You all know the power of SEO. It delivers targeted traffic to your site. It gives you greater visibility, and with the right kind of visitors, you have more of a chance of getting leads and conversions.
However, SEO isn’t all about visibility. There’s also the technical side of SEO that no website owner can afford to overlook.
Now, there’s plenty I could talk about when covering technical SEO, but I want to focus on one specific area: hreflang tag issues.
This article will explain hreflang tags and how to use them correctly. We’ll also share some common mistakes that can lead to hreflang tag issues, along with tips for correct hreflang implementation.
What Are Hreflang Tags, and Where Do Issues Start With Them?
Hreflang is a type of HTML used to indicate the language and region of a webpage. It’s a critical part of your international SEO, and search engines use them to determine which version of a page to show a user. You can insert hreflang tags in HTML headings, individual pages, and sitemaps. With that said, when you choose one of these locations, it should be only one of these locations and you should stick to that one consistently across the site.
For example, if a searcher from France searches for a term in French, Google uses the hreflang tag to serve them the correct page version. In this case, the HTML would look similar to this:
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-FR” href=”http://example.com/fr/” />
However, as Google’s John Mueller explains, implementing hreflang tags can get complicated fast:
Issues can start to arise when there are multiple versions of a page with different hreflang tags, or when the site owner or designer incorrectly implements them.
There can be several errors that can occur using hreflang tags. For example:
- A wrong tag can cause your website to display in the wrong language
- Problems can occur if there are multiple versions of your site in different languages, but only some have hreflang tags. This can cause difficulties for Google when trying to determine which version of your site to display.
- If you have errors with your hreflang tags, the search engines may not display your site correctly.
Below are some of the most common hreflang tag issues and solutions to fix them.
1. Return Tag Issues
A return tag issue is a common problem.
If you have a website in English, but your hreflang code says it’s in Spanish, Google may serve the Spanish version of your site to English speakers, like in this example:
But Page B doesn’t point back to Page A.
Other errors include:
- Outdated XML maps
- Wrongly combining Hreflang tags with canonical tags (more about that later)
- Invalidate URLs
You can identify these errors by running a check for return tag errors with a free Hreflang checker.
Alternatively, you can go to the Google Search Console and search under the ‘International Targeting’ tab.
As there are multiple causes for this problem, there are several solutions:
- Ensure that the link to the other site is in the head of the alternate page or country HREFXML Site Map or page. Ensure both of your sites have an entry that looks something like this:
- For potentially invalid URLs, check that the return page directs to the correct URL and you haven’t inadvertently blocked it. Also, check for 404 errors, additional parameters in the URL, and for canonical tags that may point to another page.
- If you’ve combined hreflang and canonical tags, go to number four on our list
- Check your XML map is up to date
If you’d like a more detailed explanation, here’s a great tutorial on how to fix each error.
2. Punctuation Errors/Typos
As with any other written content, it’s easy to miss a typo or error. Left unchecked, this can cause hreflang tag issues and affect the performance of your overseas customers.
Here are some of the most common mistakes:
- Using underscores instead of dashes
- Typos in language or country/ISO codes
- Using dashes in country codes
- Using incorrect separators, like putting a semicolon in by mistake.
Although a scan with Google Search Console or an hreflang tool can pick these up, there’s no technical fix for them. You just need to be sure to take extra care with your coding and always double-check for errors. You can also use a tool to autogenerate tags, such as GeoTargetly.
3. Incorrect Country Codes
Another common hreflang tag implementation issue is including the wrong country code. These codes tell search engines which version of your website should be displayed to users in specific countries, and the International Organization for Standardization (IOS) established the codes.
You need to use the correct ISO country codes when tagging different versions of your site for different countries.
Some of the most common are:
- en for English
- es for Spanish
- de for German
- fr for French
- it for Italian
- pt for Portuguese
There’s a simple fix for this problem. Several sites list all the country codes. Just scroll down, find the one you need, and confirm the initials are correct. You may want to copy and paste it in to avoid typos.
4. Not Integrating Canonical Tags Properly
Let’s begin this section with a brief explanation.
Hreflang tags and canonical tags are both HTML elements you can use to improve the SEO of a website.
As I’ve detailed, you’d use hreflang tags to tell search engines what language a certain page is written in so that they can serve results to users in the correct language.
In contrast, you’d use canonical tags to tell search engines which version of a page is the ‘master’ or ‘canonical’ version and indicate that’s the page you want indexed.
Unless your aim is to confuse Google, don’t try and merge both sets of tags.
For clarity, here’s an example of what you should and shouldn’t do, courtesy of BSS Commerce:
<link rel=”Canonical” hreflang=”en-IE” href=”https://www.thisismysite.com/ie/”/>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-AR” href=”http://www.thisismysite.com/ar/”/>
<link rel=”canonical” href=” https://www.thisismysite.com/ie/”/>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-IE” href=”https://www.thisisyoursite.com/ie/”/>
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”es-AR” href=”http://www.thisisyoursite.com/ar/”/>
Now that we properly covered implementing canonical tags, let’s move on to the absolute URLs.
5. Not Having Absolute URLs
Are you ready for another quick explanation? Good. Here it comes.
There are two different types of URLs: relative and absolute.
Absolute URLs are complete and include the domain name, while relative URLs do not. For example, an absolute URL for Google would be https://www.google.com/, while a relative URL could be: /search?q=cats.
