Hreflang was a hot topic in a recent Google Webmasters hangout chat. Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller fielded a number of questions about using hreflang markup to manage websites that render in multiple languages or have different regional versions.

In our growing global economy more and more businesses are finding that language could be the barrier to gaining a larger customer base. Simply translating your website into Spanish, French or any other language could be enough to expand your brand into another region. The caveat is getting the right version of the website to show up in the Google search results.

Hreflang markup provides Google with directions for which version of the URL to serve up in the SERPs. When hreflang is used correctly Google will show the version with language targeted to a specific audience, which improves the user experience and helps improve conversions. If hreflang is used incorrectly users might see a website in a language they can’t understand.

Businesses that have multilingual or multi-regional websites can benefit from using hreflang, you just have to know how to use it correctly.

Tips for Using Hreflang

In a nutshell, hreflang simply tells Google which language version of a website should be shown in the search results to users in different countries or language preferences. It can also direct a site to the target region for an alternative URL. The markup creates a link to the other language pages so the most fitting version can be delivered to the user.

Here are a few tricks to using hreflang effectively.

Identify All Other Languages on Each Page

A common mistake is only using hreflang on the primary site’s URL. For instance, let’s say you have a Brazil travel site that’s based in English but have your content translated into Spanish and Portuguese. You then only use the hreflang markup on the English site to notify Google that there are both Spanish and Portuguese versions.

This is a great first step, however you forget to use your hreflang tags on the Spanish and Portuguese versions of the site, so there is no connection between all of the of the site’s translated content. To get the most benefit out of hreflang, the markup needs to be added for each language on every page with multiple versions.

Bidirectionally Link to the Dominant Language Pages

Hreflang markup and bidirectional links to language pages. Using the case from above, it’s important to bidirectionally link your new content in other languages to your originating/dominant language. This can help Google understand the relationship between the new content and its association to your original content. Also, if your original site has we’ll established trust in Google, there’s a good chance the new language version will start seeing some good early signals in the rankings.

Canonical URLs and Confirmation Links

Canonical tags can be used with hreflang, but they must be used correctly as well. The hreflang markup must reference the canonical URL for that specific language. So, your .es site must contain the .es version of the URL as the canonical on those pages. The same holds true for setting up confirmation links. If you link Page A to Page B, then Page B needs to link back to Page A.

Use Hreflang for Different Locales

Hreflang can also be used to deliver different versions of a website that are in the same language. English is an excellent example. Depending on the locale, different spelling and vernacular can be used by native English speakers. You can target each region by creating a different URL with customized content for the area. Hreflang markup can be used to specify the language and locale for each URL. Instead of just specifying “en” as the language, you could use “en-ca” to note that the page is in English for Canadian users.

Make Sure the Markup is Valid

One wrong character and your hreflang markup can be broken. In addition to using the correct value (rel="alternate" hreflang="x") you need to make sure your language and regional codes are correct. Languages need to be in ISO 639-1 format and regions need to be in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format. Also, keep in mind language by itself can be specified but region alone isn’t valid.

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By Michael Ramirez
SearchRPM Founder


Michael Ramirez is the Founder of SearchRPM, an Austin, TX based search marketing company that’s well-versed in Search Engine Optimization best practices. You can follow Michael Ramirez on Twitter @openmic0323 or on Google+ to see what he’s up to next.