International marketing

4 Steps to Implement Hreflang in XML Sitemaps

4 Steps to Implement Hreflang in XML Sitemaps
Elizabeth Pokorny
Written by
Elizabeth Pokorny
Elizabeth Pokorny
Written by
Elizabeth Pokorny
Elizabeth Pokorny
Reviewed by
Updated on
April 12, 2024

Whether you're an ecommerce giant or a budding startup, the internet offers a vast marketplace. But with great potential comes great responsibility, especially when it comes to reaching audiences in different languages and regions.

That's where hreflang tags come into play!

Hreflang tags are a vital component of any global Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy. They help search engines understand the language and geographical targeting of your website's pages, ensuring that users from diverse backgrounds find content that resonates with them.

You can implement hreflang tags through 3 significant manual methods, each with its own technical nuances. Among these methods, one of particular interest is the addition of hreflang tags to your XML sitemap.

In this article, we’ll embark on a clear and detailed exploration of how to insert hreflang tags into your XML sitemap. We’ll shine a light on the common mistakes usually made during hreflang tag implementation and guide you through sidestepping these pitfalls.

And if the prospect of manual implementation seems daunting to you, we’ll introduce you to our own automated solution that simplifies hreflang tag implementation and significantly minimizes the possibilities of human error – Weglot.

Let's dive in!

Understanding the Importance of Hreflang Tags in SEO

Hreflang tags, often referred to as hreflang attributes, are a way to tell search engines which language and region a web page is targeting. This is useful for websites that have content in multiple languages or cater to different geographies, enabling search engines to serve the most relevant version of a web page to visitors.

When it comes to international SEO, hreflang tags essentially act as a navigational aid for search engines, ensuring that users are directed to the most relevant regional content when they search for information online. Let’s unpack this:

  • Language and geographic targeting: Hreflang tags provide clear signals to search engines about the intended audience for a webpage. They specify the language(s) and region(s) for which the content is optimized. This information allows search engines to deliver more accurate search results to users from different regions who speak various languages.
  • Improved visibility and ranking: Correctly implementing hreflang tags can significantly enhance a website's visibility and ranking in various regions. When search engines understand the target audience of a page, they are more likely to display it in relevant search results. This, in turn, can lead to increased organic traffic from international audiences.
  • Enhanced user experience: When users land on a page in their preferred language, they are more likely to stay on the site, explore further, and engage with the content. This reduces bounce rates and increases the potential for conversions.

However, if implemented incorrectly, hreflang tags can actually cause the very issues they're designed to solve. When hreflang tags are missing, it can lead to users being directed to content not suitable for their region or language. This can lead to higher bounce rates, negatively impacting SEO performance and diminishing the potential of conversions.

To truly succeed in international SEO, you need to understand the importance of hreflang tags and the nuances of their proper implementation.

Comparing Hreflang Implementation Methods: HTML Tags, HTTP Headers, and XML Sitemaps

For many, hreflang tags are among the most challenging elements to master in SEO. In fact, Google's own John Mueller has referred to them as “One of the most complex aspects of SEO”. This is due to a few key factors:

  • Hreflang tags are bidirectional, which means that each URL needs links to every other URL and vice-versa. As you add more language versions to your website, implementing hreflang tags consistently becomes increasingly complicated.
  • Simple mistakes can disrupt the implementation across your entire website, such as an error in syntax or spelling in your hreflang tags.
  • The strategy chosen for implementation can dramatically affect the workload. Adding or removing a language variant, for instance, can result in a large amount of manual implementation work.

Despite these potential pitfalls, hreflang tags aren't as exacting as they may appear. There are three main manual methods to implement hreflang tags: via HTML tags, HTTP headers, or XML sitemaps.

Method 1: HTML Tags

This method involves placing hreflang tags in the header of the HTML of each webpage. It's a commonly used approach but can be taxing to manage on larger websites due to the need to update each page individually.

They look like this:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href=""/>

This tag tells search engines that the current page has an alternate version in Spanish and that the alternate version can be found at the URL

You can also use hreflang tags to specify a region as well as a language. For example, the following tag tells search engines that the current page has an alternate version in British English:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" href=""/>

Hreflang explanation.‍
Hreflang explanation.

