What is the hreflang Tag, and How Do I Use it in Multilingual SEO?

Imagine a world where your website speaks every language. Customers across the globe discover your brand, seamlessly navigating your content in their native tongue. This is the power of multilingual SEO.

The hreflang tag can be your secret weapon for conquering international search.

hreflang tag

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What is the hreflang Tag?

The hreflang tag, often expressed as rel="alternate" hreflang="x,” is a crucial HTML attribute designed to communicate a specific webpage's language and regional targeting. It's a signal to search engines, particularly Google, informing them about the linguistic variations available for a page.

Google's pursuit of delivering personalized and relevant search results aligns seamlessly with the purpose of the hreflang attribute. By implementing hreflang tags, website owners provide explicit instructions to the search engine, enabling it to comprehend the linguistic nuances and preferences of their target audience. This collaboration between website owners and Google fosters a more tailored and user-centric search experience.

The syntax of the hreflang attribute is a blueprint for effective communication between websites and search engines. The "rel" attribute signifies the relationship between different language versions of a page, while the "hreflang" attribute specifies the language and optional regional targeting. For instance, "en" might represent English, "es" for Spanish, and "fr-ca" for Canadian French. This structured syntax acts as a linguistic roadmap for search engines, aiding them in delivering content to users in their preferred language and region.

The paramount advantage of incorporating hreflang tags lies in significantly enhancing user experience. When users embark on language-specific search queries, well-implemented hreflang attributes ensure they are directed to the most relevant and linguistically appropriate webpage version. This precision fosters user satisfaction and contributes to reduced bounce rates and increased engagement, ultimately bolstering the website's SEO performance.

When and Why to Use hreflang Tags

Multilingual and international targeting may seem synonymous, but they carry distinct SEO implications. Multilingual targeting involves presenting content in different languages, while international targeting extends beyond language to include variations based on regions or countries. hreflang tags become indispensable in these scenarios, aiding search engines in accurately delivering content tailored to linguistic and regional preferences.

Websites with hreflang tags see a 17% increase in organic traffic.

Hreflang tags are particularly critical when a website offers content in multiple languages or regional dialects. E-commerce platforms, global businesses, and educational institutions catering to diverse linguistic audiences stand to gain significantly from precise hreflang implementation. Additionally, news outlets and publishers disseminating content with global relevance benefit by ensuring that users receive the most linguistically relevant information.

While the hreflang attribute is a potent SEO ally, its effectiveness hinges on accuracy. Incorrect or missing hreflang tags can lead to misdirected users, diluting the impact of the multilingual strategy. It’s important to be mindful of pitfalls like mismatched language codes, improper regional targeting, or incomplete implementation.

How to Implement hreflang Tags

Ensuring the correct implementation of hreflang tags is crucial to unlocking the full potential of multilingual SEO. 

Incorporating hreflang Tags in HTML

  1. Identify target languages and regions: Determine the languages and regions your website aims to target. Understanding your audience's linguistic preferences is key.

  2. Implement the hreflang tag in the HTML head section: Place the hreflang tags within the head section of the HTML code. For each language or regional variation, use the following syntax:

    1. <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://example.com/en/page">

  3. Include self-referencing tags: Ensure each page includes a self-referencing hreflang tag and indicate the default language or region:

    1. <link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="https://example.com/default/page">

  4. Consistent implementation across pages: Maintain consistency in hreflang implementation across all pages, reinforcing the signal to search engines about the linguistic variations available.

  5. Use canonical tags: Employ canonical tags in conjunction with hreflang tags to specify the preferred version of a page, minimizing duplicate content issues.

Using hreflang in XML Sitemaps 

  1. Generate multilingual XML sitemaps: Create separate XML sitemaps for each language or regional version of your website. This enhances clarity for search engine crawlers.

  2. Include hreflang annotations: Within each XML sitemap, incorporate hreflang annotations for individual pages. This reinforces the association between pages and their targeted languages or regions.

  3. Submit sitemaps to search engines: Submit the multilingual XML sitemaps to search engines via their respective webmaster tools. This facilitates efficient indexing and ensures that the correct language versions are displayed in search results.

