Maile Ohye from Google has shared an informative video to help site owners in expanding their website to more languages. In the video, Maile provides info to site owners hoping to keep their site search engine friendly as they expand to new languages or country based language variations.

The topics discussed in the video were:

  1. Search issues with international sites
  2. Background questions before you start
  3. Use cases
  4. Signals to help Google understand your international site
  5. <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="" />
  6. Best practices

Search Issues with International Sites

Maile started by discussing some of the potential search issues that are more common with the international sites. The three potential search issues that are more easily triggered as the webmaster expand the site to new languages or country based language variations.

Searchers of a particular language/region aren't shown a URL tailored to them, when one exists. For example, when you are searching on, you are shown, when an equivalent URL for already exists.

Search results display two similar URLs from website, which may confuse users when only one URL was more relevant.

When a site owner expands a site to a new language or country based language variation and search engines are not aware of the new pages that were created.

Background Questions Before you Start

Some of the important preparation questions before embarking a global expansion of your site:

Is your company:

  • Developing an experience tailored to users of a different region/language?
  • Creating, reviewing, and maintaining newly written content for different users of your site?
  • Supporting customers in a new region and/or language?

Use Cases for International Sites

Case I: When the Site has Regional Variation of the Single Language

In this case on the page is in American English using US dollars. However, the site may have a UK version of the available at On the UK the page is in British English and currency is in pounds rather than dollars.

Case II: When a website expands internationally with full translations on content

The word car on one page is coche on another page and auto on the third page. These pages are fully translated and hopefully one of these several cases will apply to the configuration or proposed for your site.

Given these use cases, how can your site be more search friendly?

In December 2011, Google introduced support for rel="alternate" hreflang as a way for webmaster to specify the search engines, how the global site is configured.

rel="alternate" hreflang is a signal and not a directive. Because it is one of the many signals to serve users the most relevant results, it is possible that other inputs override the rel="alternate" hreflang specification.

rel="alternate" hreflang can be listed in several places:

  1. On-page markup as a link attribute in the head of the document
  2. HTTP Header
  3. Sitemap with all variations of each URL
  4. If your international expansion expands across several sites, you can submit one site map listing all alternates for each URL as long as each of the websites is verified in Google webmaster tools
  5. Wherever you specified rel="alternate" hreflang in on-page markup, HTTP header, or sitemap, you have included hreflang value. This value can be in general language like en for English for all the English users worldwide. Additionally, you can include both language and country such as engb to better target English speakers in the UK.

If you choose to create a country based language variation such as engb, Google recommends also having a general language version like en to appeal to English speakers worldwide.

Without a general language specified, Google will behave the way it was before supporting the hreflang annotation. This means, it will try choosing the version that is more relevant to the user. 

If you have a URL that doesn't consistently serve the content in one page, perhaps it redirects to different language pages based on the user's IP, or it dynamically serves different language content on the same page or it's a page that only asks users to select the preferred home page, then your hreflang value can be x-default. x-default signals to search engines that the urls language is broad rather than specific.

The hreflang values for rel="alternate" hreflang should specify canonical URLs. And in fact, to be most efficient, they only need to be included on the canonical url, not the duplicates.

When you implement rel="alternate" hreflang, all alternates of the URL, including the URL iteself should be declared, whether that's with on-page markup, sitemaps, or http headers.

The alternate language versions can be on different domains. The can be on different:

  • Subdirectory
  • Subdomain
  • ccTLD or gTLD
  • Different domains

If you have the option however, Google recommends keeping the alternate versions in a similar URL structure.

Use Case: Targeting a Specific Country (for websites with a gTLD)

When using the rel="alternate" hreflang, you can still use Webmaster Tools' Geographic target feature for verified subdomains or subdirectories that you would like to target to particular country. With the geographic target setting, be aware that you can only target a verified site to one country. So, if you want to target users from two different regions but you only have a general language page, geotargeting on webmaster tools page won't be possible.

Another important detail about rel="alternate" hreflang is that while it is supported by Google, it may not be treated the same way by other major search engines.

Use Case: Country-based Variations of the Same Language

In this case, both of the corresponding URLs are listed for each page. Again, all the variations are specified on each page and not just the alternates excluding the current page. You require listing all alternates because it demonstrates a more bonafide association and it's much harder for outsider to try and join as a different language version of your site.

Use Case: Full translation and country-based language variations

Each page lists all alternates including itself

Use Case: Full translations

Each page will contain all alternatives, including itself.

Benefits of rel="alternate" hreflang

When implemented correctly, it helps search engines such as Google to consolidate several indexing signals

It helps search engines discover new URLs as you expand your site

You can serve searchers a more targeted URL and their results. Users will get more tailored information on the website

Best Practices when Expanding your Site

Create shareable URLs in your site architecture, so each URL serves similar information in the same language, regardless of the users' IP or language preference. This greatly assists indexing by search engines. By creating shareable URLs, if a user bookmarks your page or promotes your site on their blog, their audience whether in US or any other region will see the content that they intended.

  • It's fine to autodirect from x-default URL to a language or country specific URL
  • Autodirection from one language URL to another language URL will prevent the crawling of pages
  • Dynamically serving different languages on one URL will allow one language version to be index
  • If you would like to suggest a more targeted page to the users based on their IP or language preference, the common implementation is to display a banner suggesting an alternate page.

Another best practice is to avoid placing a language or country in a URL parameter. This is because:

  • URL parameters are less consistent in behavior than domains or directories
  • URL parameters are often overloaded
  • Parameters are more difficult for search engines to understand
  • Parameters are later incorporated tracking session ids

When expanding your site to include additional languages, it's more search friendly to use ccTLD, domains, sub-directories, or sub-domains. This isn't a requirement but by keeping a more consistent URL structure between languages, you help Google to more efficiently crawl and index site.

  • Use Unicode in URLs, when necessary
  • UTF-8 encoding in the path, filenames, URL parameters

Build your business with new language users

Finding users in new language, who can recommend, link, or refer your site to others can help you gain new customers

Factor Page Speed

Pay attention to factor page speed, especially your new language pages are serving users from a greater distance. For example, if your servers are located in Australia but you hope to serve English users in the U.S., make sure your American users are not experiencing unwanted delays

Power to the user

Strive to empower the individual user to find their preferred language. Users often appreciate the ability to switch a page to their language of choice rather than to be locked in to the language of their IP.

The last best practice is referencing available resources. Google has several articles that may be at help. Maile recommends them all.

Webmaster Help Center article on rel="alternate" hreflang and hreflang="x-default":

Working with multilingual sites:

Working with multiregional sites:

New markup for multilingual content:

Introducing "x-default hreflang" for international landing pages:

Webmaster discussion forum FAQ on internationalization:

Webmaster discussion forum for internationalization:!categories/webmasters/internationalization


Navneet Kaushal is the Editor-in-Chief of PageTraffic Buzz. A leading search strategist, Navneet helps clients maintain an edge in search engines and the online media. Navneet is also the CEO of SEO Services company PageTraffic which is one of the leading search marketing company in Asia.