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Say you had a .com website which is currently not in English, and that you decide to both add English and make it the default language for the landing page.

Would there be any SEO impact ?

The current language would still be available (using a subdirectory URL structure) and referenced as an alternative in the landing header.

Basically, how would Google & co react when crawling a page it knows already as it discovers it suddenly changed to a different language ?

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That's really interesting question, Google generally consider it as some kind of mistake by webmaster and will lower the position of that page, for example when site is hacked by someone, Google generally re-crawl that page and then if they see other things other than original content, which they usually see from a long time whenever they re-crawl your webpages, then they might doubt on your site if they see sudden changes, and might be rank down your site for a moment, unless webmaster confirm such a changes. I don't know how Google will treat in your case, since it is you(not a hacker) who make such a kind of changes.

You can surely do it right way, and Google will understand that but it will take much longer time, plus it will rank down your position. I don't know how much time it will take to recover your position but you can wait for it if you're fine. Or you can try below two safe option.

  1. Place English language content in your subdirectory, and keep the original content as it is. I don't know what's the problem about that?

  2. Redirect your old webpages(other lang url) to subdirectory and keep that for a long time like 1-2 month, don't worry your position will recover in only 1 week or even in few days, since you changed only URL not a content. After Google recognize your new URL with same content and rank your pages again normally, then you can put your English content in your old URL, and then remove that 301 redirection.

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    1. No technical problem, but conceptually it feels right that the default/root url is in the most commonly shared language given the target audience – Nycen Mar 14 at 12:54
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    2. That seems like the right way to do it indeed, I’ll wait a bit to see if there are other opinions – Nycen Mar 14 at 12:55
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Basically, how would Google & co react when crawling a page it knows already as it discovers it suddenly changed to a different language ?

If you use hreflang meta tags with the correct syntax, after their detection, Googlebot will go to the specified links and, as usual, scan all language versions of the web page. Probably the same result will be when installing links hreflang site map.

Please note that each webpage of the language version must have a canonical meta link, meta link hreflang with a link to itself and optionally meta x-hreflang.

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