Why use absolute URLs?
Well, they’re great for SEO purposes. Search engines can easily index and follow absolute URLs but may have difficulty with relative ones.
Absolute URLs are also more user-friendly. They’re easy to remember and type into a browser, which can be helpful if you share links with others.
Finally, absolute URLs tend to be more secure than relative ones. If you change the domain name or move your website to a new server, relative URLs will likely break, but absolute ones stay intact.
It’s recommended that you’d use an absolute URL with:
- Canonical URLs
- XML sitemaps
- And hreflang
Absolute URLs are also in keeping with Google’s best practices.
6. Blocking Hreflang URLs with Robots.txt
If you’re using hreflang tags on your website, be careful not to block them with your robots.txt file by mistake.
When this happens, it stops search engines from crawling your website. Fixing this requires a bit of investigative work. Is it the robots.txt file at fault or the hreflang?
To check for any hreflang tag issues, go to the Google Search Console or use a free tool.
If that looks fine and you don’t get any errors flagged up, then you know it’s the Robots.txt file that needs fixing. You can quickly scan using Google’s Robot testing tool to check your robots.txt file.
There are several potential fixes for this:
- Ensure you don’t have pages with an hreflang tag in your robots.txt file
- Check your headers don’t include a ‘no index’ tag
7. Hreflang Tags Pointing to A Redirect
If you’ve ever encountered the term ‘hreflang link issue’ while doing SEO research, you may have been left scratching your head. What does this phrase mean?
Simply put, a hreflang link issue occurs when search engines cannot correctly interpret the language or region targeting specified in a website’s code. This can lead to several problems, such as incorrect search results displayed for users in certain regions or users being redirected to the wrong website version.
You can check for this error using a tool.
Once you’ve identified the pages, you’ll need to update the links to point to the correct versions of the pages.
8. Adding Hreflang Tags to Non-Indexed Pages
If you’re working on international SEO, it’s important to make sure that your hreflang tags are added not just to your indexed pages but to all of your pages.
Fortunately, adding hreflang tags to non-indexed pages is relatively easy. You just need to add a few lines of code to each page, specifying that page’s language and country codes. Once you’ve done that, Google can properly index your site and ensure it appears in the right search results.
You can resolve this issue by removing noindex from all your hreflang pages. If you’re using WordPress, you can install the TranslatePress plugin, choose the ‘advanced settings’ heading, and follow the instructions from there.
9. Incorrectly Mapping Tags
One of the most common mistakes is incorrectly mapping hreflang tags to language versions of a page. This can cause search engines to index the wrong page version or, even worse, not index the page at all.
However, if your hreflang tags are mapped incorrectly, it can cause serious problems for your website. There are some easy fixes for this issue:
- Check your hreflang tags using Google’s Webmaster Tools.
- If you find any errors, correct them immediately.
- Monitor your hreflang tags regularly to ensure they stay accurate
10. Missing X-default Tags
When creating a multilingual website, it’s important to use the x-default hreflang tag to ensure that users are directed to the correct page when no language is specified in the URL. However, many websites are missing this critical tag, leading to confusion and poor user experience.
If you’re missing the x-default hreflang tag on your website, there are a few things you can do to fix the issue.
First, ensure that you have a default page for users who don’t specify a language. This can be done using the hreflang=”x-default” tag on your home page.
Next, add the x-default hreflang tag to all of your other pages. This will ensure that users are directed to the correct page regardless of their language.
Best Practices for Hreflang Tag Implementation
When it comes to hreflang tags, there are a few best practices that you should follow to ensure optimum results:
- Be thorough. Hreflang tags should be included on all site pages, not just the home page.
- Make sure each page has a self-referencing hreflang tag. This tells Google that the page is intended for users in the same region as the site.
- Each language or regional version of a page should be easily reachable from any other version – there should be no need to go through multiple steps to find the right page.
- Don’t forget to test! Always check that your tags work as intended and that users are directed to the correct pages. Following these simple best practices ensures that your hreflang tags are set up for success.
Common tag issues include wrong country codes, no self-referencing tags, and typos. If you use the wrong country code, then your website won’t display in the correct language. If there are no self-referencing tags (return tags), the search engines may serve the wrong website. For example Spanish visitors, may get an English language site, If there are typos, this can lead to problems with hreflang implementation.
You’ll find hreflang tags in your XML sitemaps and head sections of code. Use a checking tool, like the hreflang testing tool I linked to earlier to see if there are any common errors.
If you don’t know where to start, begin by reviewing Google’s best practices. If coding isn’t your thing, consider some of the many no-code tools, like Weglot.
Hreflang tags are integral to your global SEO strategy, ensuring that the right customers get directed to the right URL. If you have errors with your hreflang tags, it can lead to a poor experience for overseas customers and they may not be able to access your site in the correct language. This can impact your bottom line and drive potential customers to your competitors.
Hreflang tags can be tricky to implement, but following these tips will help you troubleshoot and point you in the right direction.
Although hreflang tags are a complicated area and many errors can occur, the good news is that many common problems have a simple fix.
Following the tips in this article, you can limit these issues and ensure your website is optimized for global search engines.
Don’t let hreflang tags hold you back, get out there and start optimizing your website for international success!
However, if you’re still having trouble, reach out to a professional SEO consultant for help.
Do you have a solution to common hreflang tag issues?
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