Motoko Hunt offers these tips for ensuring your HREF language elements are linked correctly in your global sites for maximum search optimization.

Over the past few weeks Google has been sending notifications to webmasters that they have errors with their “Rel=Alternate HREF Language.” It is not surprising since many companies have hastily deployed this functionality without really understanding why and how to use it effectively.

In this article we will review how to prevent some of these common errors.

The HREF functionality enables you to designate your country and language version for each country removing the need for search engines to try and determine the appropriate country and language association. Using the HREF Meta or XML Site map, site owners can designate, at the page level, the exact language and country association, thereby significantly reducing issues with Google interpreting same language pages as duplicates or incorrectly showing global pages in local results.

Why Use the HREF Language For Your Global Sites?

One of the best reasons to use the HREF is to ensure the appropriate local version is what shows up in local searches. Especially when the local sites are hosted in sub directories on a domain and the page content is exactly the same in common language markets, with the only difference being phone numbers or currencies.

The HREF functionality enables you to designate your country and language version for each country, removing the need for search engines to try and determine the appropriate version.

Meta Tag or HREF XML Site Map?

The hreflang functionality can be implemented either as a meta tag placed in the section of the site, or as an XML site map. The meta element is best for sites with only a few language versions as it reduces the number of rows (Read more...) code that are required on the page. Using the meta element also requires the addition of logic to your page templates to map to the local alternative pages. For sites that have numerous language versions and/or don’t have the ability to build the logic to add the meta elements, the site map method is the easy way to go.

There are hundreds of possible problems, but the following are the most common and the main reason for Google’s latest batch of error notices.

Return Tags are Missing for Pages

The largest number of errors came from sites that did not have all the pages mapped. Remember, each country/language page is an alternative of all the others so Google expects you to have all of them represented.

For example, in the case below, the site had mapped all of their U.S./English pages to each country, but did not map the country pages back to each other and the U.S./English.


Each of the 18 pages on this site must be mapped to each other in order to pass the test. In the meta element, each version must be listed on each other’s country language version. In the XML site map, some of the free tools only create one direction versions and not multi direction which is the case of most of these errors.

No Local Version of the Site

This error is created when you dynamically create the alternative page list and the page does not exist in the local market. For example in this case, all of the markets use /laptops/ for the directory containing the laptop home page, but in Sweden they have translated the folder to /barbar-dator/, which means it will generate a 404 error for the Swedish alternative and on the Swedish page, it will generate errors for all of the non-translated versions.


Here is the correct Sweden entry:

It is important that you review your site structure before you create your HREF files to identify any translations or mix matched URL structures.

Incorrect Language or Country Codes

Another big batch of errors comes from the incorrect encoding of language or region codes. The two most common ones are designations for the United Kingdom and Japan. Nearly every website uses "/uk" to designate their UK pages. However, for the HREF element you must use the country/region ISO code for the UK, which is actually “GB.” With Japan, nearly every HREF developed for Japanese pages use JP, which is the country code, but the language code is “JA” and that is what must be used to designate Japanese language.

When developing your HREF elements ensure that you, or the tool you use, is correctly mapped to the language and country. You can validate this using the list of languages using ISO 6391-1 and for regions/countries which use the ISO 3166-1 format. There are many other smaller problems and nuances with the HREF element, and it is best that you review all of the criteria and understand the implications of using this element as explained by Google in their HREF Support page.

Being able to have the correct page show in the local market can result in incremental traffic as well as a significant increase in conversions, making this a valuable tool to add to your global SEO toolbox.

*Homepage image via Shutterstock

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