Cutting Through The Confusion Of Google’s Guidance To Multilingual Website Owners

Google speakers at both the International Search Summit San Jose and SMX West went to town on how multilingual website owners should proceed when geo-targeting their sites using the canonical and hreflang tags.

Susan Moskwa provided a very helpful session on the Monday at the International Search Summit event and was followed by Maile Ohye at SMX West (with Susan’s support from the audience).

Suddenly, A Lot Of Code To Implement

Why all this effort? Well frankly, not many have been adopting Google’s latest advice. Reason? Not many actually understand what it’s all about.

The reaction from many delegates at the Summit was that few webmasters would actually have the capacity to implement the code as Google suggests.

Strong opinions were expressed by some – especially my fellow columnist and regular speaker at the ISS Bill Hunt who firmly expressed his view that “Panda is going out and making decisions about content before the normal indexing processes are taking account of geo-targeting settings. This has been significantly and negatively affecting global websites”.

Nothing To Do With Panda!

Google has firmly denied that the Hreflang tag is a response to Panda both in conference sessions and recently when I quizzed UK-based Google engineer Pierre Farr. The hreflang tag, according to Google, has absolutely nothing to do with Panda.

Regardless of the debate over the background to the new tags, it is the case that Google is launching and promoting many more tags for various purposes.

I have joked to people that SEO’s may need to change their job titles in future to “Google Markup Manager” as just keeping tabs on all the tags and micro formats will require some in-depth training. Nor will there be time to spend on other SEO matters!

So here’s the simplest way I can present the guidance from the sessions! If I’ve over-simplified, feel free to pick me up on the details in the comments!

Canonical Tags

Originally, the canonical tag was added to enable publishers to identify that content was, indeed, duplicate – perhaps because of session parameters in the URL string or because a site had multiple URL routes to the same content.

The canonical tag basically says, “Yes this content is the same, but this is the single URL I’d like to represent this content despite the various forms in which I present it.”

Google's Webmaster Central Gives Lots Of Guidance On Language Tags

Google's Webmaster Central Gives Lots Of Guidance On Language Tags

The above remains true. Google has confused users by repeatedly saying that you can use the canonical with the hreflang tags. Whilst this is true, the canonical should not be used with different URLs where the languages are different.

There is a possible exception to this which is when a page is translated dynamically on the fly by a tool such as Google Translate, which would mean that Googlebot would see the original content – not that which was translated for the user.

It should also be used even where the templates are in different languages but the main content is the same.

Hreflang Tags

For years, we’ve been saying that the geo-selector of a website is a critical component in ensuring it’s success. With the Hreflang tags, Google is effectively asking website owners to include directions to all related content for other countries to the content on the page, within the code of the site.

This means for an 80-country site, there would indeed be 80 lines of extra code sitting in the meta content.

The purpose for Google is that it then knows and has a clearer idea that certain content is related and should not be shown at the same time in results.

The Effect Of Combining Canonical Tags & Hreflang Tags

Not forgetting that the canonical tags should only be used with content in the same language, when would we use both?

Well firstly, the use of both would involve what I usually call world languages such as English, Spanish, French or Portuguese. These languages are used in many countries and, whilst there are variations between the use of these languages in those countries, the variations are sometimes small.

Additionally, multinational publishers often save costs by using one version of the language for all countries speaking that general language, thus ignoring the regional variations. In other words, for Spain and Mexico, Google is presented with exactly the same content, letter for letter.

The canonical acknowledges that this is the same content. The Hreflang tag identifies which URL should be displayed in different sets of results.

So, in other words, canonical + Hreflang = same content + different URL.

Google knows the content is the same, but displays the correct URL for the Google domain search (e.g. will see the relevant URLs for Mexico displayed in the results).

With Dot Coms Or Local Domains?

The simple answer is that the use of Hreflang and canonical tags applies to both local domains and dot coms, though Google’s examples tend to show dot coms.

By the way, neither the canonical nor the Hreflang tags have a direct impact on ranking – canonicals do not share the link equity of the domestic market with the new markets targeted.

It’s A Mystery

Bearing in mind that the Google team clearly says that you don’t need to identify the language – they use language detection for that purpose; that you don’t need to indicate the location for local domains; that you can set the geo-location of a dot com in Webmaster Central and that they say they can figure out which is the most important content; why the heck is this rather intensive tagging needed all of a sudden?

I’m sorry Google, but as someone who spends most of their time advising the owners of multilingual websites on how best to manage their content, there is only one reason which rationalizes the whole thing.

Bearing in mind that “Panda” is a separate process from indexing and ranking sites which examines the quality of content and throws away poor quality content and sites, this is a rather clumsy Panda fix.

Perhaps Google Will Explain The Why?

Canonicals and Hreflang tags are visible on the page to Panda and say “Please leave me in – I’m not just a duplicate and have a specific local market purpose and this is the market.”

Many large websites rely on machine translation (not a good solution for SEO at any time) and they are particularly affected by Panda.

Google, if you disagree with me, please explain why all of this extra coding is suddenly needed. Or simply come clean and explain why you need us all to do this for Google and then we’ll all understand things more clearly.

