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International SEO Guide – Optimization with hreflang and Co.

If you want to target users across the globe, you need to create international versions of websites to appeal to your global audience. Then, you need to make sure that these international versions of your site perform well in Google for your potential users to find.

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With certain signals, you can direct search engine crawlers to target websites to specific countries or language groups. In this article, you will learn how to best optimize multiple-language websites and properly integrate the hreflang attribute.

International and Multi-Language Websites

International SEO is particularly important in e-commerce. If you operate a German-speaking online shop, search engines will primarily recommend it to German users in Germany. If, however, there are potential customers in Austria or in Switzerland, you are competing with companies in those locations. There, users will probably be more likely to click on domains in their own countries, that is .at or .ch.

First, however, you have to decide if you want to focus on customers who live in another location or who speak another language – or perhaps both. With the help of Geotargeting, you can show search engines which target group you want to target. The most important Geotargeting signal for Google's algorithm is the use of a top-level domain (ccTLDs). Websites that explicitly use the domain ending .ch are oriented more towards users in Switzerland than in other countries.

Google also names server location as an important GEO signal. Domestic hosting offers faster loading times and can thus indirectly contribute to a better ranking. With the note rel="alternate" hreflang="x" as well as an adjusted directory structure, you can give the correct language and/or region. In addition, you should establish your geographical goals in the Google Search Console. Google Business entries and inbound links are also relevant for country assignment in organic searches.

URL Structures for Multi-Language Websites

Before you begin to implement your international SEO measures, you should first define your target group and goals, because every project requires its own way of proceeding. A mammoth task lies ahead of you, because your website will have to be completely translated to another language and adjusted or localized to the foreign market with the help of Geotargeting.

In this case, build an international URL structure and, with the help of language tags, establish which language the respective subpages are targeting. Focus on high-quality content for your foreign language sites, since this creates the basis for good rankings in each region.

When you use hreflang attributes, you are signaling to Google that you have created an international website architecture for content in several language versions. In this way, the Googlebot can deliver the appropriate search results to each target group. If subpages are designed for the same language but for different geographical targets, the country code is complemented with a language indicator. In the example of a German website that is oriented toward Germany and Austria, the code can appear as follows.

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="de-DE"
href="http://samplepage.de/ " />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="de-AT"
href="http://samplepage.de/at" />

There are several possibilities for structuring URLs for multi-language sites. Among these are the code top-level domain (ccTLD), a subdomain, a subdirectory, a gTLD with language parameters, or a completely separate domain.


ccTLDs consist of a two-digit code that shows users and search machines what country a website is registered in. For example, Expedia uses a .com domain for its main page, and for Germany the top level domain .de.



Country-specific content is placed in subdomains. WordPress.com, for example, has given the German version a subdomain with the abbreviation de.



International content is placed in subdirectories or subfolders behind the root (root domain). Thus, for example, Spotify has established the subfolder /de for its German web presence.


Subdirectories with gTLD

For reasons of completeness, the gTLD version is listed. Google discourages this variation, because users cannot necessarily recognize geographical orientation using the URL. Moreover, the website is more difficult to subdivide. In the process, a top-level domain such as .de, .com, or .org is completed with a language parameter.


Other domains

The localized site receives another domain and is placed in another main directory.


In the following table, you will find potential URL structures for international sites and how search engines interpret them.

Example domain Target group Adjustment for country or language URL structure type
company.fr Those searching in France Country ccTLD
Fr.company.it and hreflang=fr tag French-language searching in Italy Country and language ccTLD + subdomain
Fr.company.com and hreflang=fr tag Worldwide searching in French Language Subdomain
company.com/?lang=fr hreflang Worldwide searching in French Language gTLD + language parameters
company.it All those searching in Italy Country ccTLD

A clear overview about all this different possibilities can be found here in the Google Search Console.

Establish Geographical Goals in the Google Search Console

Google and other search engines read the location information in the hreflang attribute in order to deliver search results in the desired language and country versions. In this way, you can ensure that users of Google.at are not shown the directory /de/, but rather the directory /at/. If your website contains country-specific subdomains (e.g. de.samplepage.com) or directories (www.samplepage.com/de/), you should set your geographical target in the Google Search Console. This does not go for sites in ccTLD structure, because the top-level domain ending indicates the geographical orientation.

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Figure 1: International orientation in the Google Search Console

Google support) also shows you how to use the hreflang attribute for the language or region URL of your website.

A further signal for search machines is a reference in an XML sitemap, which you can submit to Google. In the following example, different language versions are given.

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
<urlset xmlns=”http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9″
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de” href=”http://www.
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”de-ch href=”http://www.
<xhtml:link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en” href=”http://www.
samplepage.de/en/” />

Implementation of the hreflang Attribute

With the hreflang attribute, introduced in 2011, Google gives webmasters the opportunity to tag their internationally-oriented websites, so that content can be given according to region. For languages, ISO 639-1 codes are used; for countries, the abbreviation follows ISO 3166-1 alpha 2.

If you can answer the following questions with "Yes," you should use hreflang notations according to Google's recommendations.

  • Are the websites’ content identical or nearly identical?

  • Was only the website’s template translated?

  • Was the website fully translated?

  • Is there a main site for all visitors?

When using hreflang notation, it is essential to consider bi-directional linking. All equivalent content must be linked, and in both directions. Otherwise, the structure will be broken and invalid for Google.

You can create the hreflang markup with the help of a hreflang generator for your German-language websites.

Avoid Duplicate Content

Duplicate content creates a large problem for international sites. If, for example, a car rental company with a German top-level domain is also active in Switzerland and Austria, the sites can mutually "cannibalize" each other, that is, compete in the search results. For this reason, the company Hertz has different texts on many subpages. Even the site architecture differs according to country and language because of different local offerings.

In the example, there are three sections for the Swiss market on the subpage "Offerings": Current offerings, partner offerings, local offerings. For the market in the United Kingdom, there are two further sections: truck and transporter offerings as well as global offerings.

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Figure 2: Rental car offerings for Switzerland (3 sections) on hertz.ch

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Figure 3: Rental car offerings for the United Kingdom (5 sections)

You can solve the problem of duplicate content with a markup supported and recommended by Google, the rel="alternate" hreflang="x" link attribute. Tell the crawler what language your site was created in. The following code in the header shows Google that there is identical English content:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en"
href="http://samplepage.de/en" />

The To-Do list is pretty long when you want to internationalize a site. Not only do you have to translate the body content, but also the navigation buttons, the meta information of title and description, as well as image files and anchor and alt texts. This is also important for dates and calendars: for example, in Austria, January is Jänner. Adjust your content to the language and culture of your target group, including currency, time zone, and the spelling of contact data.

If a website is available via a central site in which all language versions are indicated – as with Global Players – the hreflang="x-default" can be used. In this way, each subpage in <head> per hreflang="x-default" will refer to this overview page.


If you know that a significant proportion of your website's visitors live in another country or speak another language, you should improve the user experience with the help of international SEO. If you properly implement the recommended measures, you increase your chances of appearing in foreign-language search results with the translated content.

The bounce rate can be substantially lowered and the stay time increased because users are shown the web content in the appropriate language on their first visit without having to filter out the appropriate language version from the search results. Ideally, the user will become a convert in this visit.

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Published on Jun 19, 2017 by Kathrin Schubert