Hreflang and SEO: 5 mistakes to avoid

May 17, 2017 - 4  min reading time - by Emma Labrador
Home > SEO Thoughts > Hreflang and SEO: 5 mistakes to avoid

Any international SEO strategy should rely on hreflang as it helps target an international web audience more accurately.
However, hreflang can be a tricky subject for some SEOs as it can be difficult to use annotations and to get implemented correctly on geo-targeted websites. This article aims to introduce 5 hreflang mistakes you should avoid.

For more information about using hreflang in SEO, you can also learn about what you can do with the Oncrawl hreflang metrics.

What is Hreflang?

Hreflang annotations aim to cross-reference pages that are similar in content but target different audiences according to their language and/or country. It ensures that the correct content and pages will be shown to the right users when they will be searching the version of Google search that you are targeting.

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The example below shows two hreflang tags that target French speakers in France and French speakers in Canada:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-fr” href=”” />

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-ca” href=”” />

Both of these tags would appear on both pages. This would ensure that Canadians searching on would find the page targeting Canadians, and French people searching on would find the page targeting French.
Here is basically how hreflang works but mistakes are still often made on how to set them up. Here are 5 of the most common mistakes:

5 Mistakes to avoid with Hreflang

1# Return tag errors

“Return Tag Errors” mean that hreflang annotations don’t cross-reference each other. You can see these errors within your Google Search Console under the International Targeting tab. You will access data showing you how many return tag errors were found whether you are using a xml sitemap or a page tagging method.

A key rule you need to keep in mind is that your annotations must be confirmed from the other pages. For instance, if A links to B, B needs to link back to A to avoid misunderstanding from search engines. Page A should use rel-alternate-hreflang annotation linking to itself to work correctly.

2# Using the wrong country or language codes

Using hreflang implies targeting the right country or language. Be sure to add the right codes to your webpages. Google says that,

“The value of the hreflang attribute must be in ISO 639-1 format for the language, and in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for the region. Specifying only the region is not supported.”

Aleyda Solis has released a very handy tool that let you generate any hreflang regarding the language and country you need.

3# Adding hreflang tags to no-indexed pages

Google reports hreflang tags as an error if they point to noindex pages, either they are with a meta-robots noindex tag or blocked in robots.txt
Google will not be able to follow the return link from that blocked page back to the originating link, so it will report a return tag error. Please note that only pages that are blocked will stop working, not all your hreflang tags in a page group.
Keep in mind that creating hreflang tags that will point to pages blocked from Google’s indexing won’t work.

4# Mixing page tagging methods and hreflang sitemaps methods

Combining methods to implement hreflang is clueless. Here are some advices you should take into consideration for when you are deciding whether to use the xml sitemaps or page tagging methods:

  • CMS like WordPress offer automatic hreflang page tagging solutions ;
  • Hreflang xml sitemaps can be tricky to create. You can use online tools or create it in Excel, but it is difficult to automate the process. If you have xml sitemaps that your CMS update for you automatically, it would be better to continue to use those rather than create separate, static hreflang xml sitemaps ;
  • Page tagging creates massive codes, especially when it comes to multiple countries/languages targeting. In clear, an additional 10+ lines of code to each geo-targeted page.

5# Resolving duplicate content issues

Some SEO myths keeps saying that implementing hreflang tags would help fix duplicate content problems. Actually, for similar content, adding hreflang tags to your site will help Google recognize and understand the country and language’s target of your page, but it won’t help search engines decide which version of a content is the best for a query on search results.
Let’s say you have two pages in the same language targeting different zones such as French in France and French in Belgium, the content of those two pages may be so similar that they are considered duplicates. Adding hreflang tags will not help. It is still possible that your French page may outrank your Belgium page, if the French page has more link authority, and especially if it has links from French sources.
Hreflang helps Google to understand your content but to offer an effective international marketing strategy, you need to include link building to your sites from relevant countries/language you are targeting to leverage the value of your international versions.
You should then treat duplicate content as a serious issue and stop thinking hreflang tags will help you solve this problem.

To sum up, these are some of the most common mistakes SEOs are doing with Hreflang tags. Others exist like absolute URL issues or canonical tags and hreflang tags mixing, but basically, we covered the most important ones. How is your hreflang strategy going? Let us know in the comment.

Emma was the Head of Communication & Marketing at Oncrawl for over seven years. She contributed articles about SEO and search engine updates.
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