Search Engine Optimization for international websites has always been a complex subject. You will find a lot of tips online but should not implement every tip you hear. Take the time to verify the information you find online. While an expert may have written it, it doesn't always mean they're correct.
Case in point, Hubspot released a new ebook 50 SEO & Website Tips for the International Marketer. We're fans of Hubspot and our agency is an authorized Hubspot agency. However, this recent ebook gave a bad tip that could get SEO folks in trouble when optimizing their international sites. We questioned them on it via social and provided Google references – but didn't get much of a reaction that it was going to get corrected. As a result, we're writing this post to warn our readers.
The International SEO Tip
When using more than one top-level domain (TLD), Hubspot recommended using the cross domain canonical tag to point each of your international sites back to your core site. This is not a good tip and will actually hurt your SEO efforts. The rel=”canonical” tag is used to eliminate duplicate content issues from websites. It is used to tell Google the preferred version of a set of pages with highly similar content which you want Google to index and display in its SERP. SEO professionals advise that whenever a fix is possible for duplicate content do NOT implement canonical tags.
Here's the tip that Hubspot provided:
Cross-Domain Canonicals Are Not the Solution
Let's suppose I have 3 gTLDs for my international website – mysite.com, mysite.co.uk, and mysite.de. mysite.com and mysite.co.uk have similar content; mysite.de has the same content but in German language.
Let's implement what the ebook said. My main site is mysite.com. So I am going to put the canonical link as mysite.com in .co.uk and .de domains. When Googlebot reaches my .co.uk domain it follows the canonical link tag and indexes my .com domain.
If I do this, Google will never index my .co.uk and .de domains and these pages will never appear in regional Google searches! I will lose all the authority I built for my regional domains to the .com site!
Implementing hreflang is the Appropriate Solution
If you want to keep the regional websites and if you can build authority for each country code TLDs, do NOT use canonical tags. Google actually answered this question in their help Webmaster Central forum (Thanks to Anju Mohan). Google said “don't use canonical tag” if you want your multiregional websites to be indexed by Google. Google said use the rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” tag instead.
The rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” was introduced by Google specifically for international websites – multiregional and multilingual. It helps Google to display the correct version of your regional site to searchers. In the above scenario, I would implement hreflang tag as:
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" href="http://mysite.com/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href="http://mysite.co.uk/" /> <link rel="alternate" hreflang="de" href="http://mysite.de/" />
Add this set to the header of each of the regional pages and keep in mind that hreflang tag is page specific. Now if someone searches for my service in Google UK, it will show the correct language version of my website which is mysite.co.uk.