When taking a website international, one of the most important technical SEO elements to get right is the Hreflang tag. When you add into this process the unique challenges of managing an e-commerce website such as seasonal changes of products and stock availability this process can increase in complexity. At this month’s BrightonSEO I’ll be covering this in more detail but here’s a teaser of what I’ll be talking about.
Why are Hreflang tags so important?
Hreflang tags help search engines understand which version of your content to show to which audience.
Google has been moving away from relying on ccTLDs as the main indicator of location. Instead it is making decisions on serving content, based on user settings of location and language, thus increasing the importance of the Hreflang tag.
Anyone who has taken a well-established brand international will have tales of the original high authority site appearing in the search results in their new international market.
What are the most common issues with Hreflang tags?
Over the years we’ve reviewed thousands of Hreflang tags, and time and again we’ve seen the same types of errors occurring. Hopefully, after reading this you’ll know what to avoid.
One of the most common issues is the use of made up language or country codes. Often, the official codes are different for the language and the country, so your tags are different.
Good examples of this include:
- Swedish – not SE-SE but SV-SE. SV standing for Svenska, the name of the Swedish language
- Japanese – not JP-JP but JA-JP for Japanese
- The UK – The official country code for the UK is GB not UK so the correct code is EN-GB not EN-UK.
You don’t have to remember these codes, as you can easily find a list of the two types of code online:
- Language codes can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ISO_639-1_codes
- Country codes are here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_3166-1_alpha-2
Incorrect coding of the Hreflang tag
Another area that can result in issues with Hreflang tags is the way in which these are coded.
For e-commerce websites we recommend adding the Hreflang tags to the sitemap of your website, as these are dynamic and so it’s easier to keep up with stock available and product changes.
The use of the syntax is one of the most common things we see as an issue with either on-page Hreflang tags or those implemented in the sitemap.
There are three simple rules to help with this:
- The language code always goes first
- Language and country codes must be separated by a hyphen not an underscore or any other mark
- A website can target a language only (so for example ES for Spanish speakers anywhere in the world). A website cannot target a country only (as you have to identify the language you are presenting your content in).
Missing self-referencing Hreflang tag
When listing all the Hreflang tags, whether it’s on-page or in the sitemap file, make sure that you include a tag for the current language. So, if you are providing Hreflang tags from a German page or sitemap make sure that there is a German Hreflang as well as the other markets.
Conflicts with canonical tags
Make sure that the self-referencing tag uses the same URL as the canonical tag on the page when adding Hreflang tags. If the two tags conflict it will just confuse the search engines.
Hreflang tag URLs which aren’t correct
This might be a URL which redirects or a page which isn’t live any more. The best example of this we’ve ever seen was a website using a translation proxy which was creating Hreflang tags for the original English page names. All of these tags, site wide, then redirected. An example would be something like this:
English URL www.example.co.uk/womens
German URL www.example.de/damen
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.example.co.uk/womens” hreflang=”en-gb” />
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.example.de/womens” hreflang=”de-de” />
No return errors in Google Search Console
These errors are created when the pages listed in the tags don’t link to each other reciprocally. If you only put the Hreflang tags on the UK version of your website and not on the French version, this will cause this error. It can also be the result of pages being mapped incorrectly, an issue such as the above redirecting URL problem, or because the pages just don’t match.
How can e-commerce websites get their Hreflang tags right?
As mentioned, the most successful way of delivering Hreflang tags for e-commerce websites is in the sitemap.xml files.
As your site will have regular changes to products, owing to new products arriving or old ones being discontinued, or have stock availability differences from market to market, it’s considerably easier to keep Hreflang tags up to date when you do this in the sitemap.xml file. These files are mostly generated automatically now, so this means that they are more likely to be able to see the most up to date stock availability from market to market.
Getting your Hreflang tags right can cause some headaches, but it’s not that hard when you know what you are looking for.
Join my talk at BrightonSEO on April 27th at 10.00am, Auditorium 2, to find out how you can correct your Hreflang tags.
Emily Mace is Head of International SEO at Oban International.