Both Pierre Farr and John Mueller of Google are speaking on this subject at the Munich and London International Search Summits. We look forward to developing this discussion with them!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search


About The Author: is a linguist who has been specializing in international search since 1997 and is the CEO of WebCertain, the multilingual search agency and Editor-in-Chief of the blog You can follow him on Twitter here @andyatkinskruge.

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  • Susan Moskwa

    “Neither the canonical nor the Hreflang tags have a direct impact on ranking – canonicals do not share the link equity of the domestic market with the new markets targeted.”
    Actually, rel=”canonical” does pass ranking signals (such as links) to the canonical URL in a group, which will affect its ranking. Hreflang currently does not.

    It may seem obvious to a human (especially to a webmaster who knows their site well) which language each page is in and which country it’s targeting, but it’s not always that easy for computers to figure out. While you can use Webmaster Tools to geotarget a particular site or
    directory, there’s no way to indicate other URLs that are semantically equivalent versions — that is, we have no way of knowing that is the English-language version of, even if both domains are correctly geotargeted. We also see many webmasters using one ccTLD to try to reach multiple locales (e.g. a site that launches on a .de domain and later expands to serve German-speaking people in Austria and
    Switzerland, while retaining their German ccTLD). Hreflang markup helps with all of these situations in a way that none of our other currently-available tools or systems do. It’s also been a very good source for discovering new URLs.

    Many of the tools and markup options Google offers are basically alternate paths to the same end goal. For example, if you want us to index the www version of your site and not the non-www version, you can 301 redirect all your non-www URLs to www URLs; or you can use rel=”canonical”; or you can set a preferred domain in Google Webmaster Tools. Everyone’s site is a little bit different, some webmasters can implement one solution and not the other, so we like to give multiple options when we can. Similarly, no one is required to implement hreflang (or rel=”canonical”) markup; but if you’re having trouble getting the correct local version of your content to appear for local searchers, we’re trying to give you an alternative way to accomplish that goal.

  • BNH

    Thanks for the helpful article – as someone who works with a multi-national website, I agree that the guidelines for these tags are confusing. One thing that still puzzles me though:

    You mention needing 80 lines of code on an 80 country site. But surely any given page only needs to include hreflangs to versions in the same language group, not to all possible language variations? For instance, a German page would hreflang it’s Austrian and Swiss German equivalent, but not it’s Thai equivalent. That means far less than 80 lines of code.

  • Susan Moskwa

    @BNH: If a page is translated into 80 languages, then yes, you could put 80 link tags with hreflang markup in each page to indicate the other URLs that contain that same (semantic) content in other languages. Hreflang is not only for content in the same language “group,” although that is one potential use of it.

  • Britt

    Susan: Thanks for the response, though I confess I am now more confused.

    If you have a website where you fully translate content into 80 languages (similar to my website), these tags have two (substantial) benefits:

    1) to avoid tripping duplicate content filters

    2) to avoid wrong market content showing up (e.g. French market content showing up in French Switzerland)

    But 1) and 2) are only ever problems within language groups – e.g. I don’t think my Thai content is ever being considered a duplicate to my German content, and my Thai content is never ranking in Germany. So I can’t see any justification for the extra code to reference all languages. Unless there is some SEO advantage?

    The use case I can see where it would make sense to reference all 80 languages is if you don’t translate fully – e.g. you have body content in English in all markets but translated navigation (such as with social media profiles). Then I could see that it is important to reference all versions to avoid them being considered duplicates.

  • Britt

    Clarification: by “SEO advantage” I meant ranking advantage.

  • Dan Lawrence

    Grt article, please clarify though – if combining the canonical + hreflang on pages on a new subfolder version of a uk hosted .com site to target US (apart from target keywords spelt differently all content is duplicated) do canonical and uk english href tags need to be applied to the original sites uk focused pages too ?

    I would prefer to leave the main uk site ‘as is’ so still shows up in other country searches too) ? I will be geotargeting the US focused subfolder via GWT.In other words in above scenario do i just need add the canonical and href lang tags to the us focused subdirectory + geotarget via GWT and that should be all thats required for G to see that the new subdirectory is specifally focused on US searches ?

  • andyatkinskruge

    Dan, The answer is yes.  You can’t use the canonical without it being on the original — the just wouldn’t make sense.  

    If you use the canonical and Hreflang together, essentially Google treats them as one item of content all folded in together — but swaps in the correct link in geo-targeted instances – i.e. for in your question above you’d be asking them to show the US link – even though you’d be telling them that the content is duplicate based on your UK version.  

  • Dan Lawrence

    ok great thanks for prompt reply Andy !

    since the titles, urls and some content (different kw spellings) will have subtle differences should i drop the canonicalistion (as per this article: or still best to implement ?

  • Faisal Noor

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for a great article. I have a couple of questions;

    1- I have 3 websites for UK, NZ, AU English and i have got separate domain for them. i.e,, Main Language is English. Product description is almost the same across different regions. Do I still need to use ‘hreflang’? If yes then how. Please clarify. 

    Let me tell you what i understand about using hreflang. 
    In html head i have to use follow two tags 

    Similarly for AU and NZ website. Am i right? if not please correct me.2- If i have written an article about a product and placed on; can i use same article for and NZ. 3- If I have variations of a single product on and have a separate product page for each variation with 5% difference in content. Will Google penalize it in some way? Note: I cant change the text on a variation page, I cant merge it and make it as one page. I have been looking for answers for a long time, please help!


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