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Advanced International SEO with rel="alternate" hreflang="x"

Have you ever wanted a site to appear in country-specific organic search results, without going through the trouble of creating full-blown country-specific sites? Well, you're in luck, but be ready to act like a guinea pig!

One of the most rewarding aspects of search engine optimization, is continually working in unique, and sometimes, strange situations. We all have war stories to share. Technical SEO can be especially hairy, made even more so when verging into international scenarios.

Here's an example of one such off-the-wall problem, with an uncommon solution. We'd love to know from others who have handled these types of issues. Not surprisingly, rel="alternate" hreflang="x" is not widely adopted. This is fringe SEO work.

The Case

A client came to us with an interesting predicament. They wanted to expand with an international presence (they're a well known brand), but didn't want to create separate international sites. They wanted the primary domain to rank appropriately in each region. After some discussion, they agreed to consider using sub-domains with region-specific abbreviations. The catch was, the sub-domains would have exactly the same content (in the same language, English) as the primary site. This would create a whole mess of duplication.

Now, put aside for a moment asking the question why a company would want to do this. Companies do lots of things, for lots of reasons, and all of them are valid (even if they're not valid SEO decisions). That's why they have us to figure the rest out.

But how can we do this? How can we show region-specific subdomains to the right users, while avoiding mass duplication problems?

Doing the Impossible? Wait, Google Has a Tool for That.

The situation seems impossible: get a site to rank in a specific region, even though it's a duplicate of a canonical site. Luckily for us, Google had already figured this one out.

An exmpale of using rel=alternate and hreflang=x in source code

An example of the highly technical, slightly arcane, rel="alternate" hreflang="x" in the wild. Note: example only. Infor.com is not the client referenced in this article.

The problem is that this solution is technical and unlikely to to be implemented. In fact, when I asked about 4,000 followers on Twitter if anyone had experience using it, no one responded with a "yes."

Bueller? Not too many folks out there using this one.

Bueller? Not much action with this one.

One important qualification: this technique is for language-specific templates, where the primary content is not translated. This is quite common in situations where a company has regional sites, but hasn't invested resources into localizing all the content (which can be a huge project).

SEO for International Sites with rel="alternate" hreflang="x"

First, a giant caveat: we haven't actually done this, so it's all theoretical. It's not a particularly easy thing to test, and there aren't many situations where clients are ready to implement something so unproven. That said, here are the steps that we will surely be testing and recommending when we get the chance. As this is still on the fringe of what anyone's really done, I'd love to get your experiences in the comments.

Problem:

MyDomain.com wants to appear in regional search engines. They use international sub-domains and language-specific templates, with the vast majority of content not translated and appearing as a complete duplicate of the default English site. Only navigation links have been localized.

Proposed Solution:

  1. mydomain.com creates sub-domains for each of its language sites, e.g. es.mydomain.com, fr.mydomain.com, dk.mydomain.com, etc. Please note that folders could also work (e.g. mydomain.com/fr/). Requirement: create localized versions of site templates, so navigation links are in the appropriate language. Primary content can remain in English.
  2. Each international sub-domain is separately authenticated in GWT and geo-targeted to the appropriate country. (Note: this may be unnecessary, see below.)
  3. Each international sub-domain is given a rel canonical tag to the canonical www.mydomain.com USA site. (Note: this may make the GWT step unnecessary. Would need to test this prior to implementation.)
  4. Each international sub-domain is then given rel=alternate hreflang="x" tags in the HTML source code. For each "x" give the appropriate language URL. For example, www.mydomain.com would have these tags (and possibly more, depending on how many language templates existed):

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang="es" href="http://es.mydomain.com/" />

    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang="fr" href="http://fr.mydomain.com/" />

What this is supposed to accomplish: link metrics are consolidated to the canonical (www) version. However, region-specific versions of the sites will appear in search results for that region. This way we accomplish the goal mydomain.com has of targeting specific regions in search, while avoiding potential filters or penalties associated with duplicate content. Plus, they get the benefits of regional targeting without doing much heavy lifting in terms of development costs.

Obviously, Bing doesn't support this approach, so we'd need another strategy there (possibly just rolling up the language versions to mydomain.com with their Web Tools console).

Thoughts out there? Are we crazy?

UPDATE: Google has announced support for hreflang within XML sitemaps, which is a superior method to implement this annotation. Hurray! Go here for the skinny: http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2620865

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