Google SEO & Search Engine Marketing Services

Consolidating Link Signals? International Link Building Just Got Easier, Maybe.

International SEO has always been a little tricky, mainly because historically Google has done such bad job of displaying the right pages in the right locations. So trying to get your websites indexed, ranking and being served to the right people in the right place can be somewhat of a chore.

Best practices for making international SEO work are usually along the lines of either:

> Register the right TLD’s (.com, .co.uk, .ie etc….)

or

> Create the appropriate sub folders on your domain and geo target them through webmaster tools.

This works, however there has never been any solid advice for dealing with duplicate content/products etc….

Back in September 2010 Google released a post talking about unifying multilingual templates through use of the “hreflang=” tag, this got very little coverage and more information was published in Dec 2011 putting more emphasis on the new markup.

It seems Google have done SEO’s everywhere a massive favour with the new tag but let’s briefly look at how we implement this:

Implementation

OK, let’s say we have a website in the UK, US, Ireland and Canada. All have the same content apart from a few minor differences in description and currency.

- www.example.com
- www.example.co.uk
- www.example.ie
- www.example.ca

Now you may think that Google won’t dish out any penalties for all the duplicate content, as it can easily understand all these are targeted at different markets, and therefore separate websites? You’d be wrong, in the past 6 months we have seen major brands penalised because Google seems to get confused between .ie & .co.uk, or .com and .co.uk etc…. For whatever reason Google doesn’t handle it very well, one client even lost their major rankings for nearly 2 weeks until a fix was added.

So Google now wants us to implement the following on international sites:

1) Choose the preferred domain or language

2) Add the canonical tag to all versions of your site, all pointing to the domain with the preferred language

e.g.

canonical example

3) Add the “hreflang=” tag to all pages on the canonical domain to let Google know which domain is preferred based on their location.

e.g.

hreflang example

Google now knows that the .com is your master or default website and the other variations in URL are to be served only if the user is searching in that location. The above is based on English based websites but this new markup applies across all languages and locations, so your master website may be in English but you can set the “hreflang” to show a Spanish, French or German URL where appropriate to do so.

If you have multilingual content my advice would be to implement this sooner rather than later, we have already seen multiple websites hurt by not applying this earlier.

It’s also worth pointing out at this point that you can use the “hreflang” to consolidate pages on the same domain as well as cross domain:

File Example

Consolidating Signals

So that’s the technical elements out of the way, however after reading Google’s article I couldn’t get the below sentence out of my mind.

“By specifying these alternate URLs, our goal is to be able to consolidate signals for these pages, and to serve the appropriate URL to users in search. Alternative URLs can be on the same site or on another domain”

We already know that a canonical acts like a 301 redirect, well in terms of how it passes authority to another page, so does this mean you can have multiple domains for each country you operate in, but only build links to one of them?

In the above example, if you build links to the .ie page, it will only be passing its authority back to the .com domain? So why not just link back to the .com domain right from the outset?

Google themselves have stated that they are looking to consolidate signals, why wouldn’t this work?

I guess the only doubt in my mind is relevance, surely to rank well in a particular country you need links from that country? A site in English is rarely going to attract links from French domains, unless it has some international appeal…

Maybe Google is presuming a good result in country A has to be a good result in country B. Certainly from what we’re seeing, it seems as though international link building just got easier.

Would be good to know everyone’s thoughts on this, specifically on how it could affect link building.

Line Break

Author: Tim (296 Articles)

is the owner and editor of SEO wizz and has been involved in the search engine marketing industry for over 9 years. He has worked with multiple businesses across many verticals, creating and implementing search marketing strategies for companies in the UK, US and across Europe. Tim is also the Director of Search at Branded3, a Digital Marketing & SEO Agency based in the UK.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Dirk Ignoul February 7, 2012 at 12:57 am

Thanks !!! Before i didn’t understand how to use it, now i do :)

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netzaffin February 7, 2012 at 9:35 am

Yep they are great. I’m using it for a good year on our companies platforms and get great improvements.

Who is running websites without canonical today should think on what they’re doing. Who is running international websites without alternate should think on what they’re doing.

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Kieran Flanagan February 9, 2012 at 7:23 am

hey TIm

Can you just confirm a few points on the above:

1. Have you actually seen a site drop rankings because it created regional copies of it’s site, e.g. a US based site creating a site for .de and .fr or something along those lines? Or do you mean when the site was a .com and built a duplicate copy of it’s site for other english speaking countries e.g. example.com was copy and pasted to example.co.uk.

