Google has begun offering new functionality for XML sitemaps to remedy issues pertaining to search engines viewing country-specific pages as duplicate content, causing ranking drops.
Implementing search engine optimization (SEO) for global organizations is no simple task. Providing localized and translated content is not always an option (see my previous global SEO suggestions in these stories: "Global SEO: Giving Visitors a Passport to Your Content" and "5 Best Practices for Global SEO"). There are times where businesses may want to serve their website to several countries with partially translated or localized content or even content that isn't translated at all. This can lead to issues, specifically pertaining to search engines viewing country-specific pages as duplicate content, causing ranking drops or results appearing in an undesirable order. Fortunately, Google has begun offering new functionality for XML sitemaps to remedy this particular predicament.
An organization has a single domain name to represent itself globally on the web. It has created international region/language-specific sub-domains (e.g., us.domain.com and uk.domain.com) or a relevant web directory structure (e.g., domain.com/us/ and domain.com/uk/). The content on these pages is either identical or near-identical. This situation can transpire for a multitude of reasons. For example, a company has an international presence but isn't able to allocate the resources to localize its pages. In this case, segmentation of international pages is very important for SEO purposes.
Even though international segmentation is recommended and can yield a positive result, in this particular situation there is a caveat. It will have a negative impact if search engines perceive the content as duplicated material.
To remedy this SEO problem, there are two options. For the first option we must add several lines to the header of each and every HTML page. For the other, we must make similar changes to the XML sitemap. For each page we offer alternative links to international targeted versions of the same page with 'rel="alternate" hreflang="x."'
Example usage of rel="alternate" hreflang="x" in sitemap.xml
The process for executing both is very similar, but there are good reasons why option two is the superior method.
HTML vs. XML Sitemap: Sitemap Wins!
Option one, the HTML method, must be applied to all applicable pages in the header section of the source code. It creates bloated, inconsistent HTML that are more difficult for webmasters to work with and maintain. It may also contribute to longer page load times, which can have negative effects on your SEO. This method doesn't work for other file types such as PDFs, images, and other documents.
For these reasons, option two, editing the sitemap.xml, is the better method. It only concerns one file per version of the website, doesn't affect page loading times, and can be easily used with other file types.
Although this does the job solving the problem for Google searches, this method isn't universally recognized by other search engines like Bing and Yahoo, which still yield consistent traffic, albeit low, but converting still.
Despite the lack of support by Bing, this method is a great stratagem for working with the biggest in the search game, Google. It permits you to do region-specific targeting of your website in search without incurring penalties associated with duplicate or similar content; an SEO win! This can also be achieved on other search engines. Bing, for example, allows you to make such a distinction with a meta tag inserted into the HTML page or make a change to the HTTP headers; a harder solution than Google's, but still recommended.
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Crispin Sheridan is the Senior Director, Global Search at SAP. As part of the digital team, he established and leads the search and testing practices at SAP. Crispin is responsible for paid, natural, and mobile search and all online testing. Search and testing at SAP are fully centralized and globally funded and run under a hybrid in-house and agency model.
Crispin has proven that search learnings and keyword insights work hand in hand with social media marketing and together can effectively drive B2B lead generation. Furthermore, the development of the SAP.com Test Lab has contributed significant success to SAP's digital marketing efforts.
A frequent guest speaker at conferences, including SES New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Delhi, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Crispin was appointed to the SES Advisory Board in December 2009. He has also been a guest speaker at the e-Metrics Summit and ad:Tech, and is a member of Google's B2B Technology Council. You can follow him on Twitter at @crispinsheridan and read his monthly SEO column on ClickZ.
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