8 Most Common Hreflang Mistakes & How to Fix Them

Are you looking to expand your business globally? Your current SEO practices might be doing well domestically, but using the same techniques does not necessarily translate into an international success. To provide the ultimate user experience for multilingual and multinational audiences and rank internationally – you need proper hreflang tags.

Hreflang is a simple HTML attribute, and the concept of the hreflang tag itself is pretty straightforward. Nonetheless, accurately implementing hreflang tags on your website is a whole different story, and even the tiniest mistake can cost you a great deal. Thus, it remains a struggle for even the most advanced SEOs and webmasters regarding international SEO strategies.

Luckily, we’re here to help you keep an eye on the 8 most common hreflang mistakes and errors to avoid the usual pitfalls when implementing hreflang tags on your multi-lingual website. Ready to conquer the world?

What Are Hreflang Tags?

Hreflang is an HTML attribute used to specify a web page’s language and geographical targeting – a technical SEO solution for sites with content in multiple languages. For example, when you have both Spanish and English versions of a page.

Delivering the right hreflang tag helps Google and other search engines understand which language you are using on a specific page and serve up the correct version of a page to the users searching in that language. In other words, the hreflang attribute enables a search engine to deliver localized results specific to the users’ geographic location and preferred language to offer them the best user experience.

Why Are Hreflang Tags Important for International SEO?

Search engines use hreflang tags to determine which URL to show in search results, depending on the user’s language and region preference. By using the right hreflang tag, SEOs can ensure that the search result is delivered in the native or preferred language of the user. Catering to the native tongue and culture of search engine users improves user experience and thus leads to fewer people bouncing back to the search results.

For enterprise businesses that stretch across countries and cultures, providing content in the target audience’s desired language is a must. Proper use of hreflang tags is essential for websites that provide content in multiple languages because implementing the correct language designation can be the difference between a successful and a failed SEO strategy.

In short, hreflang tags help you:

  • Reach potential customers in different regions and countries
  • Serve the correct content to visitors based on their location and preferred language
  • Avoid duplicate content
  • Provide a good user experience on multilingual websites, thus improving user engagement and increasing conversion rates.

When Hreflang Goes Wrong

You need to create website content suited to your visitors’ local context to increase your chances of success when launching into new territories. Unfortunately, even the slightest error during hreflang implementation can cause severe SEO damage, potentially resulting in:

  • Lower organic search visibility
  • Lower conversion rate
  • Lower click-through rate
  • Website authority
  • Duplicate content issues

The 8 Most Common Hreflang Errors & How to Fix Them In No Time

Hreflang isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, yet there seems to be a lot of confusion around hreflang tags as many webmasters struggle to implement them correctly.

Hreflang tags provide the functionality for web pages to offer the best user experience to a global audience. On the other hand, hreflang mistakes can negatively affect a brand’s international targeting and rank within search results. So, ensuring the correct implementation of hreflang is necessary when reaching a global audience.

Worry not because we’re here to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. To get the most out of the hreflang attribute and win over your target audience, you need to avoid these 8 most common hreflang pitfalls:

1. Wrong Country/Language Codes: “HTML Lang Attribute Invalid”

This issue reports that the URL of a page has defined the language/region attribute using HTML lang but that either the language or the geography code is invalid (or both). To be successfully recognized by the search engine, the attribute value must adhere to certain criteria. For example:

  • The language code must be in ISO 639-1 format
  • The region/country code must be in ISO 3166-1 format
  • Hyphens must separate the language and region codes
  • The region code cannot be used on its own (unlike the language code)

If HTML lang does not follow these formats, search engines won’t be able to recognize and adequately rank international sites. If you encounter this error, make necessary edits to the HTML lang tag on all reported pages. Always make sure all language and country/region codes are correct during initial implementation to ensure you have the right version.

2. “Hreflang and HTML lang mismatch” Declarations

If a URL uses both hreflang and HTML lang, yet the values do not match, it means a mistake has been made with either the hreflang annotation, HTML lang, or both. This may result in the incorrect page being served in localized search results. 

In this case, you should change the language code in either the HTML lang tag or in the hreflang annotation in the reported pages to match them. You may need to manually inspect the page content to understand which one is incorrect.

