Navigating the Intricacies of an International SEO Strategy
With the advent of digital globalization, businesses worldwide aspire to attract and cater to international audiences. For many prominent companies, more than a third of their overall traffic is international, translating into potentially millions of organic visits each day. Navigating the intricacies of international SEO, however, can be a daunting task. In this article, we will explore the role of hreflang tags in an international SEO strategy, along with other effective methods to ensure proper language targeting.
The Complexity of International SEO
Successful international SEO campaigns require careful management of content in multiple regions and languages. For instance, ensuring that Google does not inadvertently serve English content to French speakers when French content is available can be a challenging task.
To counteract this, Google provides a method to explicitly indicate which content is intended for speakers of particular languages – the hreflang tag
Decoding the Hreflang Tag
Hreflang tags or “attributes” inform Google about the existence of various versions of your page in different languages. In a page’s HTML, they appear like this:
link rel= “alternate” href=”http://example.com” hreflang=”en-us” />
According to Google’s guidelines, these are some best practices for implementing hreflang tags:
- Canonicalizing the page you’re on to itself
- Declaring the language of the page you’re on
- Declaring other languages/countries of other versions of the pages
- Using x-default to tell Google which page is default if you don’t have a properly translated/targeted page
The purpose of hreflang tags is to ensure Google serves the right content to the right people. They should be implemented whenever possible, as it’s unwise to rely on Google to figure out your content’s intended audience independently.
The more explicit your language signals, the more confidence you can have that Google will rank relevant pages for the right searchers. For instance, Google recommends having bi-directional hreflang tags. If you have an English site with alternative French and Spanish pages, you’ll need signals on all three pages to point to each other.
As per Google’s guidelines, “If page X links to page Y, page Y must link back to page X. If this is not the case for all pages that use hreflang annotations, those annotations may be ignored or not interpreted correctly.”
You also need to declare the language of the page the visitor is currently viewing.
While adding hreflang tags to your pages’ HTML is the most common method of informing Google about your content’s language, there are three other methods to consider:
- XML sitemaps
- HTTP headers
- Google Search Console language targeting
The Efficacy of XML Sitemaps in International SEO
Although XML sitemaps can be used to clarify your pages’ designated country and language, this method can prove to be problematic. Sitemaps can only hold up to 50k unique URLs and/or 50 MBs, which means you would reach your limit quickly if you tried to include every version of every page. Furthermore, the larger your sitemap, the less likely Google will be able to crawl it frequently. Keeping your sitemaps up-to-date requires consistent maintenance, and Google can’t read bi-directional correlations between your hreflang tags pointing across pages. Hence, this is not the most efficient way to keep Google informed about your hreflang tags.
The Effectiveness of HTTP Headers for Internationalization
Placing your hreflang attributes in the HTTP header of your page is less common since it requires Google to fetch the page first, then get the header as a response. Troubleshooting hreflang tags in HTTP headers can be a difficult task since you would need to request each page you’re testing – a monumental task for a team managing a large site! While there are typically no issues from using HTTP headers, it’s not as efficient as adding your hreflang attributes into the HTML of your pages. Plus, it’s easier to change your HTML tags yourself or with the help of your developers, rather than asking your engineers to adjust your hreflang server-side.
Google Search Console for Language and Country Targeting
Google Search Console’s International Targeting Report is another option you can use in conjunction with your HTML tags. You can use it to monitor your hreflang errors within the “Language” tab of the report or to choose a site-wide country to target within the “Country” tab. However, since many large sites target multiple countries and languages, it’s best to use your HTML tags to clearly define targeted languages by country.
Moreover, with the GSC option, you have to manually set up the language or country targeting of your pages.
Navigating international SEO can be complex due to the many similar pages it can result in. Therefore, it’s crucial to always provide a clear path for Google.
A common issue with hreflang tags is that they point to non-indexable pages or if the language isn’t declared.
To avoid having an undefined language, lang=”en-US” should be on every page that requires American English. Essentially, the more signals, the better.
Offering Visitors the Option to Select Their Location
In addition to using hreflang tags, you might consider giving visitors the option to select their location while on your pages. For example, an English speaker traveling in another country may prefer to view the site in English rather than the language native to the country they’re visiting (or vice versa!). In such cases, consider providing the option to do so in your website’s top or footer navigation.
However, it’s important to ensure you’re providing the best accessibility for both the visitor and Google. If your homepage triggers a pop-up that prompts a visitor to select their location, Google might consider the page not-readable. Google dislikes large pop-ups on your page, and it likely can’t see beyond it to where the real content lies.
The Key to Success in Internationalization Lies in the Details
While identifying every version of your pages can seem tedious, it’s crucial to understand that success lies in the details! Declare your languages and countries in your HTML tags, and provide extra support with HTTP headers or Google Search Console targeting if needed.
Don’t forget about your visitors: Give your global audiences flexibility by providing ways for them to select their preferred language, without conflicting with Google’s best practice guidelines.
Be generous with your hreflang tags, and always remember to troubleshoot. Properly implementing hreflang tags can open up a whole new world (pun intended) of traffic, and most importantly, provide the best experience to your audiences — no matter what languages they speak!