2. Have you seen a site pick up in rankings when implementing the above across different regions. Your last point seems to indicate you have seen a lift in ranks for a site that has different versions across a number of countries because Google is basing the rankings of those different versions against the performance of the core site.

Really interesting if it is doing either or both of the above. I would be really suprised if you could rank in .ie based on the performance of your .com, even if that was set up as .com and .com/ie

Thanks

Kieran

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Tim February 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Hi Kieran,

The example I was referring to in this post was a co.uk and .ie site. Both lost rankings and the .ie started appearing in the UK results.

After implementation of the hreflang, all rankings shot up and the site was restored to it’s previous traffic levels. So duplicating copy across English sites can result in a penalty.

This wouldn’t be the case if there were two sites in different languages, however the way the new markup is structured and Googles comments, seems to indicate a consolidation in signals. So bringing to sites together means all benefit eventually passes to the master site, this has to have an overall impact on authority.

It would certainly change the way I structured the link building.

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Greg February 9, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Hey Tim,

Do you have any examples of it being implemented successfully? I don’t see any larger websites/brands using this really.

Greg

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Tim February 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Sorry Greg, I do have an example but it’s a client so can’t go into detail.

See response to Kieran above for more info.

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Kieran Flanagan February 9, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Hey TIm

Sorry, when I said .fr or .de I thought the site may only be partly translated or something.

Interesting (good to see you in the Irish marketing ;)). That’s really interesting the .ie site started to appear in the rankings. When you say it appeared in the rankings. Did it appear where the .co.uk used to rank, or do you mean Google started to surface those pages in the SERP’s, but a lot lower down than the .co.uk results. I would be surprised if .ie pages ranked well in .co.uk..

Thanks

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Tim February 9, 2012 at 4:45 pm

All rankings dropped in Google UK, completely killed. However, when searching the brand name the .ie site was appearing in the UK SERP’s.

It was like a major penalty but for no real reason, very strange but the hreflang worked a treat.

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Kieran Flanagan February 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Thanks Tim, really interesting user case of this. Something I am def going to look at.

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Ben Rush February 13, 2012 at 11:16 pm

In case anyone is looking for a live example on a big international site then check out http://www.booking.com.

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Tim February 14, 2012 at 1:32 am

:) Thanks Ben

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Rob Barham February 23, 2012 at 8:45 am

but Booking.com is still using meta keywords :)

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Tim March 1, 2012 at 7:54 am

They just keep forgetting to remove them in their quarterly updates :)

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Greg February 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Ben,

Any ideas when it was implemented and what impact it had?

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Ben Rush February 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Not sure unfortunately Greg.

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iDCx February 16, 2012 at 7:35 am

sub folder gathers age sure – sub domains can be hosted in the Geo territory of the GEO target… thus i like sub domains on the client/ target site.

Off Page wise – step one – find some Directories in the Mother tongue Lang and TLD. hit these and start looking for the on way. but Directories can kick it off –

i guess sub folders would maintain the target domains juice, so making it easier – hence i see your logic in suggesting this for the purposes of the article here.

Nice read – sums it up well!

No cloaking to IP address then?! ;-)

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Tim February 20, 2012 at 10:48 am

No no, don’t mess with the big G :)

I have seen a few disasters trying to send Google to different destinations, not good when you get hit and you can never recover. They really don’t like it :(

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Crispy February 26, 2012 at 11:29 pm

So I know what I show below is also a 2010 article from Google but what Google states there is almost counter to what you’re experiencing with duplicate content.

http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2010/03/working-with-multi-regional-websites.html

“Dealing with duplicate content on global websites

Websites that provide content for different regions and in different languages sometimes create content that is the same or similar but available on different URLs. This is generally not a problem as long as the content is for different users in different countries.”

I’m quite interested in this because I’m on the verge of launching a US .com with dup content (with minor changes/currencies) on .uk and .ca servers respectively for th0se countries. While Google claims they won’t penalize you, you believe they have in your case. Are there an other possible recent changes that could have contributed to the drop in your uk site that might have been previously overlooked?

I’m going the route with different ccTLDs because many consumers for instance in Canada won’t click on a .com because of many .com’s having no Canada shipping options. Same thing for .uk. I also want the .ca and .uk sites to retain their own link juice separate of the .com’s so they need to rank for their locales.

Any additional words of wisdom would be much appreciated.

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Tim March 1, 2012 at 7:54 am

Hi There,

I know Google says they won’t penalise, however in this clients case the .ie and .co.uk were duplicate and therefore Google were getting confused. We had this confirmed by a very high up source at Google (I can’t name him as I might need his advice again in the future :) ) after we implemented the above the penalty was removed and all rankings returned, within 2 weeks.

