Tips From Semalt On How To Use Hreflang For A Multilingual Website 

Implementing the hreflang framework on a multilingual website usually requires web admins to factor in considerations, implementation, and interpretations to achieve the desired results. After Semrush was founded in 2017, about 75% of multilingual websites discovered that they had errors in their hreflang implementation. Five years later, it still seems like not much improvement has been made. 

In one of our pet projects, we discovered that several websites with hreflang implemented still had errors. We discovered localization and user issues that we could easily rectify. For example, on an Arabic website, we notice that it wasn't reading left to right. 

This is why Semalt has designed this article to show our clients and other web admins the different facets of a multilingual website. We will show you what to do during the planning phase, how to structure your hreflang, and how hreflang can be successfully implemented in your SEO strategy. 

Select Your Target Country And Plan The Site's Architecture

When planning to go international with your website, you need to decide on your target markets and how you are going to target them. We've done our best to help you with this process and have come up with four main ways you can rig your URL structure to reflect internationalization:

Using Different ccTLDs

Using different ccTLD domains is considered one of the best practices for targeting Russia and China specifically. 

International Subdomains

Using a gTLD domain and using targeted subdomains is another approach to this problem. CNN uses this practice quite well. On their website, CNN uses subdomains to differentiate between the U.K. and U.S. English sites. 

International Subdirectories

Using a single domain, typically gTLD, with a different language and content zones can be targeted using subdirectories. An example of an international website that does this will be BeatsByDre. Many times, this approach is the most used by developers. 

Parameter appending

Parameter appending is not a solution we recommend to our clients, but we do see it a lot. This is where the domain is appended with a? lang=de parameter or something similar. One of the reasons why we don't usually recommend this is because certain third-party tools usually flag the parameter hreflang as an error. That is because these third-party tools wouldn't recognize the"?" parameter strings. 

How To Structure Hreflang Tags And Targeting Users

Hreflang should always start with targeting the language but can also consist of variables. Some of the common variables you will find cover:
  • Extension: a single letter which is followed by additional subtags.
  • Language: "en", "es", "zh", or any other registered value. 
  • Region: UN M.49 codes or ISO 31166 codes.
  • Script: "Cyrl", "Latn", or any other ISO 15924 codes. 
  • Variants: such as "Latn", "guoyu", "Cyrl".
Tags must follow a certain format regardless of how targeted they are. The tag is:


If you plan on focusing on Chinese-speaking countries, you are most likely yo use {Language}-{script}-{region} rather than the most common interpretation, which is {language}-{region}. 

Language Tag

The ISO 639-1 classification list contains all the supported language codes. However, there are certain instances where the extended language tag {extlangtag} is used independently. 

Extended Language Tag

{Extlangtag} tags are subtags we use to specify selected languages that are closely linked with an existing primary language subtag. Here are some examples:
  • zh-yue: this indicates Cantonese Chinese
  • ar-afb: this represents Gulf Arabic
Extended language tags come from the ISO339-3 classification list. Within this classification list, you will also find en-eng classifications, which is the extension for English. That is why en-eng, when implemented, works as English for England. 


The script subtag comes from the list of ISO 15924 classification list and was introduced in RFC-46464. Note that only one script subtag can be used per hreflang tag. 

Examples of these include:
  • Uz-Latn: which represents Uzbek in the Latin script.
  • Zh-Hant: which represents Chinese in the traditional script.
  • Zh-Hans: which represents Chinese in the simplified script. 


The region code comes from an ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 list along with the language tag. One common mistake SEO experts make in this tag is attempting to target "BR" like the rest of the world when it's the country code for England or using "LA" as Los Angeles when it's Laos.


We use the variant subtag to indicate varying script and dialect variations. It is not covered by the region tag, language, or extended language tag. Unless you work in a niche or specialized areas, it is highly unlikely that you'll come across variant subtags. 


De-DE-1901: this is a variant indicating the German orthography dating from the 1901 reforms. 


We use extension subtags to extend the language tag as the name suggests. An example will be the extension tag "u." That specific tag has been registered by the Unicode Consortium to add information about the local behavior or the language. 

These tags are rarely ever used, so we hardly have to discuss them in detail. 

Other Hreflang Considerations When Targeting An International Market

Targeting languages or countries

Some of the common issues we see with hreflang implementation are that they are hardly ever made wholly following the business's goals and the objectives about the market they are designed to target. 

For example, when launching a Spanish website with the tag hreflang="es," you won't just be targeting Spain, but you will also provide a localized version for many other Spanish-speaking countries. This covers Latin America, the Caribbean as well as the Spanish population in the United States. 

If you plan on reaping the benefits of hreflang, it is important that it is implemented correctly. Doing so guarantees that your users are delivered contents that are easy to understand in their localized languages.

Failing to offer services and products relevant to their country can lead to a bad customer experience which will cause you to lose customers and end up with several bad reviews.

Have a website template that services the needs of a user's experience. 

Return tags 

If page x links to page Y through hreflang, then it is necessary that page B must link back to page X. if you fail to do this, your hreflang may be read incorrectly. 

Google's search console highlights these errors, so it is important that you set up profiles to cover each of your localized site versions. 

Absolute URLs

Absolute vs. relative URLs is something that has been argued for years. When it comes to hreflang annotations, we believe that there is no debate on the subject. These URLs need to be absolute when referenced in the href subtag.

Here are some key points to note when working to target international users:
  • Using IP redirects can break Google's Indexes which is something you do not want to happen. 
  • If you're using .com and you've implemented IP redirects, do not redirect your root domain to the main website. Google will use your hreflang and redirect users to the correct site. 
  • It would be best if you used only x-defaults to point to a language selector or the default page for international users. 

Implementing Hreflang For Your Multilingual Website

When implementing hreflang, you must consider your target audience in their region to see if they use Google as their dominant search engine. 

This begs the question, do all search engines support hreflang? 

The answer is no, not all search engines support hreflang. There haven't been many developments in hreflang support in recent times. 

Search engines perceive and understand hreflang differently; some recognize hreflang through both HTML and XML, while others understand it only through HTML. 

Sometimes, Google ignores certain hreflang errors.

If Google bots can work out a hreflang problem, it's common to see that error getting ignored. If Google can interpret the implementation, it will show the right content to users. 

John Muller says while this is true, leaving certain errors on your hreflang with the hope google understands and ignores it isn't exactly the smartest move. 


Semalt takes a great deal of time in ensuring every aspect of a site we build or manage is perfect. We have learned how to properly use and structure hreflang tags for multilingual websites, giving our clients with international reach better chances at ranking. Doing this helps your site achieve greater visibility, and it makes it easier to serve your target audience in each market.