If we had our way, fixing duplicate content would be a simple fix. The fact of the matter is that it can be a long and complex minefield. In SEO, the originality and quality of your content has such an immense influence on your website’s authority, that overlooking this aspect can be detrimental to your efforts. Ultimately, the saying “If something seems too good to be true” comes to mind, it probably is. SEO is not easy to do and there no ‘magic wand’ for the issues you encounter along your journey.
Hreflang tags are one of those ‘too good to be true’ things, depending on how you intend to use them. They’re great – in fact, they probably save us more time than we can even put into words. The problem is that they are so heavily misunderstood, that they sometimes cause more headaches than not. There’s a common misconception that applying hreflang tags to your pages will let you avoid the disaster zone that comes with duplicated content, but this notion is far from the truth which brings us to this blog post. Time and time again, we are seeing the same issues with href lang tags and this year we have seen a lot!
This kind of tactic is usually seen in the efforts of business owners who own more than one version of a site and are looking to target different language codes and regions across the globe. These ‘multi-sites’ demand a lot of attention – suddenly you have several websites that need content, links and optimisation; the work adds up. So simply duplicating these websites (or pages), setting up the geographic target in search console and adding a short line of href lang code will allow Google to rank you in all those regions? Lol.. you must be dreamer. No offense but better to tell you now than lead you on false hope so you can watch your business burn.
Sadly, throwing in hreflang tags to try and take a shortcut isn’t the answer here. In this post, without getting technical at all (please reach out to us if needed) we’re going to walk through what you need to know about these tags, and what to avoid.
First thing’s first – what is duplicate content?
Let’s go back to basics for a minute. Whether you’re an SEO technician or a brand manager – chances are you’ve heard the basics around duplicate content. In the digital marketing space, this is essentially copying word-for-word text from one page or website site to another.
You must also realise that the kind of content you’re dealing with doesn’t make a difference. Be it a product description or a quote you copied from a blog post you read once – all of this (when published) is recognised as duplicated content. Images, videos and most elements you see on a page is classified as content, but we will get into detail about that in another post.
Moreover, it’s actually ranked as one of the top five SEO issues – and it’s one that will never disappear. To put it even more simply, Google’s Matt Cutts (yes, we are still referencing Matt Cutts) once said that 25-30% of the web is actually duplicate content. This was a post back in 2013, so imagine this result now! (someone please share some updated info if they find). So, we know exists – in mammoth amounts – but we need to do our best to not contribute to this number. However, Google doesn’t outright penalise sites for duplicating content. They deindex them usually, so still bad! Duplicating content is very highly discouraged as per Google guidelines, and you’ll often see that in their rolled out updates. Copied from another website all together? Well then that is plagarising and you might get a call from another business’ legal team!
What actually are hreflang tags?
In a nutshell, these tags carry the ability to cross-reference pages of similar content, from webmasters who are targeting different audiences.
For example, you might be a global brand like who is targeting Australia on a .com.au domain and targeting USA on a .com domain. Instead of producing individual content that’s 100% unique for each of these, a common technique in the SEO world is to pop in hreflang tags in the backend, to let Google know that these are different versions of the same page. A lot of the time, this has to do with the language used in the content. We can assume that the Australian version, in the below example, is targeting English speakers in the Australia, while USA is targeting English speakers there.
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-au” href=”http://www.example.com/au/” />
<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-us” href=”http://www.example.com/usa/” />
(also don’t forget to add the default/fall back page)
The webmaster of these pages would make use of hreflang tags by placing them on both. This then makes sure that Australian users would see the page targeting them in the search results, while people in Singapore would see their version. It also lets the webmaster use the same content, well not really.
The mistakes we see too often
If you decide to use hreflang tags, you have to be 100% sure you are using the correct codes for your country and language. Failing to do so means cross-reference fails, and the whole effort is wasted entirely. Above all, a majority of the controversy around these tags is the misconception that they can act as a quality fix for avoiding duplicate content issues. In fact, these tags don’t fix the issue at all. As mentioned earlier on in this post, if you think it is as simple as creating pages that look exactly the same, with the same content then you will be in for a rude awakening. Especially if you have a very good ranking website and then roll this out on many new pages.
When you add hreflangs on your site, they pop up in your search console (see coverage). While the search giant recognises these tags exist, and does understand them, this might indicate that the tags aren’t quite a reliable workaround for duplication. Beyond that, if you have two pages in a language that’s the same for two different regions – for example, Australia and USA – the content might be far too similar that Google recognises it as a straight-up duplication, especially both being in the same language. Adding in these tags won’t fix that either – something that’s extremely misunderstood.
If you’re a giant business with multi-sites targeting different regions, your digital marketing campaign should be agile and holistic. That means creating high-quality outreach profiles to each individual site, all in countries and languages that are specific to each target audience with those pages Above that, the content should be tailored and unique for each region; copycats don’t come out on top. Even if you are copying your own multi-sites.
What to do if you have duplicated content
If you’re one of the eggs that fall into the ‘duplicate content’ basket, then it’s in your best interests to solve these issues sooner than later. Chances are your Search Console is already nagging you to take action, but if not, we highly recommend having an expert, like us, to take a look at your site. We can assess how ‘at risk’ your website is, as well as the overall percentage ‘copied’ content that you currently have. If you’re looking into developing multi-sites, we’re also here to guide you navigate this confusing field.