International SEO: Solving Common Issues

By Sam Gooch

International SEO: Troubleshooting Common Problems

This article is part of an SEO series from WooRank. Thank you for supporting the partners who make SitePoint possible.

In this day and age it’s easier than ever to reach an international audience. You don’t need to be a huge multinational conglomerate with offices all over the world. All you need is the right website. If your business relies on organic traffic at all, and it should, this means a whole new set of SEO challenges and issues you need to overcome. In this piece we’ll go over some of the most common issues you can face in international SEO and how to resolve them.

Incorrect Hreflang Implementation

The hreflang tag is an easy way to tell search engines the relevant language and/or country targets for international websites. Both Google and Yandex, the biggest search engine in Russia, use hreflang to serve multilingual sites to the right audience (Bing uses the language meta tag). When used correctly for a site serving English speakers it looks like this:

HTML:

<link rel="alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”https://www.example.com” />

HTTP:

link: <https://www.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang=”en”

You could use the tag in your XML sitemap instead of adding markup to your pages. Just add an <xhtml: link> to every URL <loc> tag:

<url>
<loc>http://www.example.com/</loc>
<xhtml:link 
             rel="alternate"
             hreflang="en-us"
             href="http://www.example.com/"
             />
<xhtml:link 
             rel="alternate"
             hreflang="en-ca"
             href="http://www.example.com/ca/"
             />
<xhtml:link 
             rel="alternate"
             hreflang="en-gb"
             href="http://www.example.com/uk/"
             />
</url>

At first glance, it’s a simple and straightforward implementation. However, there are a few seemingly small things you can get wrong that will have a big impact on your SEO.

Incorrect Country or Language Values

One of the most common issues using hreflang for international websites is the county and language codes. Google and Yandex specify that hreflang values should use ISO 639-1 format language codes and the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format for country codes. So a French language website targeting France would use the href value “fr-fr” while a French website for Belgium would use “fr-be”.

The most common culprit is for websites targeting the United Kingdom to use ‘uk’ as the country code. The correct format is ‘gb’ for Great Britain. Another frequent error is trying to use hreflang to target regions such as the European Union or North America. Even though Google calls the country code the ‘region,’ hreflang works only at the country level.

Check for problems with your language and country codes using Google Search Console’s International Targeting report. This report will identify when you use a wrong, or nonexistent, value.

Google Search Console International Targeting Report

Note that you can’t use hreflang just to target countries. Setting the hreflang value as just ‘gb’ or ‘us’ will return an error since search engines will see those as language codes.

Return Tag Errors

This is another normal problem when adding hreflang tags to your pages. Every annotation must have a corresponding link pointing back to it from the linked page. If you’ve got pages in English and Spanish, those pages must both link back to each other: The English page has to have a link to the Spanish page and the Spanish page must have a link to the English page. Missing these tags causes what’s called a ‘return tag error.’

Again, check your International Targeting report in Google Search Console to find instances of return tag errors.

Google Search Console return tag errors

The most common return tag error is probably the missing self referencing hreflang. Your English pages need to include a link to itself so search engines can tell what language it’s targeting.

Irrelevant or Unnecessary Values

Sometimes hreflang tags are added using language and country values that either don’t work together, or are unnecessary. This error takes two different forms: Incorrect language values and incorrect country values. The first is straightforward: The language set in the hreflang tag doesn’t match the page language.

Irrelevant and/or unnecessary regional values are a bit more difficult because even though they’re not technically wrong, they’ll still hurt your international SEO efforts. For example, say you’ve got a page in Spanish and English. The best practice is to use hreflang values for only the language.

Unfortunately, websites sometimes end up with annotations that add a country code (or multiple codes) when it’s not needed, either accidentally restricting their traffic to a single country or unnecessarily including tags for every Spanish and English-speaking country in the world.

These cases are usually caused by tools and plugins that automatically add hreflang values. Finding and fixing them can be a little harder since they won’t show up in error reports – you’ll have to manually inspect your pages to make sure the language and country values make sense for your targeted audience.

Alternatively, you could use a tool like DeepCrawl to find lists of pages with and without hreflang tags. View the list of pages with hreflang annotations to make sure the language values match up with the language on the page, and that any regional values used are both relevant and necessary. As a little bonus, any instances of return tag errors will be exposed as blank cells in the report.

Canonical URLs & Relative Linking

Hreflang is meant to work with your canonical URLs (if you don’t have canonical URLs, or you haven’t set your preferred domain, do so now — there’s a good chance you’ve got a duplicate content problem and don’t know it). What’s handy about hreflang is that it works with the rel=”canonical” tag. Accidentally tagging one URL as canonical for every language/region is a common mistake when using these two annotations together. This is most likely to happen when you have pages in one language targeting different geographies.

