International SEO can be difficult and there have been many cases where website owners find that even using HREFLANG correctly does not resolve problems. Other language or country signals may be needed to get desired results.
To illustrate what sort of problems can arise, we have imagined a fictive example: A blog started buy an Irish electrician, Barry, in 2005. On his blog, Barry gives advice for DIY electrical jobs that customers can do at home – like changing a wall outlet, installing light fixtures, or even rewiring a house. He enjoys sharing his knowledge, but he always ends blog posts with a reminder that homeowners may need to seek professional help for many jobs and if they are in County Clare, well they can “Ring Barry”. This has brought him plenty of work over the years.
But Barry’s blog has become popular beyond County Clare and over the years he has received messages from all over the world. Through these messages, he understood that people were finding his blog through Google in many English-speaking countries when searching information about electrical DIY. This proves to be somewhat of a problem because electrical installations are not the same in every country. Ireland operates on a similar system to the UK, but it is very different from the US for example. Many messages were to complain that the content was not accurate or that he is not using copper where it is mandatory (although it is not in the UK and Ireland).
Over many months he exchanged mails with an electrical supplies company in Australia who loved his blog and they made him an offer. If he could produce an Australian version of his blog with a few small adjustments to his instructions and with photos and illustrations using their products (with Australian plugs and fittings), they would pay Barry $20.000 a year in sponsorship.
Copying the blog
Imagine that Barry’s Irish blog is published on www.sparkybarry.com using WordPress. One solution would be to duplicate his site to a “.com.au” domain and have two separate WordPress sites, with 2 admins. This would be problematic. Other than being more complicated to manage, there is a big risk that Google would not index or rank the Australian site because it would be seen as a plagiarized, weaker copy of the original blog rather than an official Australian version of it. To allow Google to understand that the two sites are related, Google suggests using HREFLANG to link the two sites, page per page. Through reading How to Implement HREFLANG With WordPress, Barry should understand that his best solution is to translate his Irish site into Australian using a WordPress translation plugin (although localize may be a better description of what he will do rather than translate). The plugin would handle the HREFLANG code. He could publish both the Irish and the Australian site on the same domain name and keep just one WordPress admin.
Translating the blog and implementing HREFLANG
After installing a WordPress translation plugin, the first step will be to define the default language for the existing content. The choice of languages in this plugin are listed in alphabetical order with multiple variations for English. Barry would choose “English – en_IE”. IE is the country code for Ireland.
He can then add the languages he wants to add. Here he should add English en_AU for Australia to create an Australian version of the site.
In the next step, he can confirm that the existing content is to be assigned to the default language en_IE and that the content for the second language, en_AU, can be created automatically by duplicating the existing content.
This will only take a few minutes. The www.sparkybarry.com/ homepage will now be considered as the Irish homepage and the Australian home page will be accessible at www.sparkybarry.com/au/. All the blog posts will be duplicated in the /au/ folder.
On the front end of the site, a language selector widget will allow users to switch between the two languages. A similar language selector will also exist within the WordPress admin. Every blog post will have an Irish and Australian version. Edits that are performed on the Australian version of a post will not affect the Irish version and vice-versa.
As well as the language selector to switch pages, the plugin will add HREFLANG codes to the pages to indicate to Google which country and languages are targeted by each page. The HTML code generated would look like this on the homepage:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-IE" href="https://www.sparkybarry.com/">
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-AU" href="https://www.sparkybarry.com/au/">
From here, Barry has some work to do. He needs to modify all of his blog posts to comply with Australian norms and update a lot of images and illustrations with those supplied by his sponsor.
Barry can be forgiven if he dives into updating the Australian content straight away without checking that HREFLANG has worked. But testing HREFLANG is an important step.
What should happen when the HREFLANG is correctly implemented? In Barry’s example, when an Australian user searches for “sparky barry” in Australia using Google.com.au, they should see a link to the https://www.sparkybarry.com/au/ homepage and not the https://www.sparkybarry.com/ (which is now the homepage of the Irish version).
