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Problem

Last monday we changed our german only site from using wordpress to our own multi-lingual rails app. Since then our rankings dropped dramatically. I would like to know if the the recent losses in rankings have something to do with the way we redirect users based on their header (HTTP_ACCEPT_LANGUAGE).

Before we had just a german blog type site using the root / as a list of articles. The root now redirects with a 302 to either /en or /de based on the accept language header.

Switch site structure approach

When we switched, all urls got redirected with 301 to the new url structure. Webmaster tools of google didn't show us any important 404s since then.

Another approach we have been using is that the language code - for example the "en" in domain.com/en/random - only sets the language of the interface but not the content. So it is possible for the user to browse german content with an english interface.

Details

What we do is, we tag the html element with the language code of the interface for example:

<html lang="de">

and the article content with another:

<article lang="en"></article>

When you browse a german article with the english interface for example http://www.kenhub.com/en/library/pathology/das-osteosarkom we add this to the head:

<link href="http://www.kenhub.com/de/library/pathologie/das-osteosarkom" rel="canonical">

browsing a german article with the german interface adds:

<link href="/en/library/pathology/das-osteosarkom" hreflang="en" rel="alternate">

Questions:

  • is redirect based on HTTP_ACCEPT_LANGUAGE an acceptable method? does it affect seo?
  • Is following the canonical/alternate approach advisable for content in one language but different language UI?
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I have no hard proof but I would guess that since the site no longer contains German only that google.de doesn't consider it as relevant to German queries anymore. –  toomanyairmiles May 1 '12 at 12:59
    
Did your rankings drop across the board or just on some main keywords? If it's just some main keywords what URL was ranking for these keywords? –  Joshak May 1 '12 at 13:34
    
Rankings dropped for all keywords. We have lost about 70% visitors from search engines. So I doubt it has something to do with the penguin google update. –  NielsH May 1 '12 at 14:44
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1 Answer

It's hard to say without taking a deep dive into your analytics and other data, but here's where I would start looking to pinpoint the problem.

  1. It's typical to see a slight drop in long tail when you move a site and redirect. This is because Google is indexing the new pages and updating accordingly. Additionally 301's are best practice if you have to move a page/site but they are not as good as not moving the page/site so sometimes it takes a little work to get those ranks back.

  2. The home page is probably where you're seeing most of the loss. It is typically the most linked page on the site, and is the page that ranks highest for big traffic keywords.

I'd recommend taking a look at your ranking history (if you've been keeping track) and see what URL was ranking for the keywords that lost you the most traffic (my guess is you'll find the home page was ranking for a lot of keywords that it no longer ranks for and that other only fluctuate slightly).

I'd also look at your top entrance pages based on SE Organic traffic, if traffic to the home page has not dropped then look elsewhere if traffic to the home page dropped off dramatically then that is where you'll want to start working things out.

The 302 redirect for the home page obviously throws up a red flag (but is not necessarily the main or only problem). You may want to look at alternative ways to accomplish this (A static page allowing the user to select which country is very common, or perhaps if German is most important, default to the German with a link to switch to English).

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