If you are launching a duplicate US site my advice would be to canonical link it to the UK and use the hreflang to ensure it is displayed to US searches.

We’ve rolled this out on multiple sites now all showing great results.

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erik March 14, 2012 at 6:17 am

Hi Tim,

how does History and Linkbuilding factor in all of this?

we have a great .com.au site ranking top 10 on most of our desired keywords.
This has a lot of links from Australian pages and is very relevant.

As we don’t own the .com domain and the owner does not want to sell we decided to create a duplicate site for the New Zealand market as we sell there as well.

So 2 months ago we launced a duplicate .co.nz of this website in New Zealand with the Hreflang tag. And our website is showing up as .co.nz but nowhere near as high as in Australia.

is this because there is no History to this domain or is this because we need to do significant Link building in New Zealand to get our rankings up?

The weird thing is Google Webmaster tools is not helping at all. It is showing all our New Zealand links linking to our .co.nz as links to our .com.au. Eg 20 links of our New Zealand links are pointing at our Australian site while 0 links point to our New Zealand site, according to Google Webmasters tools.

what am I doing wrong. (www.clickhome.com.au vs http://www.clickhome.co.nz)

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Tim March 18, 2012 at 4:21 am

Hi Erik,

First thing I would ask is, does the co.nz canonical link back to the .au site? If not that is the first thing to address. (There was a data base error when I tried loading the .nz site)

If may be that you have to do some quality link building in order to see the same types of success, however the canonical should help to consolidate the signals of each site.

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erik March 18, 2012 at 6:55 am

Hi Tim,

we were doing some maintenance on the server today.

Every page has a canonical link.

to its designated page on the australian domain.

what I don’t understand is why Google webmaster tools is designating the links to our nz domain to our .com.au domain. About 20 links we have from .co.nz pages linking to our .co.nz are showing according to google at our .com.au. while our .nz page has no links according to webmaster tools. Also I’m seeing absolutely no search hits on webmaster tools on co.nz while I know that we are being found sometimes in NZ (PIWIK is showing some hits).

Have you had any experience with Webmaster tools getting confused by using multiple country domains this way?

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Tim March 25, 2012 at 6:27 am

Hey, Erik

I checked it and couldn’t see a canonical to each page?? Am I missing something?

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Erik March 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Hi Tim,

it should definitely be there.

there is a link href=”http://www.clickhome.com.au/XXXXX” rel=”canonical

on every page.

Yami Gautam August 27, 2012 at 1:03 am

Hi Tim, Really this is very informative data you have shared. Actually, I have no idea before on this topic and your post give me some idea over this matter. Hope you will continue this type of post in the future.

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Tim November 2, 2012 at 7:12 am

Is this thing still works for internal pages on one domain? Google will not punish for this gray hat technique? If I want to consolidate link juice from several product categories, is it possible to change the category description on them to one text for all and then use canonical to one page with same text?

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Tim November 5, 2012 at 2:54 am

Hi Tim,

Yes that should work fine and isn’t black/grey hat. The other option would be to 301 redirect, unless you want to leave the user experience as it is.

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Frances Leyland February 3, 2013 at 4:34 am

Hi Tim

I came across your helpful article a year after you wrote it while researching for how to implement hreflang.

And I just wanted to point out that Google no longer seems to be recommending the use of the canonical tag as part of an international setup (though they say it may still be useful if there is duplicate content within a language or country version).

Would you follow this advice or do you still think the canonical tag can be useful in international setups when using hreflang?

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Tim February 4, 2013 at 2:38 am

Sorry Frances, this article needs updating, as you say, there is no need to use the canonical any more, unless the content is an exact duplicate.

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Frances Leyland February 3, 2013 at 4:35 am

And I forgot the link to the source of the Google advice. It’s:
https://sites.google.com/site/webmasterhelpforum/en/faq-internationalisation#q20

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Andrew Newey April 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm

Tim, information is good mate – thanks for sharing. I notice you mention in a recent discussion that canonical is not required anymore so I’ll implement everything but that.

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Mark June 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Hi Tim,

Quick question based on the above.

As an example, if I started out with a .ie site, targeted specifically at Irish customers.

I then setup a .co.uk site targeted specially at U.K customers, and the site was essentially a copy of the Irish site, how would I setup the canonicals for it? Is HREFLANG still a viable approach?

Cheers,

Mark

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Tim August 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Hi Mark,

Sorry for the delay. Things have changed a little, you no longer need to add the canonical, the hreflang should now take care of the duplication issues as well.

Reply

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