Are you considering hreflang tags for your site? For most multi-language sites, hreflang annotations are worth the effort because they help your content land in front of your target audience — which can improve your conversion rates. But when every expert SEO resource says hreflang is very difficult to get right, the average small business might be intimidated to implement it for themselves.
“Hreflang tags are among the hardest elements in technical search engine optimization (SEO) to get right.”
Hreflang is often referred to as “advanced international SEO”, but if you have a multilingual site, you should consider using the markup. Keep reading to learn more about common hreflang issues and how to avoid them.
A Common Hreflang Mistake: Missing Return Links
According to Google, missing return links is one of the most common errors with hreflang:
If page X links to page Y, page Y must link back to page X. If this is not the case for all pages that use hreflang annotations, those annotations may be ignored or not interpreted correctly.
Simply put, if two pages don't both point to each other, the hreflang tags will be ignored. Why? So that a page on an unrelated site can't claim itself as an alternative version of one of your pages.
When researching current best practices for a multilingual Squarespace project, we discovered that even Squarespace incorrectly implemented hreflang on their own global sites. But they are in good company — businesses like Audible, Skype, and Hubspot have made hreflang mistakes too. Among other issues, Squarespace’s own hreflang markup was missing bidirectional links:
Return Tag Errors
If you look in Google Search Console under International Targeting and see the error message “no return tags”, this is the result of hreflang annotations that don’t cross-reference each other.
In the examples above, the hreflang links seen on the English home page should have been copied to the other language versions of the Squarespace home page. Additionally, the optional x-default value — which provides a fallback page for any unmatched languages — should have pointed to the English version on the associated pages. These issues were hurting the chances of Squarespace’s multilingual content being shown to the intended users.
Squarespace corrected these issues and their hreflang links are now identical on various language versions. Before the changes were made, if you searched for the term “Squarespace” as if you lived in Germany and spoke German, the English version of the site was displayed in search results, but now the SERPs look as expected.
Other Common Hreflang Issues & Misconceptions
In addition to missing return links (discussed above), what are other errors or misconceptions you can avoid?
Using Incorrect ISO Codes
Google states that incorrect ISO codes is another common issue: all language codes need to be in ISO 639-1 format, and the optional region code needs to be in ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format (i.e. “UK” and “EU” are not valid).
Targeting Only a Region
The purpose of hreflang is to target users in their language, you cannot target regions only — so do not specify a country code by itself.
Trying to use hreflang for geo-targeting
We recently responded to a website owner who thought hreflang would indicate to Google that his site was targeting Germany. He used a country-specific domain (www.example.de) — this alone indicates his targeting preference. The hreflang markup he used was meaningless as the site did not have translated or localized content.
Self-Referencing hreflang Tags
Most articles on the web state that self-referencing tags are required, but Google’s help documentation no longer supports this statement — i.e. they are not required. Even so, Google’s John Mueller does state they are good practice. Why? Self-referential tags make implementing hreflang much easier! Just generate your markup once and copy to all associated pages.
What can you do to avoid mistakes?
Reading all of this might make you might want to throw in the towel before you even begin. So where does this leave the average small business website? Well, the good news is that most multilingual sites on Squarespace will find it easier to implement hreflang than you might think. Why? These sites tend to be far less complex than any example mentioned above — with fewer language versions and much less content. That said, anyone implementing hreflang should be detail-oriented and operating on a few cups of coffee.
This tool can help you correctly generate hreflang tags
And other tools exist to help you validate hreflang markup
For more information, refer to this guide on multilingual Squarespace sites and hreflang annotations.