Google & Yandex announced the new x-default hreflang tag attribute earlier this month and, in doing so, closed the final gap in executing “perfect” SEO platforms for multinational brands.
The problem solved by the new tag is indicating your preferred “default” content when you are returned for searches in countries that you haven’t created localised content for. This is especially important when you consider the increased bounce rates, low conversion rates, and poor click-through rates (CTRs) that come with losing control of your preferred URL for Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
In their webmaster blog post, Google uses the example of defining a non-location-specific URL (in this case, a “select your country” page) as the default page for visitors for whom localised content has not been created. This is likely to be the most common usage for the “x-default” hreflang attribute — it would certainly be my recommendation for multinational Web architectures.
There is, however, the question of what language content to use as your default, and how you can bring a little quantifiable information to play to determine your best choice overall.
Choosing Your X-Default Default Language For Cash Money Gain
Let’s say you are a FTSE 250 retail business, operating globally, but not fully rolled-out online to all of your target markets.
You’ve spent time avoiding the obvious default homepage handling mistakes of language assumptions and preferred locations, but still suffer from high bounce rates for non-target territories.
You can handle distribution globally via your logistics and local partners, leaning heavily on affiliates in second and third tier countries.
But you have only been doubled-down on online retail for the last 4-5 years and are (still!) in the process of trying to maintain critical server responsiveness (aka: don’t throw an error during checkout or anywhere else at peak sales times) while migrating to a new internal system needed to protect personal transaction details, ensure security, and comply with auditing standards.
Implementing hreflang architectures is, then, hard, i.e., developer time is limited, you can’t easily bring in more staff who would know your CMS straight off the bat, and you already have a two-year critical development process path.
Your SEO agency has stepped in with sets of hreflang sitemaps to implement initial localisation, though they will quickly go out of synch as your stocking changes through your sales cycles — so, they will need to be frequently updated until a dynamic generation change request is implemented (in 6-9 months).
So, it’s important, when you make a decision on your default content, that it’s not going to change for the next 12 months, at least. What language do you choose?
Easy: whatever is your largest “gap” audience language. (Note: This is not just your head office location language — or, more accurately, it may not be.)
Calculating Your Localised Language “Gap”
What, precisely, do I mean by “gap” language? It’s your largest customer language not already localised to via hreflang tags or sitemaps.
To calculate this, we need to understand total language market share in all locations you can currently reach via internal logistics or partner reselling, and subtract your hreflang localised locations.
To further refine this list, we can then consider the market share of the search engines that recognize the x-default hreflang markup. Significantly, the partner search engines are Google & Yandex (not Bing or Baidu, as yet).
Compiling the initial language list is straightforward, though it does entail a bit of research; see my post on estimating traffic opportunity globally for SEO to discover some potential resources to help you get started. You get bonus points for incorporating the per capita income metric at this stage, too.
You can also take a more simplified approach and refer to nationsonline.org’s most spoken languages chart to make a decision which doesn’t take into account online populations and disposable incomes, but which does include second languages (vital for understanding the right target language in certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia).
Some common outcomes of best default language are: Spanish (a worldwide language like English), Russian (take Russia’s online population, key city per-capita incomes, and marketplace target for “Western” brands, and you have a compelling case), and, of course, Chinese — specifically, Mandarin.
Why not English?
In my experience, usually the predominantly English language speaking countries have already been localised-to using hreflang sitemaps — the alternate language choices above have typically been under-appreciated by multinational brands and represent largely undeveloped online markets.
This is not always the case, of course. It occurs often enough, however, that it pays to stop and ask the following question before you set your multinational campaigns to default to English language content: am I targeting the best default language for my overall online ROI?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.