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Google combines Hreflang Signals from HTML and Sitemap

Google’s John Mueller recently shed light on how hreflang signals are handled when the directive is defined in both the HTML and Sitemap of websites.

On 27th November 2020, during a live stream of Google Search Central, the topic of conflicting hreflang directive was discussed.

The question asked

“Let’s say we’ve implemented the correct hreflang using sitemaps, but because of some reason, the web pages also have another set of hreflang in there, even though they’re not the most correct version.

I know that we have to try to minimize conflicting hreflang like this, so my question for you is how does Google actually treat conflicting hreflang?

Does Google prioritize the sitemaps over the on-page hreflang, or vice versa?”

Before answering the question, Mueller posed to the person what he exactly meant by conflicting signals.

The person clarified that if the directive is defined for US English users in Sitemap, which is the correct one. If it is defined as US-French in the source code of the HTML, how will Google handle such a situation?

Mueller’s take on Conflicting Hreflang Signals

Muller said Google generally combines the signal if the directives are mentioned in both the Sitemap and Source Code of the page. However, there is an exception when signals are not in sync with each other if one country’s version of the hreflang directive is mentioned on the page, but the same directive is assigned for a different page on the Sitemap.

“What would happen there is we would combine those. From our point of view, hreflang is not something where we say you can only have one language or country version on one page, but rather you can have multiple country versions on the same page.

And you can have multiple different levels. So you could say this is the page for English in Singapore, English in US, English in UK, and you have a different page for English in Australia, for example.

You can have one page with multiple countries/regional targeting on them. So if you have some hreflang in the HTML, and some in the sitemap, then we would try to combine that and add that together.

That means that if you have multiple different country versions across those different things, we would just combine that into one setup.

The one place where it would get confusing, or where we would see it as conflicting is if you have one country language version on the page and you use the same country language version for a different page in the sitemap file. That’s one situation where our systems would probably have to guess.”

Apart from conflicting signals, Mueller also confirmed that they don’t prioritize one signal over the other, putting rest to the discussion of which directives are important between hreflang in HTML and hreflang in Sitemap.

Even if Google finds conflicting signals, it will drop signals and then decide on one over the other.

“As far as I know we don’t have any prioritization where we say sitemaps are better than HTML, or better than the headers. But rather we would see this doesn’t work and we would probably drop that pair [of conflicting signals].”

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