Ready to go global? Check your hreflang tags
Search Engine Optimisation

Ready to go global? Check your hreflang tags

27th February 2017

HreflangIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a business in possession of a capacity to go global must be in a need of a comprehensive multi-lingual website. However, as it turned out, having a website is one thing and making it actually work in your favour is a completely different story. Companies, especially those operating exclusively on the web, invest into developing sophisticated sites, ensuring the best UX their audience could imagine.

At the same time, their SEO and Content specialists word hard to make that same website perform to the best of its ability in each region they target. It would be a shame if all that time and effort had gone to waste, wouldn’t it?

According to the latest SEMrush research, 75% of the websites that use hreflang tags get them all wrong. Which essentially means that those local pages of their websites are not getting indexed by Google and despite a great deal of effort on the SEO side, they simply don’t appear in search results.

What are hreflangs?

To understand why this is bad news for 75% of the websites, we need to know what hreflangs are all about. Google introduced the hreflang attribute back in 2011. It is supposed to be implemented, when you have similar content in various languages that is specific to each individual market. In this way, hreflang attribute signals to Google, that such and such page is meant for such and such audience and serves as an indicator that deals with the intent of a user in a particular geo location.

Hreflang might be seen as a kind of interpreter or a regional rep of your business for your prospective customers in a certain territory. One might argue that in the context of interpersonal business relationships, it is enough to speak one universal language. However, according to Common Sense Advisory, 72% of consumers claim that they are more likely to purchase from a website, if the information is presented in their own language; and more than half of them value this factor over the difference in prices.

The value of hreflang implementation broadly translates into enhanced user experience, which ultimately results in lower bounce rate and increased conversions.

Now that we have established the role of hreflang attribute in the success of your multinational strategy we can take a deep dive into the nature of the problem and look at the examples of the most common hreflang errors.

The results

SEMrush analysed a total of 20,000+ websites that operate on a multinational or a global level using the the recently introduced International SEO check and found that an average multilingual website had about seven different versions and five key hreflang mistakes.

1. Hreflang conflicts within a page’s source code: 58% 

  • No self-referencing hreflang tag

This was the most frequent error amongst those 58%. In 96% of the cases, if a website had a conflict within a page source code, the page didn’t contain a self-referencing hreflang in its set of hreflang attributes. This error may result in hreflangs being interpreted incorrectly or even disregarded completely.

  • Conflicting hreflang and rel=canonical tags

When canonical tags were used on a webpage along with hreflang attributes, a specification of a self-referential canonical tag should be ensured.

  • More than one URL is specified for the same hreflang value

When you mention more than one URL for the same language and country, Googlebot gets confused and disregards all of them, because the message you are sending is unclear and it doesn’t understand which  page should be indexed for a particular language.

2. Issues with incorrect hreflang links: 37%

  • Hreflang link points to redirected page

When you point your hreflang link to a page with a redirect, there is an almost no chance of a new page being indexed or even appearing in search results.

  • Broken hreflang link

If your hreflang link points to a URL that returns a 4xx or 5xx HTTP status code, it certainly will be disregarded by search engines.

  • Relative links

Absolute URLs are your safety net, when it comes to indicating the correct path for crawlers. Relative URLs can be misinterpreted by Googlebot, and not get indexed as a consequence.

3. Potentially missing hreflang tags: 32%

As we already mentioned, an average website has around 7 language versions and it becomes increasingly likely that at least one of them will have a missing hreflang and therefore there is an increasing probability that that local page or pages will not be indexed. It is of course not impossible that some hreflangs are not specified on certain webpages deliberately. However, it is definitely worth double-checking that all your pages have the necessary hreflangs.

4. Hreflang language mismatch: 21%


Quite a large number of websites include typos or use the wrong language code when indicating the webpage’s language. As a consequence, Google gets a wrong signal and misinterprets your hreflang attribute. 21 per cent of the websites SEMrush researched had content in languages different to the indicated language value.

5. Issues with hreflang values: 15%

The final category includes a list of issues with hreflang values. When you are adding hreflang codes to your webpages, you can use the incorrect country and language code by accident.

  • Unknown language code

Make sure you the language code you use is in line with the ISO 639-1 format.

  • Unknown country code

ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format should be used, when adding country codes.

  • Underscores 

Force of a habit makes many webmasters use underscores to separate language and country values in the hreflang attribute, when you should be using hyphens instead.

  • Only country code is used

According to the standard determined by Google, you cannot simply indicate the country code; a language code should always be provided as well. However, it is not an error if you do it the other way round.

  • Invalid order of hreflang values

The main purpose of any international SEO strategy is to make sure that the relevant content is being displayed to the right audience based on their language and location. And whilst hreflangs are hardly rocket science by SEO standards, it is strange to see that such a great number of websites get them wrong.


Written By
Alexandra is a Senior Marketing Manager at SEMrush, a provider of a single pane of glass tool for digital marketers. She has worked in IT marketing for over 6 years specialising in regional marketing strategy and business development with her expertise stretching across the globe from Latin America to the...
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