The hreflang attribute is used to indicate what language your content is in and what geographical region your content is meant for.
When implementing the hreflang attribute, keep the following best practices in mind:
In this article we’re going to explore what the
rel="alternate" hreflang="x" link attribute is, why it's important for SEO and how to use it to inform search engines about your intended target audience.
rel="alternate" hreflang="x” attribute is used to indicate what language your content is in and what geographical region your content is meant for.
rel="alternate" hreflang="x” attribute is incorrectly called the
rel="alternate" hreflang="x” tag. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call it the
hreflang attribute from here on out.
If you have a website that’s available in multiple languages, the
hreflang attribute is an essential tool to guide search engines in serving your content to the right audience.
With hreflang, it's essential to document the implementation scope and rules that were initially followed to establish best practices and revise them as well when new markets are released. These best practices should then be taken into consideration whenever new localized sections are added, pages of the affected languages and/or countries are published or their URLs are changed. This is important to be able to update and validate the hreflang annotations accordingly.
Currently only Google and Yandex support the
Bing and Baidu don't, instead they rely on the (meta) content-language HTML attribute. For instance, if you want to make clear to them that your content is meant for the American English audience then you'd define that using:
<meta http-equiv=”content-language” content=”en-us”>
Alternatively, Bing also supports defining the content-language through the HTTP header.
If you’ve got a website that’s available in multiple languages you want search engines to show your content to the right audience. In order to help search engines do so, you should use the
hreflang attribute to indicate the language the content is in, and optionally also what region it's meant for.
Imagine you’re serving customers in two languages: English and Spanish. You’ve written content in both languages and now want to make clear to search engines to serve English content to your English speaking audience and Spanish content to your Spanish speaking audience. The way to do that is through using the
Another example use-case would be when using geographical targeting. Imagine you’re targeting English speaking customers in the US and Canada and have the content localized for these markets. Now you can make it clear that both variants exists by combining the language definition with the region you’re targeting. You would use the
hreflang attribute to make list both variants (
en-ca in this case).
Wherever possible, hreflang and internationalisation in general should be considered during the initial website architecture discussions. A webpage that is aware of it’s translated equivalent will mean for a far smoother hreflang deployment.
Let’s take a look at what the
hreflang attribute looks like using an example:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/" />
Let’s go step-by-step:
link rel="alternate"part describes there's an alternative page. In this article we focus on the
hreflangattribute, but many other link relationship exists such as pagination, mobile variants and AMP variants.
hreflang="en"part describes the audience targeting. You can define just the language or a combination of language and geographical location. In this case the English speaking world is targeted.
hrefpart describes the URL of the page for the audience defined in the previous part. In this case
hreflang attribute can be implemented using:
Usually the easiest way to implement the
hreflang attribute is by including it in the
<head> section of your HTML pages.
When defining the hreflang attribute, you not only describe the audience targeting for the current page, but also the localized variants of the page.
For example, let’s say that a Spanish home page is also available in British English and French, and you want the default fall-back to be the Spanish home page then the full definition would be present on all variants of the Spanish home page:
You can define a fallback page if no page is available for the audience you’re targeting. This is done using the
The most common use-case is for defining audience targeting for non-HTML documents, such as PDF files for instance. PDF files are crawled and indexed too, and if you have them available in multiple languages it makes sense to define what audiences they are for.
Here's an example of what part of the HTTP header looks like when the
hreflang attribute is defined there:
hreflang attribute can also be implemented through the XML sitemap.
Here's what that may look for a home page meant for the US audience, that's also available for the British and Canadian audiences:
If possible, I recommend implementing hreflang through your XML sitemaps. It’s a far more sustainable way to do it, and with the right scripting, can be much easier to maintain than in-page code. Make sure to get a Search Console account, as Google will tell if you’ve made any mistakes in hreflang! Also remember that the “lang” in hreflang stands for language. You can have a language without a region defined, but not a region without a language defined.
The best practices for implementing the
hreflang attribute are as follows:
The best way to explain the best practices for the
hreflang attribute is using the example mentioned above with the English website targeting users in the US, Canada and the UK.
This is the full
hreflang attribute definition for that example:
We can’t repeat this enough: the
hreflang attribute needs to define the prefered language (and region) for the page itself, and its translated variants.
So if we’re looking at
https://www.example.com/ from the example above, the translated variants are:
hreflang attribute reference should be bidirectional. This means that each variant points to the other variants.
Carefully check the hreflang language codes as
bestands for Belarusian rather than Belgian. Belgian can either be
nl-befor the Dutch speaking part or
fr-befor the French speaking part. And please stop referencing
en-ukfor the United Kingdom, it's
Always first define the language, and then the optional region. When done the other way around search engines will not understand the
Furthermore it’s not possible to define a region without defining a language. In other words, the following definition is invalid and should NOT be used:
Always define what page you want to serve as the fallback. You can do this using
In the example mentioned above we see:
This means that
https://www.example.com/ is the default fallback for users from all countries other than Canada and the United Kingdom searching in all other languages.
hreflang attribute doesn’t replace defining the canonical URL for a page. Both need to be defined. For example:
In this example the Canadian page (https://www.example.com/ca/) is the alternative variant for the current page. On that page the definition would look as follows:
However, when the canonical URL points to a different page than the current one, the
hreflang attribute MUST reflect that. For example, if
https://www.example.com/home is an alternative URL for
https://www.example.com/ then this is what the full definition looks like on the
https://www.example.com/uk/ should both reference
<link rel="alternate" href="https://www.example.com/" hreflang="en-us" />.
To summarize: the non-canonical URL (
/home in this example) is never referenced in the
hreflang attribute definition.
Even though it’s not against the specification of the
link element, the general consensus is not to use relative URLs when defining the
hreflang attribute. Relative URLs are more likely to be interpreted incorrectly by search engines. The same best practice applies to other uses of the
link element: canonical URL, pagination attributes, AMP and the mobile attribute.
Multilingual websites aren’t just about content translations. They are about offering a fully localized experience including cultural references, currencies, timezones and whatever else makes sense for your local audience.
hreflang attribute through only one method. So for instance, don't combine implementing it in the HTML and in the XML sitemap because this can easily lead to sending mixed signals when you make a mistake or there's a bug.
Common mistakes that I often see for hreflang: not following google’s guidelines to a T (especially having country + language code, e.g. “de-de” instead of just “de”) and forgetting to self-reference the hreflang attribute.
It's a common misconception that the
hreflang attribute will prevent duplicate content. If you're targeting the British English, American English and Canadian English audiences with the same content and proper
hreflang attributes there's no guarantee at all that search engines will not see this as duplicate content.
Often, you'll see that search engines will still consolidate copies of pages.
What you can do about this? Re-write the content based, taking into account differences in word choice (personalization for the US market, and personalisation for the British market for instance) and localization, as discussed in the previous section.
hreflang attribute is a signal rather than a directive. Search engines are not required to actually follow your
hreflang attribute definitions, but they usually do.
Yes, you can use multiple
hreflang attributes for one page to signal that the page is meant to be shown for more than one country or region. For example, if you’ve got a page that’s meant to shown to people in Germany and Austria then you can indicate this as follows:
Include a general
hreflang attribute for German users:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="de" href="https://www.example.de/" />
hreflang attribute is solely meant for pages that have an alternative version meant for a different target audience.
There's no SEO benefit in adding it, as search engines are pretty good at figuring out what your intended audience on their own. If you don't want to take any chances, you can define your prefered audience in Google Search Console.
If you want to learn more about the
hreflang attribute, check out: