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We have a website that serves content for New Zealand and most of the world. The same content is picked up by another subsidiary website and served to the UK, with our permission.

We would like Google to see the NZ website to be the primary site for most of the world, and most importantly for New Zealanders. However, only in the UK, we would like Google to see the UK site as primary.

I believe I understand the correct way to use hreflang in this scenario. We would set up an hreflang=en or hreflang=x-default for the primary site, and an hreflang=en-gb just for the UK site (and obviously take care to get all the technical details correct, such as having both hreflang tags on both sites, using absolute URLs, having self-referential canonical tags, etc).

My question is not about the theoretical rightness of that solution (although please correct me if it's not right), but about how well it will work in practice. Specifically, we're worried that many New Zealanders will set their browser and/or Google language settings to "en-gb", just because it's often the default, and most people can't be bothered to set these things up perfectly.

Does Google pay attention to those settings when deciding which hreflang alternative to show? Will a lot of New Zealanders end up getting shown the UK version of the site?

  • Independently of how well it works, always assume that users can come to the wrong version, and display a subtle banner when you suspect that might be the case ("Looks like you're from the UK; check out the UK page for local prices & shipping" or the like). – John Mueller Aug 2 '17 at 8:50
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We would set up an hreflang="en" or hreflang="x-default" for the primary site, and an hreflang=en-uk just for the UK site

Couple of corrections here.

  1. For the global English content hreflang="en" would be correct, not hreflang="x-default". The latter is reserved for language selectors and conditionally redirecting pages, per Google's hreflang specification:

For language/country selectors or auto-redirecting homepages, you should add an annotation for the hreflang value "x-default"

  1. The correct attribute value for the UK is en-gb, not en-uk.

As the for the other part of your question, you're quite right that browser language is often wrong (although in my analyses, it tends to default to en-us rather than en-uk).

That should not be an issue for hreflang. Primarily Google is using hreflang to target content to its regional search engines, e.g., google.co.uk, google.ca, etc.

They push users to those sites based on IP addresses, not browser language, so it's usually correct. Once on those sites, the user's browser language will come into play (e.g., if I visit google.es it'll default to English language and give me the option to search in Spanish).

Note that hreflang is only supported by Google and Yandex. For Bing and everything else, use at least the lang attribute on the opening <html> tag, and ideally the Content-Language HTTP header too. Both use the same ISO language and country code standards as hreflang.

  • Oops, I totally meant to get "en-gb" correct when I wrote this post, as I'd seen that exact mistake mentioned in some top-ten lists. Somehow I got that right in my title but not the body... I've edited my question to correct it. Thanks for the answer and the corrections -- very helpful. – bryhoyt Jul 27 '17 at 21:04
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If I understand correctly you want your NZ site to be primarily aimed at NZ users, but wish to share some of the content for the UK too.

Firstly, hreflang is used in links to specify what the intended target audience is, just for that link, and comes in handy when you wish to references similar info intended for different audiences. You could setup specific pages of UK content on your website and refer to them using links with hreflang="en-gb" but that's not really appropriate if you are looking to replicate much or most of the content for the UK market.

https://www.semrush.com/blog/7-common-hreflang-mistakes-and-how-to-fix-them/

What you're talking about is more regionalisation of a website which is determined by the lang="en-nz" reference in the head link as in.

<html lang="en-nz" prefix="og: http://ogp.me/ns#">

Google's localisation is pretty smart and uses a large range of indicators, such as the use of the correct country code, in conjunction with localised content, will influence Google positively in local rankings.

https://moz.com/local-search-ranking-factors

Now, as you can't control a user's browser settings, all you can do is focus on serving content which is identified for the appropriate audience. I'm not sure that's going to make that much difference anyway. Google's localisation tends to be a lot smarter than that. Where people's social media accounts and local data, their regional IP address when searching, will more influence what they see than how they set their browser's regional settings.

How would I set it up best for my intended audience and SEO purposes?

Depending on how much of the content would be sharable on the UK site, I'd either keep the .nz site for localised NZ content and use RSS feeds to populate a separate .uk site with localised UK content, or, if you are sharing all or almost all of the content from the same site, then consider providing that content via two separate domains from the same site.

  • Language and country ISO codes should be separated with a hyphen, not underscore (both the hreflang spec and HTML spec for lang attribute follow BCP47 ietf.org/rfc/bcp/bcp47.txt, see Section 2.1: Syntax). – GDav Jul 27 '17 at 13:03
  • Yeah thanks @GDav, edited. That's what you get late at night when you're tired :-) – garth Jul 28 '17 at 13:48

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