Google.com.au ranks pages based on the search query. It will return the most relevant pages for the query by analyzing the content of pages and links to them. It is very likely that Google.com.au will decide that the original https://www.sparkybarry.com/ homepage is still the best result for the search. However, the HREFLANG code above should indicate that https://www.sparkybarry.com/au/ is the preferred version of the page for Australian users and Google should replace the Irish home page with the Australian one in search results.
If this doesn’t work, it is likely that Barry’s sponsor would contact him to complain that they can’t find the Australian version of the site when searching in Google either for the name of the site or popular DIY related search queries. It is always the Irish site that is showing up in results. And, although it is possible to switch from Irish to Australian from the language selector in every page, most Australian readers probably don’t and either read the Irish content instead or go back to Google. They don’t see the Australian sponsors name and content.
From Ireland it is difficult for Barry to see and understand what is happening even if he searches using https://www.google.com.au/ he will not see the same results as an Australian user. We recommend that he uses BrightLocal’s Search Results Checker to check Australian results.
Google provides an International targeting tool that reports on HREFLANG implementation. You must have access to Google Search Console for the site to access this tool. See our guide Add your WordPress site to Google Search Console using SEOPress if you need to do this.
Immediately after implementing HREFLANG, Barry is likely to see a report like the one below. Google is indicating that “Your site has no HREFLANG tags”. This is incorrect, what Google should say is that the pages of your site currently indexed by Google do not contain HREFLANG tags. Google visits your site regularly to index pages, but it may not have visited for a few days. It hasn’t seen the changes you just made including adding the Australian pages and the HREFLANG tags.
If you want an instant report on whether HREFLANG is correctly implemented on your site, you can use the Merkle SEO HREFLANG tag testing tool.
Barry can encourage Google to come and index his by sending a manual indexing request through Google Search Console. See our video How to request manual indexing from Google Search Console on YouTube to see how that can be done. We would recommend that he send this request for the main homepage and the new Australian homepage.
You may need wait a few days before returning to the International Targeting Tool to see results. A website with HREFLANG tags will normally see a report like the one below. The blue line shows the number of pages with HREFLANG tags on the site, the red line shows any errors that have been found in the implementation. These two lines are not on the same scale, which is often misleading. In this capture there are 384 pages with HREFLANG tags and just one error.
While he is in Google’s International Targeting Tool, Barry should also have a look in the Country tag too. It may be that at some point since 2005, he or someone else working on the site set Target users in setting to “Ireland”. If this is active, it may override HREFLANG settings and explain why the Irish homepage is still showing up in Australia. He would need to uncheck this option.
Going beyond HREFLANG
What if Google’s International Targeting Tools shows that all the pages of the site contain HREFLANG and that there are no errors, but the wrong page still shows up in the Australian results? In this case we need to give Google more signals to indicate that the Australian pages are for Australians. Getting links from Australian sites to the Australian pages may be a big help. Is the Australian sponsor linking to Barry’s site? Is it going directly to the Australian homepage?
Faced with a similar situation, SEO Jon Henshaw performed a series of tests on what on page signals can be used to correct HREFLANG problems. He published his finding in the article International SEO: What works and what doesn’t.
Following his advice, further actions Barry could perform are:
- Register www.sparkybarry.com/au/ as a site in Google Search Console and using the International Targeting Tool, set the Target users in setting to “Australia”; this will apply only to the /au/ folder
- Modify the TITLE tags of every post in the Australian versions of the site to include the word Australia. You can do this simply by changing the Site Name, or with SEOPress go to SEO > Titles & Meta and change the tags in Home and Posts.
- Make sure that the content of the homepage and posts contain the word “Australia”
- Modify the architecture of the site so that the Australian version of the site is in a /au/ folder and the Irish version in a /ie/ folder. Modify the Homepage so that is essentially a language selector, giving the option of continuing for Ireland or Australia.