes chance, minimize effort by Google, and remove ambiguity related to where a webpage is targeting. Declaring a webpage in the English language using a /uk folder for Great Brittian or in French for France tells Google it is truly unique to a language and market, helping ensure it is not considered a duplicate, is indexed, and correctly presented to the local market.

Google’s Stated Purpose of Hreflang

Hreflang elements were introduced by Google and adopted by other search engines as a method for site owners to explicitly state the language or language region of a specific webpage AND indicate that a URL has one or more equivalent (alternate) URLs with similar content but designated for another specific language or language region. This paraphrases Google’s guidelines for managing international versions of a website.

Benefits of Hreflang

As the purpose illudes, the purpose of hreflang is to remove any ambiguity related to where a webpage is targeting. Declaring a webpage in the English language for Great Brittian or in French for France tells Google it is truly unique, helping ensure it is indexed and presented to the local market.

Benefit #1 – Since the website owner has specifically indicated a page was for the UK or France, Google will typically show that designated URL version over another. Showing the correct market version then minimizes cannibalization by one market over another in the search engine results (SERPS).  The resulting reduction in SERP cannibalization maximizes traffic to the appropriate local market website, reduces shopping cart abandonment, and, ultimately, increases revenue. 

Benefit #2 – Similar to benefit #1, since the site owner has explicitly listed alternative URL versions, Google should not see these exact or nearly exact match pages as duplicates but as having a specific purpose. Often, the only difference between multiple same-product pages is the currency symbol. Without these near-match pages being designated alternate market versions, they may be considered duplicates and demoted or not added to the Search results.

You can review our post on Why Google Needs to support hreflang to understand the importance of the website owner self-designating a market for each URL.

What Hreflang Does Not Do

Hreflang elements are not magic or a special technique to help you rank better. The following is a list of things hreflang does not do. Hreflang elements are not magic or a special technique to help you rank better, nor does guarantee to eliminate cannibalization or improve traffic or sales.  Unfortunately, just because you set a hreflang does not mean that search engines will use it as an absolute fact. If Google’s algorithm truly believes a page from another market is the absolute best, it still may show it with or above the market page. Additionally, incorrect implementation and significant search health issues with your website can negatively impact the effectiveness of how well hreflang performs.

It does not make you rank better.

Using hreflang elements does not in itself make you rank better.  Hreflang will not increase your rank in a market where an alternate page is ranking. it will only replace which page is ranking in a market at the same position. Another common myth is that if you have a single language website and then use hreflang to target other markets with that same website, it will then force the same rank in those markets. We commonly get US English travel websites that assume using hreflang to say it represents ten other English markets will force it to rank in those markets. If the original site was not ranking as a global English site, is it not likely to rank trying to fool Google by saying it is now a UK or Australian Website.

Does not fix errors in SEO Diagnostic Tools

Hreflang lang elements, no matter the method implemented, cannot fix duplicate issues in SEO diagnostic tools. We have received several support tickets wanting to know why, after deploying hreflang that their diagnostic tools were still showing elements as duplicates. While hreflang gives the page a purpose it does not and cannot magically make element-specific duplication disappear.

Does not remove another market from SERPS

Hreflang does not remove non-market pages from SERPS in another market.  For example, if your US page was ranking #1 in Ireland and you implemented hreflang, the US page may not disappear. Once Google understands your hreflang settings and the link to the alternate Ireland English version, its systems will replace the US page with the Ireland page. It may not remove the US page from the results but will demote it to a position below the Ireland page. This is especially true where one page is algorithmically dominant and/or gets a lot of traffic, Google may show it as indented but will typically be placed under the designated market version of the page.  

It does not Exclude Markets from SERPS

You cannot exclude markets using hreflang.  For example, suppose you do not want to target English speakers in Fiji due to high shipping costs. You cannot use hreflang elements to prevent being shown in Fiji since you set your website to Australian English. No provision in the rules can exclude it from appearing in any market.

Let us help reduce confusion

Hreflang can be complex, and this complexity has spawned a lot of supposed experts and mountains of documents that can be confusing if not incorrect. If you have questions or a strange situation, reach out and see if we can help you better understand the situation and the best go-to-market solution.