Tackling SEO in your home country is one thing. International SEO targeting is another. With international SEO comes errors, and you need to know how to fix them.
Here’s how to debug international SEO issues. That way, your pages can rank on the right search engine results pages.
What We’ll Cover:
- Why Debugging International SEO Issues is Important
- 3 Methods to Debug International SEO Targeting Errors
- Bonus Tip for Fixing Bugs
Terms to Know
Before we get started, make sure you’re familiar with two terms:
What Are Hreflang Tags?
Google came out with hreflang tags in 2011. It was a way for web developers to differentiate geo-targeted pages for the search engine.
Why should you differentiate alternate pages for localized areas? It comes in handy when you serve diverse regions speaking different languages. In cases like this, incorporating hreflang tags lets you produce duplicate pages. These duplicate pages serve different translations to the end-user.
You can show hreflang tags in the following formats:
- HTML: <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”lang_code”… >
- HTTP headers: <url1>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”lang_code_1″, <url2>; rel=”alternate”; hreflang=”lang_code_2″, …
- Sitemaps: xmlns:xhtml=”http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml”
There are guidelines for hreflang tags, and any issues you may have could be an issue with one of these. These guidelines include:
- Language versions of the same page must list themselves and all other versions. Different pages have to point to each other.
- Developers must fully qualify alternate URLs, though they don’t need to have the same domain.
- You can list different versions of the same language. For example, you may want to differentiate between Australian vs. American English. Still, you need to identify a “catchall URL” for speakers of that language from a region you haven’t specified.
- You should add a “fallpage page” or a backup in case there is an unmatched language.
There are more guidelines for the different hreflang formats (HTML, HTTP headers, and sitemaps). Refer to Google Search Central for more about incorporating hreflang language codes.
What Are Canonical Tags?
Canonical tags are the brainchild of search engines united (AKA Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo). Canonicals allow you to merge duplicate URLs for search engines, according to Google.
Google Search Central says it best: “If you have a single page that’s accessible by multiple URLs, or different pages with similar content, […] Google sees these as duplicate versions of the same page. Google will choose one URL as the canonical version and crawl that, and all other URLs will be considered duplicate URLs and crawled less often.”
It’s important to specify which URL Google should consider the canonical page. Otherwise, the search engine’s algorithm (AKA Googlebot) will make that choice for you. To be clear, Google may sometimes pick a different one than you specified as your preference. It will do this if it thinks another page is better as the canonical.
A canonical page doesn’t need to be exactly the same as its duplicate pages. For example, it can have differences in filtering or domain URL.
What if Googlebot picks your canonical URL for you? In this case, Google chooses which URL it thinks is the most useful and complete resource for users. Google limits its crawling load on your site by prioritizing the canonical page. Google uses signals for usefulness like HTTP vs. HTTPS, URL inclusion in the sitemap, rel=canonical labeling, and more. (Google doesn’t like to spill all its secrets, of course.)
Why It’s Important to Debug International SEO Targeting Errors
Hreflang and canonical tag errors are super common. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.
What if you’re using an international SEO targeting strategy? You want to have the correct canonical and hreflang tags labeled for each country’s page.
This won’t impact your SERP ranking. However, hreflang and canonical tags are good identifiers. That’s why the Ignite team recommends debugging any canonical and hreflang issues you find.
While hreflang and canonical tags serve similar functions, they’re not the same thing. Messing with your URLs or coding can confuse Google, so you want to make sure you’re doing it right.
Debug International SEO Issues Using These 3 Methods
Here are three straightforward ways to debug those pesky international SEO targeting errors:
1. Make Sure Hreflang Tags Are In the Code, Not the Sitemap
If your hreflang tags are in the sitemap and not the code, switch it.
You could put hreflang tags in multiple places. However, many international SEO experts have had problems with implementing hreflang in sitemaps.
Google processes hreflang tags at the same time it crawls the page. This is true regardless of how you implement the tags. But putting hreflang in the site doesn’t mean Google will process those changes when you update the sitemap.
By putting hreflang in the code, you’re ensuring Google recrawls the page and updates the hreflang at the same time. This keeps your indexed content up to date.
The bigger, more global your company is and the more language pages you need to publish, the trickier hreflang gets. Do yourself a favor and make sure Google is up to date on all hreflang changes you make as the updates occur.
2. Use An International SEO Targeting Report to Debug Common Problems
Want to debug the most common problems? You can use the International Targeting report on Google Search Console.
The report has two sections:
- Language: Track hreflang tag usage and errors on your site.
- Country: You can set a country target that’s set for your entire site if you prefer.
Make sure Google has had time to crawl your pages. Then, visit the Language tab on the report to see if the site detects any errors.
How long does it take Google to crawl an updated page? Recrawling can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Check back regularly using Google Search Console. This lets you watch search results data for the pages you are focusing on.
If that’s not enough for you, there are also many third-party tools available. Google doesn’t maintain or check these tools, but they can still be useful resources. Here are two options:
1. Aleyda Solis’s hreflang Tags Generator Tool
Aleyda Solis is an international SEO professional. Solis created a neat hreflang Tags Generator Tool for others to use.
This tool is helpful for developers or international SEO leads. It allows them to generate or change hreflang tags. You can use it to generate hreflang annotations for your pages. It also helps make sure you’re following Google’s specifications.
The tool uses the “correct values and syntax following Google’s specifications, with ISO 639-1 for languages and ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 for countries.”
To use the tool, add the URLs you want to tag in the website form or upload a one-column CSV with up to 50 URLs.
2. Merkle’s SEO hreflang Tags Testing Tool
Technical SEO company Merkle has its own SEO hreflang Tags Testing Tool. (They also have a ton of other technical SEO tools at your beck and call). According to the website, “hreflang annotations can be hard to implement properly. This tool allows you to quickly check if hreflang tags for a page (HTML and HTTP headers), or in XML Sitemaps, are correct.”
This tool is helpful for validating hreflang tags on a single live page. You can fetch or upload URLs as needed and test them through the tool.
3. Resubmit Your Pages and Sitemap
You want to make sure that Google is indexing the latest version of your website. If you’re experiencing international SEO issues, resubmit your pages and sitemap to Google.
According to Google, “Doing so will help Google Search point users to the most appropriate version of your page by language or region.”
How do you resubmit your pages and sitemap to Google?
Start by signing in to Google Search Console. On the sidebar, go to your website. Hover over the index menu and click on sitemaps. Remove any old or outdated sitemaps and then enter a new one. Click submit and you’re ready!
You can also request a crawl and index for a specific URL. This is helpful if you’re focusing on updating a single page or just a few pages.
Learn how you can use a sitemap and other methods to tell Google about all the different languages and regional versions of your pages here.
Bonus: Add Country Codes to Titles
What if you cannot put proper canonical and hreflang tags cannot in place? It’s still recommended to have the country code in the title as an identifier. You can find a full list of country internet codes here.
It may also be a good idea to include the language in the title. Some countries speak many languages. For example, Morocco speaks French, Arabic, Spanish, and Berber. Belgium’s official languages include Dutch, French, and German. This can help clarify any confusion and better serve your end-users (which is Google’s goal, too).
Wrapping Up: Debug International SEO Errors ASAP
You know why international SEO issues can be such a burden on your search engine performance. Now you know a few ways to fix them, too.
Expanding your business to serve more people around the world is a big deal. The Ignite team wants you to succeed. These tips will help you deliver smooth, effective digital marketing. That way, you can serve your audience—wherever they may search from.