Hreflang is an HTML attribute that is included in the HTML code. It tells search engines which language or region a page or file is targeted at. In this way, it helps to provide users with the appropriate content – tailored to the respective language or region.
The topic of internationalization is on everyone’s lips – including, of course, when it comes to one’s own Internet presence. For international SEO, the hreflang attribute – introduced by Google in 2011 – structures multilingual websites and makes them more user-friendly. Thus, it also indirectly contributes to a better ranking. This is because the matching language or country version, which is displayed to the user right at the first click without additional and often time-consuming clicking, reduces the bounce rate, while the dwell time increases.
The tag sends the correct signals to the search engines and prevents individual variants from competing with each other and being identified as duplicate content. At the same time, of course, the relevance for the user and the search engine increases – and so does the chance of a conversion.
Integration and structure of the hreflang attribute
On a multilingual website, hreflang can be implemented as follows:
The most common solution: in the HTML header, i.e. the head of the HTML file, where the meta information can be found.
Practical for a multi-language site structure: in the XML sitemap, i.e. the map of a website, where the individual subpages are listed.
For content that is not HTML: hreflang hint in the HTTP header
The language attribute looks like this:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” href=https://seo-content.org />.
It can be created, for example, using the hreflang generator and consists of three elements:
HTML link element, which signals that two URLs have a link to each other.
- rel attribute, which refers to alternative documents
- hreflang as an essential element, indicating on which language the subsequently listed URL should appear; it contains the ISO code for the corresponding language, for example “es” for marking Spanish content or “en-AU” for English content tailored to an Australian user
Instead of a language code, “x-default” can also be used. This value draws attention to the fact that users should be shown the page that is set by default and not country-specific when searching. This indicates that no other page is more suitable.
Hreflang: examples of language and region codes
The attribute is used to specify the language and, if necessary, the region. This is done on the one hand on the basis of the format DIN ISO 639-1 and on the other hand with the help of ISO 3166-1 alpha-2. In the first place are the language codes, which can also be specified alone. On the other hand, country codes, which are listed in second place, do not automatically indicate the respective language. So it is not valid to refer exclusively to the region. And you should generally make sure that you strictly adhere to Google’s guidelines when it comes to language and country codes. Creativity is unfortunately punished at this point. The right abbreviations are the be-all and end-all:
- de: German content, location-independent
- en-GB: English content for users in Great Britain
- de-ES: German content for users in Spain
The right usage: link each language version
Things can get a bit more complex when more than two languages play a role and they are still targeted at different regions at the same time. In any case, bi-directional linking occurs so that all pages with the same content are linked to each other: Page A must reference Page B and, in addition, Page B must reference Page A as well. This is to prevent the attributes from being misinterpreted or even ignored. You also want to prevent someone from another site from unjustifiably naming a tag after the alternative version of your own site.
The hreflang solution is also suitable for regional websites: If you want to address users from several countries with one language, the regional page can either be set to one language or the same page is tagged for several countries. An example would be the Arabic language for the Middle East or Spanish for the South and Central American countries. Another thing to keep in mind is that a sytnax should not be given multiple codes.
Basically, a separate element must be created for each URL. Thus, each URL gets its own markup. Likewise, you should refrain from combining the hreflang attribute with a canonical tag, as there must be separate information for this as well.
Get Google on board
First and foremost, it is about being found better by Google. And it is about informing Google that identical texts in different languages are not duplicate content. The hreflang attribute should always be used if you want to rank in different regions and there is more than one language version of a page. This is the only way to guide the user to the appropriate language version. The rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” attribute tells the search engine that there are different language versions of a page with the same content. The attribute should be used on every subpage or on those that display the same content in different languages and thus have an alternative version.
The tag is also particularly interesting in the case of different countries, but where people talk in the same way. An example of such different geographical destinations where users speak the same language are Germany, Austria and Switzerland. So, in the following scenarios, Google should be informed:
an internationally oriented site with content in one language and single translated elements like the navigation or the imprint
a language version with small differences in content for different regions – as would be the case with content in English with respective variations for the UK and the USA, or with a website of which there is a Portuguese version for Portugal and one for Brazil
multilingual website, i.e.: translations of the entire content are available – for example, in the case of a German and an English version of your site
Hreflang for a successful search engine optimization
For website owners and SEO experts, the language attribute brings a handful of technical challenges. In addition, Google’s approach wants to be understood. But it pays off – especially in light of the fact that it’s often the little things that make the difference. If a user of an online store is immediately shown the correct currency, the delivery costs that apply to his region and, in the best case, even customized content that takes regional peculiarities such as spelling into account, he will certainly feel better met and ready to buy.
At this point, it remains to be mentioned that it is not only from the user’s point of view that automatically generated translations are not advisable. The investment in a professional translation is also worthwhile for SEO reasons. After all, a native-speaker expert knows the target group and the market and thus also finds the right keywords.
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