If you’ve got two pages in English, one for the US and one for Canada, it would be easy to accidentally use the following:

<link rel="canonical” href=”https://www.example.com/US/” />

<link rel="alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=”https://www.example.com/US/ />

<link rel="alternate” hreflang=”en-ca” href=”https://www.example.com/CA/ />

In this example, the canonical URL for example.com/CA/ is mistakenly pointing to the American page. In this situation search engines won’t be able to accurately tell the relationship between the two pages, which could result in one page being seen as duplicate content, or even cause it to not get indexed.

Remember to always use absolute paths and your canonical URL. If you use relative links like “/en/US”, or if you don’t use your canonical URLs, search engines will have a harder time determining how these pages are related, especially if you use subdomains or country-coded top-level domains (TLD).

Setting the Right Geolocation in Google Search Console

If you use a ccTLD such as .de, .fr or .ie or a country-coded subdomain, search engines will automatically know to serve those pages to users from the right country (in this case, Germany, France or Ireland). However, if you use a generic TLD such as .com or .org, you need to find another way to tell search engines how to geotarget your website. You can specify this to Google using Search Console’s International Targeting.

This works at the domain level. Simply open up International Targeting in Search Console (the same place you found hreflang errors), and click on the Country tab. Check the box to target users and then select the country you want from the drop down menu. This tool defines geography only.

Google Search Console geotargeting

Bing’s Geo-Targeting feature gives you a bit more flexibility as you can geo-target at a domain, subdomain, directory and page level. This is a great tool if you use subdomains or directories for your international site. Target your domain, subdomain or pages by following these steps:

  • Select the type of URL (domain, subdomain, directory or page) from the drop down menu
  • Enter the URL you want to target
  • Select the country
  • Hit submit

With both Google and Bing, only geotarget your site if you’re using a generic TLD. If you have a ccTLD, the search engines will be able to tell automatically how to serve these pages.

As simple as it is, geotargeting does cause problems for many site owners. Both Google and Bing tools only set the geography, they don’t tell search engines anything about the site’s language. If you’ve got a site in German that you think is relevant to both Germans and Austrians, don’t use geotargeting. The same goes if your monolingual content is relevant to a global audience. An American sports blog would, in theory, be of interest to all Americans living abroad, not just those in the US.

If you find yourself struggling to get international traffic, checking International Targeting should be one of the first steps.

Splash Pages

Many websites use splash pages or global on their generic top-level domain instead of traditional ccTLDs, subdomains or directories. Take UPS for example. Users are asked to select their country and language when they first visit ups.com.

UPS splash page

This may seem like a quick and easy fix for a global site, but it’s actually detrimental from an SEO perspective. The URL structure doesn’t tell search engines or users anything about what language or geography the page is relevant for, which could be important depending on your business as different countries have different rules, regulations and prices.

Splash pages also make it hard for search engines to determine what your site is about because they have limited page content. Since splash pages add an extra step for users they can also increase your bounce rate, which will make your site look worse to search engines.

These issues aren’t really problems for UPS since it’s such a huge brand. But if you’re not the world’s largest freight and parcel delivery company, you’re better off avoiding this and sticking with one of the other three methods.

Translated Content

Google serves pages based on the language of the keyword used by the searcher, i.e. it will find English pages for an English keyword and Spanish pages for a Spanish keyword. You might think this goes without saying, but it has a huge impact on your on page SEO and how you conduct keyword research.

If you’re not a polyglot, consider finding a local SEO expert to conduct keyword research and possibly create on page elements in local languages. There are free translation platforms out there, like Google Translate, but they often miss the mark when it comes to colloquial usage and idiomatic phrases. If you’re working with a limited budget, consider having your most important pages translated by a local translator, and using software for the rest of your site.

At the end of the day, you need your keyword research done in your target country’s local language (or languages) by a fluent speaker (preferably native) to get a truly accurate list of keywords to target.

Wrap Up

There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’ve got a multilingual or multi-regional website. A big part of your international digital marketing will focus on ensuring the right content is being shown to the right audiences based on their country and/or language. To achieve that goal you’ll have to overcome challenges to on page SEO and off page SEO. Fortunately, you’ve got solutions to some of the most common international SEO problems so your site can climb the rankings quickly for all your target audiences.

What international SEO challenges have you encountered? What solutions did you use?

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