International SEO: Let them know, you speak their language – hreflang is here to help

Christian Schickler

If you have a multi-language website, you want to make sure your customers find the right one. Geo-targeting with hreflang allows you to really show the right user the right version of your website on a search engine results page. This will lead to better rankings, higher CTRs and higher conversion rates.

International SEO: Let them know, you speak their language – hreflang is here to help

For quite a while now I have been closely studying and monitoring the application and impact of the rel="alternate" hreflang tag for multilingual and multinational websites.

In light of Google's most recent blog post on expanding your site to more languages by Maile Ohye (find her on Twitter), I have decided to share a case study with you, which highlights how the correct implementation of this tag has impacted the organic search visibility for a big international brand.

The setting

The brand, next to an international default .com version, owns multiple domains targeted to individual countries. Also, the international version does not only act as a country selector, but hosts the same content (in English) as the country targeted ones.

For this case study, I will specifically highlight the impact of the hreflang tagging on the visibility of the .de and .fr country versions versus the .com version in Germany and France respectively.

It is important to note that the .com version has been around for a long time and has a very solid link graph resulting in a Domain Authority of above 70 on opensitexplorer.org. The specific country versions however, have only been around since 2013, each having a Domain Authority of below 40.

I am specifically stating this because in the comment section of Aleyda Solis' (find her on Twitter) recent post on the hreflang generator tool on moz.com, the following statement was made:

In fact, even if you do a great localization, even if you follow every single step for geotargeting a site (ccTld or geotargeting the subfolder or subdomain via GWT), if your main site has a Link Profile much more powerful than that of the other country targeting web sites, it will out-stand all the others. The influence of the Link Graph is something we should not forget when talking about International SEO.

I highly respect the author of this comment, but do not agree with the above statement as I know for a fact that correct geo-targeting can bring the desired results - EVEN if the default version of your website is the strongest in terms of Domain Authority.

The tagging

The correct hreflang tagging took place on August 4th, 2013. On this day, all versions and all pages were supplied with new code snippets. And by all, I mean every single URL. The configuration only works properly if every page across all your sites is tagged properly (of course only where applicable, as not every page might exist in multiple languages across multiple domains).

Assuming that there were only a .com, .de and .fr domain involved, the tagging for the three websites’ homepages would have looked the following:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" href="http://www.nameofwebsite.com/"/><br/><link rel="alternate" hreflang="de" href="http://www.nameofwebsite.de/"/><br/><link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="http://www.nameofwebsite.fr/"/>

Even though the international default has content in English only, it was decided to tag all .com pages with the hreflang="x-default" instead of hreflang="en". The international default does not only target users speaking English, but rather should serve as the main point of entry for searchers from countries or using languages that are currently not supported.

Google’s John Muller even confirmed the possible use of x-default for websites in English to me in a Webmaster Hangout not too long ago – just in case you are wondering what Google thinks about all this.

The results

So now let’s have a look at how the tagging impacted the visibility of the .com site versus the .de site in Germany.

So what?

Working with search engines has taught me one thing:

You always want to exercise as much control as possible over how Google crawls and indexes your website. As soon as you leave it up to algorithms to determine what to do with your site, things can go very wrong (and they often do).

Geo-targeting in a nutshell does exactly this. Proper hreflang tagging sends a very strong signal to the google bots and allows them to better understand a set of websites, including their relationship to each other.

The real implications for web masters however should be clear. Geo-targeting allows to really show the right user the right version of your website in search engine result pages - EVEN if the default version of your website is the strongest in terms of domain authority.

I will leave it up to you to figure out what implications this could have for your business. Also, I can't guarantee that it will work for you in the same way it worked for the example sites. But if you have the resources to try it out then do so: Better rankings, higher CTRs and higher conversion rates could be the direct result!

For more on the use of hreflang check out Google's video:

Expanding your site to more languages

The blue line marks the visibility of the .com version and the green line marks the visibility for the .de version. The red line marks the date of the deployment.

Even though I really don’t like looking at general visibility indices as they really don’t convey much, for this scenario the visibility index from Searchmetrics provides a good overview over what is going on here.

The visibility of the .com and the .de domain switched places. This is simply fantastic. What this really means however, is that searchers in Germany who search on google.de in German will see search snippets in German and by clicking these will be taken to the German website.

What is even better is that users who are in Germany and search on google.de but in English (yes this happens) will be shown search snippets in English. Clicking on one of these will take them to the international default, which is in English, rather than the German website.

What is also striking is the speed at which the changes were applied. Just a couple of days after the deployment, the visibility was correctly configured in google.de. Of course, this is largely due to the fact that the international default gets crawled a lot, so don’t expect this to happen at the same speed unless at least one domain in your set has a very high crawl rate.

By the way, the exact same thing happened on google.fr for the French website versus the international default site.