Hreflang and Geo-Targeting – the Netflix Case Study

Someone  would ask, what is hreflang or what is geo-targeting and why should we care?
First of all, in brief, what is hreflang? It’s  a tag that helps us tell to Google – in case we have a multi-lingual/multi-regional site- which language version and in which country our site should appear on Google. In other words the right language version of our site should appear in the right ccTLD of Google.

What is geo-targeting? Since we have multi-lingual/multi-regional sites, then we want to deliver the right language version of the content of our site to the right audience, according to its geographic location.
Google Webmaster Tools, through geo-targeting, helps us deliver the localised version of our website’s content in the right audience.

The Netflix case study

Let’s just use as our case study Netflix as it has a global presence. And this example can grab your attention… obviously these case studies are not made to scold someone; they are interesting case studies that concern websites with massive traffic and it’s interesting to dissect such large  websites from an SEO perspective.
The URL parameter that is being used from Neflix website for viewers that come from the UK is this:
www.netflix.com/?locale=en-GB
No problem with the selection of this URL parameter (or not?).
For future reference thought, Netflix could have gone for a few other options:

  • www.netflix.co.uk (use of ccTLDs )
  • www.netflix.com/en/, www.netflix.com/fi/, www.netfix.com/de/ (use of subfolders/subdirectories – which would be my personal choice)
  • de.netflix.com ( use of subdomains)

For the use of ccTLDs, subfolders or subdomains, Google tells us that we are able to do geo-targeting.

The only way we are not able to do geo-targeting is with the use of the URL parameters.
So where’s the problem with geo-targeting here (using the URL parameters)?
The language versions of Netflix do not appear in the country-specific organic search results.

In other words the language versions of Netflix do not appear on the respective country domains of Google.

Why is this happening? – Reason (1)

Geotargeting
The localised versions of the generic TLDs of Netflix do not appear on the respective Google country domains on SEPRs, for 2 reasons:

1. Use of URL parameters: example: www.netflix.com/?locale=en-GB

Google Webmaster Tools geotargeting

  • Not possible to add the site and submit it on Google Webmaster Tools.

 

Why is this happening? – Reason (2)

hreflang

1. The hreflang for each language version does not seem to appear on the source code (of the homepage).

Source code-Netflix-hreflang

  • If the hreflang not placed within the source code, then it is not possible  for our Netflix localised page to appear on the SEPRs of the country code domain of Google.

Let’s just use as an example Netflix in Sweden, Finland and Norway, so that we prove the second problem related to the lack of the hreflang in the source code.
What we would like to see is to see for each ccTLD of Google the localised pages of Netflix.
So, ideally we want to see for:

  • Google Sweden, the Swedish language version of Netflix.
  • Google Finland, the Finish language version of Netflix.
  • Google Norway, the Norwegian version of Netflix.

Instead, what we see based on our examples:
Example:
Netflix in Sweden

Netflix Sweden
Example: Netflix in Norway

Netflix in Finland
Example: Netflix in Finland

Netflix in Norway

Impact on SERPs?

So, since we are using URL parameters (that do not allow us to do geo-targeting on Google Webmaster Tools), your next logical question would be: So, the local versions of Netflix are going to be indexed or not?
My response to that is that the localised versions of Netflix would still be indexed; there won’t be any problem on not being indexed.
Please bear in mind that there are cases of URL parameters, filters that are indexed. So, based on experience, yes these pages will be indexed.
But to eliminate any suspicion that the local pages of Netflix will not be indexed, let’s find it out with the use of a powerful search operator (inurl:):

Indexed localised version of  Netflix
That’s a relief, our local pages are indexed, but these two problems remain. How to resolve the hreflang issue on the source code and how to do geo-targeting (so that the right language versions appear in the right ccTLDs of Google)?

Solutions – Step by step process

Solution for the URL parameters and hreflang

Once the problem of URL parameters is sorted out, we will be able to work on our geo-targeting on Google Webmaster Tools.
How to resolve this issue of the URL parameters then? These are the steps and suggestions:

Step 1. Replacement of URL parameters, with one of these options:

  • ccTLDs – www.netflix.co.uk (301 redirections should be made, after this update)
  • Subfolders with gTLDs – www.netflix.com/uk/, www.netflix.com/fr/ etc (301 redirections should be made, after this update)
  • Subdomains – de.netflix.com, fr.netflix.com (301 redirections should be made, after this update)

For these 3 approaches, there are pros and cons but my personal favourite one is the second one (subfolders). Why? Few reasons: i. one host (which means that Netflix doesn’t have to keep multiple hosts for multiple locations), ii. unified link earning strategy, iii. Netflix maintains keywords rankings and doesn’t have to build from scratch link authority.
Step 2. * Creation of the respective hreflangs for the source code (in the homepage) – indicative list:
<link rel=“alternate” hreflang=‘’x-default” href=http://www.netflix.com/” />
<link rel=“alternate” hreflang=‘’en-gb” href=http://www.netflix.com/uk/” />
<link rel=“alternate” hreflang=‘’en-ca” href=http://www.netflix.com/ca/” />
<link rel=“alternate” hreflang=‘’fi-FI” href=http://www.netflix.com/fi/” />

Step 3. Add, submit and verify each website on Google Webmaster Tools and then make the geo-targeting for each location.

 

*Extra Tip:
It can be a quite troublesome task to prepare the hreflang (until you send it to your development team and implement it in the source code of your site.
There are a couple of (free) hreflang tools that can facilitate our work:

http://flang.dejanseo.com.au/ from Dejan Tools (it’s a testing tool that will help you see if there has been a proper implementation of the hreflang tag) , and
http://www.internationalseomap.com/hreflang-tags-generator/ from Aleyda Solis, where we can generate our own hreflang tags.

The ideal examples for geo-targeting and hreflangs

There are cases of rally large sites, that are properly using the hreflang tags and they successfully do geo-targeting. These case concern the American Express and Zara.

The ideal example (1) – americanexpress.com  

We want to find in the organic search results the language version of American Express in Canada on Google Canada.

American Express - Canada-Case Study for hreflang and geotargeting

 

The perfect example (2) – Zara.com

We would like to find the Greek language version of Zara.com on Google.gr

Zara Case Study - hreflang and geotargeting

In a nutshell

Before optimising a site (and starting its international SEO campaign), we need to take into consideration these factors:

1. Is the URL structure the right one for my site?
2. Have I taken into consideration the pros and cons for:

  • ccTLDs
  • subdomains
  • subfolders
  • URL parameters(e.g ?locale=en_UK)

• If we haven’t taken into consideration the pros and cons of the above, we should make an extensive list and then decide.
• If the site is already having one of the above URL structures but we are planning to suggest another one, have we taken into consideration the 301s that should be made?

3. From the URL structure that we are going to choose, are we allowed to make geo-targeting on Google Webmaster Tools?
4. Have we taken into consideration the creation of the hreflang?

If we have taken into consideration the above questions and we have the right solutions, then we are good to go.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask, or if you want to share your experience with similar or other cases, please feel free to do so and if you liked the post, just share it.
Happy geotargeting and hreflanging!

 

UPDATE: (Eventhough I am on vacation, I like to keep in touch with SEO cause you never know what’s new it’s going to show up) – Four days after writing about the hreflang in my blog,  Google Webmaster Tools is now offering the International Targeting function (Search Traffic>International Targeting), based on which we can now see any problematic hreflang annotations.

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