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What Is X-Default? Better Optimize Your Hreflang Tag

Want your website to have global visibility? Focus on international SEO elements like hreflang and x-default. Here’s what you need to know to help search engines surface the right web pages in the right countries.

Aug 22, 2023

5 m read

Multi-language websites that provide content to users globally or in specific regions need to worry about all the SEO basics — and more. Hreflang tags help Google and other search engines find the right versions of pages in search results so that the right page shows up for the right audience. You can improve your SEO strategy by understanding how the x-default tag works in hreflang and how it can impact your visibility in the areas you’re targeting, so let’s dive in.

What Is the X-Default Hreflang Attribute?

Imagine you’re at a busy global airport. Passengers are flying in from all corners of the world. Someone makes an announcement on the intercom, and instead of just hearing one language, each passenger hears the announcement in their mother tongue. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Hreflang attributes work similarly for websites.

Hreflang tags are HTML elements that specify the language and geographical targeting of a web page while providing a list of any alternate URLs that target other languages or regions. They help search engines serve the correct version of your content to users based on their language and location. These tags are crucial for websites with international viewership.

Hreflang tags point at a specific language code. So what happens when a user does not match the language or region for any of the existing alternates? Or if Google can’t tell what version they should provide a searcher?

That’s where x-default comes in.

When the user’s language preference does not match any of the available languages on your website, the x-default tag guides the search engine to serve a “fallback” version of the content.

For example, consider an online clothing store with dedicated web pages for English, French, and German languages. If a Spanish-speaking user accesses the website, the x-default tag signals the search engine to serve a default version of the website. Most sites use English, but it’s okay to use whatever language or region you consider to be your site’s default. Some sites even use a version of the page that prompts changing the language and region for the x-default.

The hreflang tags, including the x-default tag, in the HTML head of each version of the site would look something like this:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-us" 

         href="http://www.example.com/en/us" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en-gb" 

         href="http://www.example.com/en/gb" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr-fr" 

         href="http://www.example.com/fr-fr" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="de" 

         href="http://www.example.com/de" />

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" 

         href="http://www.example.com/en/us” />

Here, each hreflang tag specifies a different language and/or region-specific version of the site, with the URLs being the respective versions’ homepages. The x-default tag points to the English US version of the site, meaning it directs users with a language preference your site doesn’t cover (like Spanish or Italian) to the English version. Google will also send users to the x-default if they cannot tell where the users are located.

When Should You Use X-Default?

The answer may seem pretty straightforward: Use x-default when you want to provide a fallback language version of your site. However, the gravity of not using x-default tags isn’t evident until you see the potential repercussions. Without x-default, a user may land on a page they don’t understand, leading to confusion, poor user experience, and, likely, a quick exit.

Your Spanish user from the previous example might end up on a German web page. Even worse, an English-speaking user might end up on the wrong page because they are using a VPN or traveling abroad. This is why having the x-default match your primary audience is generally a good idea. 

Even Google recommends using x-default, emphasizing its role in enhancing user experience by serving relevant content.

Implementing hreflang x-default can lead to:

  • Improved user experience. By serving the most relevant language, you keep users engaged and decrease bounce rates.
  • Boosted SEO. Even though hreflang tags don’t directly impact SEO, their indirect effects, such as higher retention, can help improve your SEO.

How To Implement X-Default Tags

Rolling out x-default tags might seem daunting, but it’s far from it. Let’s take a closer look at the steps.

First, check your website for diverse languages or regional content. If your website hosts content in multiple languages or regions, you may benefit from implementing hreflang x-default tags.

Next, decide on your default language. This will act as the catch-all for visitors whose language or region doesn’t match any of the specific versions you offer. Remember, only one x-default value should exist for each URL. If you can’t decide what version to make your default, take a look at your analytics. Where do most of the people who are accessing your site live? What language do they speak?

Now it’s time for action. In the HTML page’s head section, add your x-default hreflang tag. It might look a bit like this:

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="x-default" 

         href="https://example.com/language" />

In this tag:

  • rel=”alternate” indicates that this URL is an alternate version of the web page the tag is on.
  • href=”http://www.example.com/language” points to the URL of the default version of the page.
  • hreflang=”x-default” specifies that this version is the default one to show users when their language preference doesn’t match any of the available languages on the website.

Implementing X-Default on WordPress

Since x-default is part of the hreflang tags, they should be implemented through the same process you use for hreflang tags. You can do this two ways in WordPress. You can use a plugin like Hreflang Manager or the WordPress Multilingual Plugin (WPML). Learn how to implement hreflang with WPML here. 

You can also do it without a plugin if you’re not afraid of the Theme Editor or FTP.

Implementing X-Default on Your Sitemap

Instead of adding hreflang tags to a page’s HTML, you can them to your sitemap

A sitemap gives you a convenient canvas to tag every single one of your pages, ensuring no page falls through the cracks. Depending on your tech stack, it may be easier than updating every page or page type. Learn more about sitemap hreflang tagging here.

X-Default Best Practices

Now, let’s dive into some best practices. Here are a few things to stick to:

  • Ensure consistency across all your pages. Your canonical and hreflang tags should work together seamlessly. These tags inform search engines about the main version of a page and its other linguistic variations. If the English version of a page is the primary one (stated by your canonical tag), your hreflang x-default tags should confirm this.
  • Ensure that for each page in one language, there’s a corresponding page in every other language your site supports.
  • Be precise with your language and region codes in your hreflang tags. Inaccuracy here might lead to your site showing French content to Spanish speakers.

X-Default and SEO

By now, you’ve got a pretty good grasp on what x-default is and how it can help guide international traffic. You might still be asking: How does this hreflang attribute affect SEO? The answer lies in understanding how Google processes the x-default tag and why it’s significant for international and multilingual SEO.

The x-default tag directs users who don’t match any of the specified languages on your site to the default page. This mechanism might not directly boost your website’s rankings on SERPs, but it does something equally powerful when implemented wisely: It improves the user experience.

By providing a better user experience (a known Google ranking factor), visitors are more likely to engage with your content, linger on your site, and eventually convert into customers. Ultimately, this leads to higher rankings, more sales, and a healthier bottom line.

Fully Optimize Your Site With a Dedicated Partner

Need help implementing hreflang tags and managing all the other little elements of technical SEO that will help improve your site performance? Our SEOs are here to help with our international SEO services. Our dedicated team can help you create and launch a focused search strategy to reach more users worldwide. Reach out for a free consultation to get started.

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