Here’s how to implement it manually step-by-step:

Before implementing hreflang tags, you should identify the language and region variations of your web pages. For example:

  • English language pages: en-US, en-GB, en-CA, etc.
  • Spanish language pages: es-ES, es-MX, es-AR, etc.
  1. For each language or region variation of your webpage, add the hreflang tag in the <head> section of the HTML document. The format of the hreflang tag is:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="LANGUAGE-CODE" href="URL_OF_ALTERNATE_PAGE" />

Replace URL_OF_ALTERNATE_PAGE with the actual URL of the corresponding page and LANGUAGE-CODE with the appropriate language and region code.

For example, if you have an English language page for the United States and a Spanish language page for Mexico, you would add the following tags:

<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en-US" />
<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="es-MX" />

  1. You should also include a self-referencing hreflang tag for the default version of the page (usually the one in the language and region you expect most users to visit). For example:

<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en-US" />
<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="es-MX" />
<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="x-default" />

The x-default hreflang tag indicates the default version of the page.

  1. After adding hreflang tags, it's essential to validate them to ensure they are correctly implemented. You can use Google's Search Console or other SEO tools to check for errors and issues with your hreflang tags.
  2. Keep an eye on your website's performance in search results, and make adjustments to your hreflang tags as needed. If you add new language or region variations or change URLs, update the hreflang tags accordingly.

Method 2: HTTP Headers

Instead of placing hreflang tags directly in the HTML code of a webpage, you include them in the HTTP headers of the server response. This can be particularly useful for websites with complex multilingual and multinational content.

Here are the steps you’ll need:

  1. Access your web server's configuration to make changes to the HTTP headers. Depending on your server setup, this may involve editing configuration files or using a web hosting control panel such as cPanel or Plesk.
  2. Configure hreflang in HTTP headers:
  • For an Apache server: Use the Header directive in your .htaccess file or server configuration to add hreflang headers. For instance, to add a hreflang HTTP header for an English (en-US) page, you’ll have to use the following line of code:

Header set Link "<>; rel=alternate; hreflang=en-US"

  • For a Nginx server: Use the add_header directive in your server configuration file to add hreflang headers. For example, use the following line of code to do the same implementation that we did on the Apache server:

location /en-us/ {    add_header Link '<> rel=alternate; hreflang=en-US';}‍

Make sure to adapt these examples to match your specific URLs and hreflang values.

  1. After making the necessary changes to your server configuration, it's important to test whether the hreflang headers are being correctly added to the server responses. You can use online tools or browser developer tools to inspect the HTTP headers of your web pages.
  2. Keep an eye on your website's performance in search engines and ensure that the hreflang tags are correctly implemented. Make adjustments as needed when you add new content or change the structure of your website.

Method 3: XML Sitemaps

This method provides search engines with a roadmap to your website language versions. XML sitemaps offer greater scalability and flexibility, particularly for larger websites; however, they require a more tricky setup.

In the next section, we’ll provide a detailed step-by-step tutorial for this hreflang implementation method.

Before we jump into XML sitemaps, it’s important to note that it's possible to use a combination of these methods. However, you’ll have to maintain consistency and avoid any conflicting instructions that could cause confusion for search engines. to circumvent potential issues, it's generally safer to stick to one clear approach.

4 Steps to Implementing Hreflang In XML Sitemaps

Step 1: Create Your XML Sitemap

If you're operating a relatively small website with few URLs, the prospect of manually creating your sitemap may seem appealing. However, given how labor-intensive and time-consuming this process is and the difficulties involved in maintaining it later, manual creation may not be the optimal approach.

But don’t fret – whether you're using a CMS (Content Management System) like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla, or you're directly operating your website's backend, plenty of plugins and extensions are available to assist you in this task.

