Rel=Alternate HREF/HREFLANG Allows Brands with Multiple Audiences Across the Globe to Create a Single, Authoritative Web Presence

Can’t they do this already? Well, sure, using redirects and basing content on a detected language only, though not a language-region combination. This change creates a work-around for multi-national companies so they can keep all content on their main domain, and serve substantially similar content to same-language-different-regional audiences while avoiding a duplicate content filter/penalty (Panda).

Rank Internationally in Search Engines

Before: Regional Top-Level Domains were Gateways into SERPs

Google’s regional search engines prefer regional, or country specific, Top-Level Domains like .de for Germany. In the past, if you were not using one of these domains, you would have a difficult time showing up in search results in non-US Google searches. The “rel=alternate” and “hreflang” elements seem to be a significant change to this historical behavior. Google’s Search Quality Highlights throughout 2012 covered many improvements to search results for countries outside the US, and for results relevant to searchers from one region, but requesting info from another:

Search quality highlights: 86 changes for June and July

“Ref-16.[project codename “Other Ranking Components”] Changes to an “official pages” algorithm to improve internationalization.”

This change, on the heels of so many others, is a move to make it possible and easier to rank specific content on regional search results without a country specific TLD. Those who will reap the benefits of this change the most are big brands that already have the content for the audience, but maybe not enough domain authority to immediately rank in a search engine link Yandex in China. Imagine Coca-Cola, hypothetically speaking, wanting to move into China. If they used the .hk for Hong Kong, they would be like every other new business that wants to move into Hong Kong – starting with zero domain authority. Now, when a big brand wants to move into a new region, they can build on their existing domain authority, which will give them a boost above other regional brands (potentially) and any smaller competition. Nice for brands, isn’t it?

Yeah, We Get it – Google Prefers Brands

Well, we all know that Google prefers brands. That is not even a point of discussion. And some of you may recall all of the hype in news outlets like Bloomberg last year surrounding China as the new frontier due to their growing consumer-led economy.

Now we are seeing a partnership between Google and Yandex, China’s market leading search engine, on this new Rel=Alternate/HREFLANG attribute.

The point of this new attribute is to provide a way for webmasters to tell Google, either via a header tag or their sitemap, what part of their site to serve users by region according to their specified language. The “x-default” element allows the webmaster in question to also specify a landing page to serve users with no specified language or region.

Brand awareness is key in Google's eyes

What does this do for websites and brands? It removes the necessity of housing content on a country-specific TLD to get into regional search results, and allows brands to keep all of their content on a single TLD, consequently hoarding all of their domain authority in a single place.

This will further give major brands a leg-up on rankings. They already have multiple websites, with content for multiple regions and languages, but they may have been faced with some difficulty in getting to the top of search results in new markets – China specifically – where their brands may be relatively unknown. This change allows them to keep the authority to rank, but removes all prior risk of duplicate content issues.

How Rel=Alternate/HREFLANG Works

The new rel=alternate/hreflang attributes effectively canonicalize region/language pages so Google knows the pages have substantially similar content, and that they are meant to serve different audiences.

You place this on the page (or in the site map) showing Google the “alternate” versions of the page for different region-langauge combination, specified by ISO standards 639-1 and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2. Region is optional, and will be most widely used for companies with a different marketing message for regional audiences.

Rel=Alternate/HREFLANG Elements
Rel=Alternate/HREFLANG Elements

So, this new attribute also helps provide a way around Google’s Panda. There are many smaller brands that may be looking at expanding into new markets. For those of you looking to do this, moving to a brand new site would be a mistake. You can now take your existing domain authority with you, but serve the right landing page to the right audience to provide the best marketing and user experience.