Hreflang and How It Influences International SEO

If you’re working on optimising your website’s SEO, chances are you already know that for your website to rank, it needs to speak to the search engine. In simpler terms, your website needs to tell the search engine exactly what it is offering for the search engine to show it to the right people. This principle isn’t limited to your website’s content, it also applies to the URL and code you use. To make sure your website ranks for the right people, all you need to do is make sure your content, URL and code all tell the search engine what they need to hear!

This same concept applies to International SEO, but unfortunately, it’s not as simple. To optimise your website’s ranking internationally, your website needs to tell the search engine more than what it’s offering: it needs to tell it who it’s offering this content to, and where.

There are multiple ways your website can communicate this to the search engine, but one of the most crucial elements for your website’s global SEO is the Hreflang attribute.

What is Hreflang?

Hreflang is an attribute in your website’s HTML code that tells search engines which language or country a specific page within your website is targeting. Hreflang tags tell search engines that specific pages on your website are especially relevant to people residing within that country, or to people searching in a specific language.

For example, if you’ve published an article in English and a matching one in Dutch, then using the Hreflang tag hreflang=”nl” – you can signal to the search engine that search users with an IP address in a country where Dutch spoken should be shown the article written in Dutch, and not the one in English.

When Should You Use Hreflang?

If you’re creating content that is relevant for a local audience somewhere else in the world, or if you have a page of your website that you’ve made available in multiple languages, using Hreflang tags is a must!

Using Hreflangs helps you be specific with who you’re targeting with your content, and ensures that you’re ranking for the right searchers. By having search engines serve searchers content that is in the appropriate language and specific to the local audience, you can dramatically reduce your bounce rate and make sure your searchers are staying on your page for longer.

How You Should NOT Use Hreflang

In a lot of cases, you might be using a canonical tag in your URL. A canonical tag is an attribute that tells the search engine to index a specific page within your website in favor of other identical pages. Duplicate content lowers your ranking, and using canonical tags helps prevent this by telling the search engine to ignore duplicate content and only focus on the master copy of that page.

But what does this have to do with Hreflang tags?

Some URLs have a canonical tag pointing towards itself. For example, if page 1, 2 and 3 all have identical content, but page 1 is the master copy, then page may have a canonical tag pointing towards itself to make it clear to the search engine that it’s the page that should be indexed.

This can create friction with pages that include the Hreflang attribute in their URL. Pages with Hreflang signal to the search engine that they should be indexed, along with other pages with similar content in different languages. If you’re using a canonical tag to prevent search engines from indexing duplicate content, and then using the Hreflang tag to tell the search engines that they should, in fact, index duplicate content, the search engine will ignore your instructions and decide which page to rank according to its own algorithm, and indexing the wrong pages.

How can you avoid conflict in your tags?

In international SEO, your website will likely operate across different systems and have an intricate web of referencing for search engines, which makes implementing Hreflang tags confusing. If one of these references is broken, your Hreflang logic will be broken, too.

In order to avoid this, using an Hreflang checker tool is the best way to make sure your logic is still working as you add more pages to your website. You can use free online tools such as Hreflangtest’s Site Map Tester to make sure there’s no conflict in your site’s overall referencing logic, or you can add an Hreflang tag checker as an extension to your browser to quickly and easily assess how well your Hreflang tags are working.

To optimise your website’s international SEO, using the Hreflang attribute in your code is necessary. While this may seem daunting to dive into your website’s code at first, you’ll get accustomed to it, and with time, you’ll start using an Hreflang as a part of your SEO routine when publishing content. The more you use it, the easier it’ll get to implement it in your content correctly. Until then, the free tools available online are all the help you need!