Remember, your XML sitemap should list all the language or regional versions of your pages that you want to target with hreflang tags. For more detailed guidance on the sitemap generation process, Google's developer documentation provides a wealth of information and recommended best practices, such as:

  • Sitemap size limits: Sitemaps can't be too big. Each sitemap file should be under 50 megabytes in size or contain fewer than 50,000 web page addresses. If you have more pages than that, you need to split your sitemap into smaller ones. You can create a special file that acts as a table of contents for these smaller sitemaps, and you only need to submit this table of contents to Google.
  • Sitemap file encoding and location: Your sitemap files must be encoded in a specific way called UTF-8. You can put these sitemap files anywhere on your website, but it's best to place them in the main directory (the root) of your site. This way, they can help search engines find all the pages on your site more effectively.
  • URLs in sitemaps: When you list web page addresses in your sitemap, make sure to use the full web address (like, not just part of it (like /mypage.html). This helps search engines understand exactly where your pages are located.
  • Choosing URLs to include: Include the web pages that you want to appear in Google's search results. Usually, Google shows the most important and relevant version of a page in its search results. If you have different versions of a page for mobile and desktop users, it's a good idea to point to just one version in your sitemap. But if you want both versions to appear, you can tell Google about them in your sitemap.

Here is a very basic sample of an XML sitemap from Google's developer documentation on building and submitting sitemaps:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>    2022-06-04  

The full list of sitemap best practices can be found here, and if you want to explore more advanced examples, you can visit

Step 2: The Hreflang Integration

With your XML sitemap ready and optimized, you can begin assigning hreflang tags. This meticulous task involves adding the appropriate hreflang tags to your sitemap to ensure accurate indexing of your site's various language versions.

For a step-by-step guide complete with practical examples, consult Google’s developer documentation on incorporating hreflang tags. Moreover, to affirm that you're using the correct hreflang language codes, have a look at this article on the subject.

Generally, for each page in your XML sitemap, you will need to include hreflang information and specify the language and regional targeting for each page. Here is an example of an XML entry for a page with hreflang tags:            

In the example above, we have a page called page1 with hreflang tags specifying English and Spanish versions of the page.

Once you have included hreflang information for all the relevant pages in your XML sitemap, save the sitemap and upload it to your website's server.

Step 3: Submit The Sitemap to Search Engines

Once hreflang integration is complete in your XML sitemap, the next phase involves submitting your sitemap to search engines.

Google, Bing, and other search engines have similar processes for sitemap submission. You can do so via your Google Search Console account or using Bing Webmaster tools.

However, it should be clarified that Google might not instantaneously download your sitemap or use it for crawling purposes.

Step 4: Consistent Maintenance and Updating of Hreflang Sitemaps

Lastly, monitor the performance of your hreflang tags in search results. Use search engine tools to check for any issues or errors. You can also use the hreflang tag checker tools available online to verify that your implementation is correct, like Weglot's hreflang checker tool.

Weglot's hreflang checker tool.‍
Weglot's hreflang checker tool.

Additionally. as your website evolves or new language/region-specific content is added, make sure to update your XML sitemap with the appropriate hreflang annotations. Regularly check for errors and keep your hreflang implementation up to date.

For those working with multilingual sites, this updating process may seem overwhelming, specifically when introducing a new language variant. Thankfully, this burdensome task can be completely mitigated through the use of Weglot.

Website translation software, Weglot, automates the updating and maintenance of your hreflang tags, saving you significant time and effort. It can significantly reduce the workload and simplify hreflang procedures, especially for large multilingual sites.

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Hreflang Implementation

While the implementation of hreflang tags is a game-changer for international SEO, it can feel like navigating a minefield without proper caution. Here are some frequent mistakes often seen when implementing hreflang tags:

  • Missing return links: A common misstep is neglecting return links. Each page should contain a link to every other language or regional version, including a link back to itself. These are known as return or reciprocal links. Failing to include these return links could lead search engines to ignore your hreflang tags.
  • Incorrect language codes: Using incorrect language or country codes is another typical pitfall. Be careful to use the correct ISO 639-1 language codes and ISO 3166-1 Alpha-2 country codes.
  • Forgetting to remove deleted pages or languages: It's crucial that your hreflang configuration aligns with the current structure of your site. Remember to remove the corresponding hreflang tags if you delete a page or stop targeting a certain language or region.
  • Missing the x-default tag: The x-default tag serves as a catch-all for users whose language you may not directly support. If you forget to include the x-default tag, you might miss out on appealing to a wider array of users.
  • Missing self-referencing canonical tags: Make sure each URL has a rel="canonical" link pointing to itself, in addition to hreflang tags. This ensures search engines understand each page's self-referential nature.