Best Practices for Linking Alternative Language Versions

  • Clear and user-friendly navigation: Design a clear and user-friendly navigation structure that facilitates seamless transitions between different language versions. Utilize dropdown menus, flags, or language selectors for enhanced accessibility.

  • Use descriptive anchor text: When linking alternate language versions, employ descriptive anchor text that reflects the language or region to provide clarity for users and search engines.

  • Avoid automated translation plugins: While tempting, automated translation plugins may not implement hreflang tags correctly. Opt for professional translation services or manually implement hreflang for accurate language targeting.

  • Responsive design for mobile users: Ensure that the implementation of hreflang tags extends to mobile versions of your website, providing a consistent multilingual experience for users on various devices.

Tools and Resources for hreflang Implementation

  • Google Search Console: Regularly monitor the 'International Targeting' report in Google Search Console to identify and rectify any issues related to hreflang implementation. This tool provides insights into how Googlebot interprets and indexes your hreflang annotations.

  • hreflang testing tools: Leverage online tools such as the hreflang Testing Tool provided by Google to check the accuracy of your hreflang tags. These tools identify potential errors, ensuring a seamless multilingual experience for users.

  • W3C Markup Validation Service: Utilize the W3C Markup Validation Service to validate the HTML syntax of your hreflang tags, ensuring compliance with web standards. Language annotations in hreflang attributes must conform to ISO 639-1 format, and locale annotations (optional) conform to ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format.

  • SEO audit tools: Tools like SEMrush, Moz, and Ahrefs can assist with comprehensive SEO audits and help identify issues with hreflang tags, providing actionable insights to enhance your multilingual SEO strategy. SEO audit for your website

By meticulously following these steps and incorporating best practices, website owners can harness the power of hreflang tags to create a harmonious and effective multilingual web presence.

Common hreflang issues

When using audit tools like ahrefs site audit, we often see the following hreflang issues identified:

Missing reciprocal hreflang (no return-tag)

Confirmation (return) links are missing for the pages declared in hreflang annotations. If page A links to page B in hreflang annotations, page B must link to page A in return. If this is not the case for all pages that use hreflang annotations, those annotations may be ignored or misinterpreted correctly.

This issue can also be triggered by misused "x-default" hreflang. Whenever the optional "x-default" hreflang value is used, all pages of the hreflang group must reference the same "default" page.

How to fix:  To fix the issue, make sure all the page versions translated or targeted to users in a certain region have the same set of hreflang annotations which includes URLs to all the page versions. This will always provide return links between the alternate pages.

X-default hreflang annotation missing

Pages with no x-default hreflang annotation. A set of hreflang annotations on the multiple versions of your page translated or targeted to users in a certain region should include an x-default hreflang attribute.

x-default will be used for any other language (or language and location) not specified in a set of hreflang annotations.

How to fix: Make sure each page on your website has an x-default hreflang attribute that points to a page not specific to one language or region.

See Google's guidelines on hreflang implementation for more information.

Measuring Success with hreflang Tags

Striving toward success in multilingual SEO is incomplete without a robust measurement strategy. Effective measurement begins with defining and tracking the right KPIs. For multilingual SEO, key indicators include:

  • Organic traffic by language: Monitor the organic traffic from different language versions to gauge audience engagement.

  • Keyword rankings across languages: Assess the rankings of targeted keywords in various languages to ensure visibility in diverse search markets.

  • Bounce rates by language: Analyze bounce rates per language to ascertain the effectiveness of content relevance for each audience segment.

  • Conversion rates by language: Track conversion rates for different language versions to evaluate the impact on business goals.

Google Search Console is instrumental in evaluating hreflang effectiveness. The 'International Targeting' report within the Search Console provides insights into how Google interprets and executes hreflang annotations. It highlights potential errors or issues, enabling swift corrective actions. Additionally, monitoring indexation status, crawl errors, and search analytics for each language version aids in fine-tuning the hreflang strategy based on real-time data.

hreflang tags are more than technical elements; they foster connection, breaking down language barriers and amplifying user experiences. As businesses embrace the importance of speaking the language of their diverse audiences with multilingual websites, hreflang tags emerge as indispensable tools for fostering international success.

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