This month Google launched an interesting new change to the way it handles hreflang mark-up for international landing pages.
When Google launched this mark-up back in December 2011, it was a real turning point for multinational SEO. Despite the initial confusion around it's use, successful implementation significantly improved the handling and performance of multi-regional websites with substantially the same content.
Until this month, however, one piece of the puzzle was still missing. Let's presume we have a global version of a site, which also has versions localised to the UK, US and Canada. How could you be sure that Google would present this global version to users coming from, say Australia?
Well, we couldn't. It was simply a case of hoping Google would use it's best judgement to present this version to users for whom there was no localised content. Depending on factors such as traffic and the number of links pointing at these localised versions, in many cases these would often be presented over and above the global version, resulting in a poor user experience and essentially high bounce rates.
Google's recent update to the hreflang coding standard, interestingly also supported by Yandex, solves this exact problem. It ensures users in countries that do not have localised content, are sent to a site's “default” version or page.
<link rel="alternate" href="http://uk.example.com/en" hreflang="en-uk"/> <link rel="alternate" href="http://us.example.com/en" hreflang="en-us"/> <link rel="alternate" href="http://ca.example.com/en" hreflang="en-ca"/> <link rel="alternate" href="http://example.com/en" hreflang="x-default"/>
One scenario which Google doesn't mention in it's Webmaster Tools Blog post is that many multinational sites may want to make a localised version of their site the default version too. For example, a company may want to localise their site to the US, but also make this the default version for any users coming from Australia.
Do they localise to the US and/or chose the US as the default?
Well, according to Google's guidelines, by setting the US as default, the US pages would be returned for any US searchers anyway, because its the default. So essentially, in this case, there's no need to localise.
Given this change was only introduced a matter of weeks ago, concrete results are still to be seen, but it will be interesting to observe the impact this update has on multinational sites.
Have you tried the x-default hreflang mark-up? Stumbled across any obstacles? Let us know about your experiences.