These are just a few common errors. For a more in-depth examination, we recommend reading our complete guide on implementing hreflang tags correctly. Additionally, you can take advantage of Weglot's hreflang checker tool to verify your hreflang tags.

Using Weglot to Automate Your Hreflang Tag Implementation

Aiming to simplify the complexity of multilingual SEO and website translation, Weglot is your ultimate no-code website translation and international SEO partner!

By harnessing advanced machine translation technologies like DeepL and Microsoft Translator, Weglot swiftly and precisely translates the content of your site. You’ll have the option to fine-tune your translations to perfection by either collaborating with skilled translators or manually adjusting them through the Weglot Dashboard.

But that's not the extent of Weglot's capabilities. It seamlessly incorporates hreflang tags into every page of your website, saving you considerable time and allowing you to concentrate on essential business tasks.

Weglot automates the process of adding hreflang tags to your translated pages. With Weglot, you can be confident in the accuracy of the hreflang attributes on your new or newly translated content. This ensures consistent and optimized user experience, along with enhanced search engine ranking – vital factors in a successful international SEO strategy.

Following a user-friendly workflow, adding hreflang tags to your WordPress site with Weglot is an effortless process:

  1. Sign up for a free Weglot account and create a new translation project.
Creating a new translation project from Weglot’s user-friendly dashboard.‍
Creating a new translation project from Weglot’s user-friendly dashboard.
  1. From your Weglot Dashboard, go to the project you just created and navigate to Settings > Setup. Copy the API key.
Getting the API key of the new translation process.‍
Getting the API key of the new translation process.
  1. Install and activate the Weglot Translate plugin on your WordPress website. Weglot also works with other CMS platforms – the process will be similar.
  2. From your WordPress admin dashboard, navigate to the Weglot tab andenter your API key, select your site’s main language and all the languages you want to translate your site to.
Configuring the website’s languages using Weglot.‍
Configuring the website’s languages using Weglot.
  1. Simply save your settings, and Weglot will spring into action, automatically taking care of the herflag implementation and international SEO considerations. You’ll get a pop-up message like this one.
Creating a translation project successfully using Weglot.

Once you go to your website, your result should look like this:

The result of using Weglot to make a website multilingual.
The result of using Weglot to make a website multilingual.
  1. Additionally, you can customize how you want your website’s language options to look by just navigating to the Weglot tab from your WordPress admin panel and configuring the settings to your preferences. You can even add custom CSS code for ultimate customization control.
Customizing the website’s language options using Weglot.
Customizing the website’s language options using Weglot.

And that’s it – that’s how easy it is to turn your WordPress website into a multilingual platform and boost its international SEO!

As you can see, the benefits of using Weglot for your hreflang tag implementation are numerous – from delivering an improved user experience and boosting your site's international visibility to helping manage your time and resources effectively.

Optimize Your International SEO With Weglot

While the potential benefits of international SEO are immense, the inherent complexities of dealing with multilingual content cannot be understated. The jewel in the crown of international SEO – hreflang tags – is crucial in serving your global audience the correct version of your website content, factoring in their specific language and geographic location.

In this comprehensive guide, we've explored the three most significant manual methods of implementing hreflang tags: HTML tags, HTTP headers, and XML sitemaps. Each carries unique merits and challenges, and the choice largely depends on your website's specific requirements.

For instance, a business with a dynamic site with frequently updated content might lean towards XML sitemaps for simplicity. Conversely, smaller sites might choose HTML tags for granular control.

However, across these methods, the possibilities of human error and the constant need for maintenance are common obstacles. This is where Weglot comes into play.

Weglot overcomes the hurdles of complicated hreflang tag implementation, significantly reducing human error and ushering in an unparalleled level of ease in managing hreflang tags.

Moreover, as and when your website evolves, Weglot stays aligned, ensuring newly added content is integrated seamlessly with the correct hreflang attributes. For example, if you add a new page to your website, Weglot automatically assigns it the proper hreflang tags.

The pathway to optimal international SEO no longer needs to be a daunting uphill climb. Harness the power of accurate hreflang implementation by trying out Weglot’s 10-day free trial – your international audience is ready and waiting!

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