How to avoid duplicate content SEO punishment with hreflang

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When you intend to reach an international audience with your web presence, there are basically two ways to go about the task. One is to do a 1:1 translation of all your content into other languages. It is the seemingly less exhaustive process and makes sense only if the same content applies to all markets more or less without strong modifications. That could be the case for instructional content, for example. The other is to do an actual adaptation of your product content for each individual target language market individually, which requires a bit more work, and a native language writing staff to create the unique content. The advantage is, that the second option is an actual localization, with content directly relevant to individual markets, their unique requirements and nuances, written by people who are familiar with what matters to your customers and their culture.

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The first option, even though it creates clear comparability of your content offering, however creates an SEO dilemma: some search engines will then classify your different language sites as duplicates. According to a recent article in “Website Boosting”, one way to counteract this, is to use the hreflang attribute as suggested by Google. That way, your (for example) product.com, product.es and product.co.jp websites will no longer be treated as three duplicate sites competing with each other in search ranking, but one in different locales (working as landing pages) depending on who accesses it. Search engines will be informed about connected content and users can be pointed to a specific site depending on their browser's language settings. In that example, they also advise country top level domains as they signal a language preference to the customer. It is recommended however, to take such steps carefully and consult with experts on how to ensure that your website is out of risk with all common search engines.

The hreflang attribute (examples below) signal different locale versions of similar content URLs to the search engine, and are recommended also (aside from full 1:1 translations of your content) in case there are minimal differences between internationalized content pages, or if you have a case where your site is partially localized and you want to smooth out the experience for the user as much as possible. Using the attribute becomes especially relevant if you have multiple sites in the same language, but in different markets (serving .co.uk, .com.au and .au for example), or if you're working with Google's canonical attribute in combination with hreflang. Here's an example of applying the hrefllang attribute to signal two versions of your website for the Canadian market, one in French and one in English:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-ca" href="http://en.yoursite.ca" />  

\<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-ca" href="http://fr.yoursite.ca" />
When it comes to multilingual content, many shy away from going the extra mile in providing your customers with an authentic native language interaction. We argue that you should definitely prefer approaching customers in their language over assuming they speak enough English to use your product. In order to get there, a quick analysis of your product development process will reveal whether the localization segment of the product cycle can be smoothed out from a technical, financial or managerial angle. Usually, rolling out in more languages is less of a headache than it has to be. Watching out for technical set-ups of your website or app can save some additional trouble on the way to going global.