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My publisher site uses a domain hack (not included in the ccTLDs treated as generic). I understand that Matt Cutts and Google have made statements on foreign ccTLDs trying to target other audiences:

If you have a .jp domain and are trying to target Finland, you are really going against a lot of expectations and conventions that people have on the net. So one thing to think about would be whether it would be possible to get a generic TLD and use that for other countries.

but, having talked to friends at G, I've been told to implement hreflang tags to 'circumvent the SEO detriments' to the extent that the search console can machine learn.

At the moment, I've added:

<link rel="alternate" href="https://examp.le/" hreflang="en-us">

and of course the homepage begins with <html lang="en-US"... but I'm wondering what else I should implement/ change? At the moment Webmaster Tools is not detecting anything. I only publish in English, so there are no alternate languages being represented. Running it through hreflang checkers, I've been instructed to also add:

<link rel="alternate" href="https://examp.le" hreflang="en" />

as a "default" language. Is x-default necessary?

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x-default used to be necessary but Google has since updated their guidelines and now only recommend x-default for pages that either:

  1. automatically redirect the user (based on IP address or browser settings) to the appropriate language/region page, or
  2. Are country/language chooser pages where the user selects their preferred lang and are taken to that version.

In your case, since the content is in English only, hreflang is useless. The lang attribute on the <html> tag is enough of a signal. Another thing that could help is having your web server in the country where your users are.

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