3. Invalid Hreflang URLs: “Hreflang to redirect or broken page” Error

This is one of the most common mistakes that occur when implementing hreflang tags. In such instances, the returning HTTP status code reports an error (3xx, 4xx, 5xx), while the correct response would be 200. The way to approach fixing this common issue will depend on the reported status code:

  • 3XX code stands for a wrong redirection. If the redirection is unwanted, replace the hreflang URL with the direct link to the destination page to avoid any unnecessary redirection.
  • 4XX code usually stands for “not found” or “gone” URLs. It means that the page changed its location (404) or was removed (410). In this case, you can either restore the old URL or remove that URL from hreflang annotations in all language versions of the page. In the case of 429 code, reduce the crawling speed in your settings.
  • 5XX codes indicate a server error. It means your server may be misconfigured, overloaded, or generally slow. Server issues are more complex, so it’s best to have a developer or hosting provider deal with this problem.


4. Incorrect Canonical Tags: “Hreflang to non-canonical” Error

When using hreflang tags and canonical tags on your website, you have to be careful not to send contradictory signals to search engines. As both hreflang and canonical tags have similar functions, thinking that they serve the same function is a common misconception. However, using both will result in code errors as you will be confusing the search engine bots.

This common error comes up when URLs link back to a non-canonical URL from their hreflang annotations. Non-canonical URLs can be a duplicate piece of content or a canonical duplicate of another URL.

You can fix this issue by:

  • Replacing the non-canonical URL in hreflang annotations with its canonical URL
  • Turning the URL into a canonical one by adding a self-referencing canonical tag to the page

If you are using a canonical tag solution on your website, always ensure that URLs that have a canonical tag pointing to another URL do not receive hreflang annotations.

5. More Than One Page for the Same language In Hreflang

This issue lists pages referencing more than one URL for the same language (or language-location) in their hreflang annotations. Some people may specify more than one URL for the same Hreflang value. However, search engine bots can misinterpret or ignore them as they are confused about which page should be indexed when more than one URL is specified for the same language and country.

To fix this hreflang error, review all the pages listed in the report and eliminate any conflicting hreflang URLs. Make any necessary edits to their hreflang annotations to ensure that you use only one URL for a specific language and country in your hreflang attribute. 

6. Page Referenced for More Than One Language In Hreflang

Using URLs for more than one language in hreflang also creates contradicting instructions and confuses the search engines when crawling the page. One language version of a page must always be referenced for one single language only. To fix the problem, look for pages with references for two or more languages in hreflang annotations, then simply edit the hreflang annotations for only one language per page version.

However, this doesn’t limit you to referencing it for different locations – the key here is that it still uses one language. 

7. Use of Relative Instead of Absolute URLs

When implementing hreflang attributes, the simple mistake of using a relative rather than absolute hreflang link can cause more than enough trouble. Using relative URLs can cause issues such as code errors or the versions you want search engines to crawl end up not being crawled. 

All links listed in the hreflang tags must be absolute URLs and never relative URLs, which means they must contain full and accurate characters forming them. 

8. Missing Return Links/Return Tag Errors

These are URLs with missing return links (or ‘return tags’ in Google Search Console) from their alternate pages. Hreflang is reciprocal, so all alternate versions must confirm the relationship. It simply means that one or more of your pages does not have a reciprocal link back. These errors are usually caused by old or incomplete hreflang tags and an outdated hreflang XML sitemap.

When using hreflang tags, once page A links to page B, you must put a link of page A on page B so that they can link back to each other. To work correctly, Page A should use rel-alternate-hreflang annotation that connects to itself. To prevent making this mistake, you should always ensure that the code is consistent across every page.

Hreflang Your Way to Global SEO Success

Although expanding your business overseas can be a truly exciting opportunity, “conquering” a new territory also comes with new and unique challenges – the proper hreflang attribute implementation being one of them. Hreflang SEO is a powerful tool for ensuring that the different language versions of your content reach their intended audience when targeting an international crowd.

If you’ve realized that you’ve made a mistake in your hreflang implementation, use our guide to fix any errors and take care of your multilingual sites. Regularly audit your hreflang implementation to provide your international users with localized content in a language they can truly relate to and win over the global market in no time!

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