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International SEO, structure and Hreflang

Shopify Partner
123 12 57

As always with SEO there are several workable solutions - each with its all sets of pros and cons and necessary actions. This is true for dealing with multinational SEO as well. 

In this post I would like to share some of my experience and I very much hope you will share yours too

Even though Shopify support multi-language/region/domain shops within a single install as I understand it that is most often not the best solution - for reasons such as:

  • You cannot localize URLs
  • You cannot localize META-descriptions
  • There is (as I understand it) problems with separating shopping feeds
  • Technical cultural and local adjustments are difficult (or impossible) - see more below

The more detailed you can adjust each of your international webshops the better. It can not only give you more visibility in search but also better usability and conversions. 

There are several areas that can and should be locally adjusted:

  • Technical
    There are many local differences - from the kind of payment methods most use, which external services you should connect to and even things like required fields in forms. For example - in Ireland they do not use zip-codes, so if that's required in forms on your shop they can't fill it out. Also, in some countries (such as Sweden where my family used to have a house) some adresses do not use a street name and number. Same is true for other countries. The better you adapt the easier it is for your local prospects to convert - and it also demonstrate that you know and understand their region. Local respect. This is easy to find out. Not always as easy to implement. 

  • Legal
    The law is by no means the same in all countries. As a Danish customer I often laugh at the global (often US-based) TOS many sites are using. Much of it makes absolutely no sense to us and can't even be enforced if it comes to that. It shows very little local understanding and respect. This is also easy to find out and most often easy to implement. 

  • Cultural
    This is without a doubt the hardest part! But maybe also, if done right, what can have the biggest impact on both SEO and sales.

    First of all we need to understand local language. Not just technically (which keywords do prospects locally use) - but culturally. How should you speak to engage and sell? For example in the US you have to speak very "loud". In Denmark you fail if you do that! What they find funny or acceptable in one country may be very offending in another. In Denmark we love ironi. With all respect, the average American consumer just don't get that 🙂

    You can't look up all relevant local cultural aspects in some global database. The only way to get this right is to engage with local copy writers and marketing and communication experts. Don't be arrogant about this and think you know. Many webshops have made that mistake and lost many sales. 

Setting up individual shops to target each country appear to be - all in all the best strategy on Shopify. This will give you the best options to adapt locally. However, this also introduce some challenges. One of them is Hreflang data. 

Hreflang data is structured data and as such have to be 100% correct to work. Even minor errors can have a dramatic negative impact.  I was just dealing with a huge global B2B client that had most of their international sites completely disappear in Google. I found the errors in the Hreflang data we fixed and they are now back - more visible than ever. 

But with a multi install structure how do you deal with Hreflang?

If you do not localize URL it is easy to crawl all sites, with a service such as Hreflang Builder, an have them create XML-files with the Hreflang-data. However, if you do localize URLs - as I prefer to do, then that becomes more difficult. 

One of the solutions for this that I am working on is appending SKU (which is most often the same across local shops) to the end of URL's and then setup a custom filter for matching. 

But maybe there are other/better ways. What do you do?

SEO Geek since 1996, consultant author and public speaker. Admin of the Shopify SEO Facebook Group

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Replies 2 (2)
Shopify Expert
861 33 220

You make many great points about the localization of content, common mistakes, and technical limitations of using a single Shopify store.

Hreflang tags for a business with a multi-store global strategy is was their greatest limitation to good SEO. Google's John Mueller described hreflang tags as easy to implement as meta tags, but it quickly becomes one of the most complex aspects of SEO.

For Shopify, many businesses think you can have good hreflang tags with some liquid code that uses the canonical url tag. This complexity reveals itself real quickly:

  1. As you say, URLs should be localized to the region to help SEO even further. Most Shopify stores use English for everything because that's what was required in the past. You're limiting your SEO with this bandage solution of using one language in all URLs to make up for your bad hreflang tags.
  2. Hreflang tags should reflect the catalog in each store. What if a product is permanently removed from one store? You'll have chronic 404 issues in the tags.
  3. Hreflang tags need to deal with pagination correctly. What about ?page=1, ?page=2 across collections? How do each of these point to each store? What if one store has less products such that the second page of one store doesn't exist on another store? The same goes with blogs in Shopify, which is the other common form of pagination.
  4. How are product variants handled? The variant IDs change between every store and the variants themselves may change as well.
  5. What if a URL handle is changed in one store and not the other? This will 404 the hreflang tags.

This is just a sample of how messy hreflang tags can get for Shopify stores who want to do their SEO well.

To solve it, we created Multi-Store Hreflang Tags app this year and made it public. It solves these messy issues all the while letting stores save days in work with automatic mapping and an easy to way to keep this up-to-date.

I think you'll find the app's FAQ helpful in understanding more about these SEO challenges and solving them in Shopify.

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Shopify Partner
123 12 57

Thanks 🙂

Just wanted to address some of your points ...

I agree - Hreflang-data can be one of the most complex issues of SEO to get right. That may be the reason so many sites makes damaging mistakes with this. In fact, the majority of the many sites I have analyzed make mistakes - such as wrong ISO-codes, missing handshaking, references to dead pages and lack of X-default. 

I also agree that it's best practice to not include paginated pages in your your Hreflang and in most cases that is also true for Product variants. That is, unless you implement a strategy and structure where variants are optimized with unique content and allowed indexing. This is, for some shops a better strategy if there are many searches specifically for variants. 

As far as I can see your app implement the Hreflang-data as embedded tags. Correct?

I do very much prefer to have it in XML-sitemap format. The problem with embedding is that Google need to crawl all pages to verify all data. For large webshops this often create handshaking issues because of the time lack in crawling. Having it all in one XML-sitemap remove that problem as Google can see all data at once. It also makes it a bit easier to debug for us. 

In the case I refered to that was in fact part of my solution. We moved from embedding to XML and resolved many of the problems. 

SEO Geek since 1996, consultant author and public speaker. Admin of the Shopify SEO Facebook Group

Was your question answered? Kindly mark it as an Accepted Solution 🙂