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Problem

I've been looking through questions on this forum (mostly old) but found conflicting information.

I have a bilingual website (Thai and English) with some pages having untranslated content (let's say in Thai). The only things that are different are the template and the article's author's name (in respective languages)... something like, https://www.example.com/th/untranslated-content/ and https://www.example.com/en/untranslated-content/.

hreflang

This Google article tells me that I should have hreflang pointing to one another.

Some example scenarios where indicating alternate pages is recommended:

  • If you keep the main content in a single language and translate only the template, such as the navigation and footer. Pages that feature user-generated content, like forums, typically do this.

So in the Thai version I'd have

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/en/untranslated-content/" />

and in the English version I'd have

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="th" href="https://www.example.com/th/untranslated-content/" />

canonical

That's all good. But then this article says that the two pages are considered duplicate:

Different language versions of a single page are considered duplicates only if the main content is in the same language (that is, if only the header, footer, and other non-critical text is translated, but the body remains the same, then the pages are considered to be duplicates).

I take it that this implies that I should have canonical URL in the English version pointing to the Thai version (and, Thai version pointing to itself).

Thai version:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/th/untranslated-content/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="https://www.example.com/en/untranslated-content/" />

English version:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/th/untranslated-content/" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="th" href="https://www.example.com/th/untranslated-content/" />

Interaction of the two

But then this article that I've seen cited quite a bit says that Google would have trouble with the English version, since canonical tells Google not to index it, but hreflang tells Google to index it... although having both canonical pointing to another page and hreflang is okay in mobile settings.

Is it okay to do this?

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If you don't translate the content, it is not appropriate to have both copies indexed. English users are not going to have a good user experience if they click from Google and encounter content they can't read.

Google says:

Translating only the boilerplate text of your pages while keeping the bulk of your content in a single language (as often happens on pages featuring user-generated content) can create a bad user experience if the same content appears multiple times in search results with various boilerplate languages.

Use robots.txt to block search engines from crawling automatically translated pages on your site. Automated translations don't always make sense and could be viewed as spam. More importantly, a poor or artificial-sounding translation can harm your site's perception.

You should:

  • Use <meta name="robots" content="noindex"> or robots.txt to prevent your English pages that contain Thai content from getting indexed.
  • (optional) Use <link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/th/untranslated-content/" /> on your English pages with Thai content. However, because these pages are partly translated, Google is not likely to honor the canonical tag.
  • Don't use hreflang. While Google's documentation for hreflang says that you can use it for cases in which only the template is translated, I wouldn't recommend doing so. Having hreflang pointing at a page that shouldn't be indexed isn't going to help anything and could confuse search engines in some situations.
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    Thanks for your answer! So you're saying that what's said here developers.google.com/search/docs/advanced/crawling/… (the part in the first quote in the question) is not accurate, right?
    – Art
    Sep 1 at 13:15
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    I updated the answer with a link and slightly different advice. Sep 1 at 13:28
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    Doing this, is there a way for me to tell Google to direct English-speaking users directly to /en version when they search? Initially I thought the point of having hreflang is so that Google would show /en instead of /th. True, the content is mostly in Thai, but at least they would be able to see writer's names and nav in English.
    – Art
    Sep 1 at 13:42
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    English users search almost exclusively for phrases in English. It is exceeding unlikely that your pages with Thai content would appear in the English search results anyway. If somebody that knows English does search for something in Thai, they probably also know Thai well enough that the Thai site would be fine. Sep 1 at 13:51
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    Our "untranslated content" has quite a lot of English in it as it happens ;) But I get your point. Thanks so much! Will wait a bit to see if other people say anything differently.
    – Art
    Sep 1 at 14:03

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