How to win at rank tracking multiple-region/language URLs following Google’s update

If your target audience spans multiple countries, you may have unique URLs or webpages assigned for those countries with page content in different languages. These pages might rank differently on the SERP depending where the person is searching from and on what search engine. This is especially true for the hyper-personalized Google. In this article, we will focus on the way Google indexes alternate versions of websites based on the user’s location, the website’s content, and hreflang tags, following their recent batch of updates.

Before we talk about what changed with Google, you need to know about proper rank tracking for those different URLs. First and foremost, you need to make sure all your international pages show up correctly in Google’s SERP regardless of what update Google is brewing for us next. Google is never stagnant – it will keep changing the way it indexes pages locally – but the correct way to keep track of those pages will more or less remain the same. (And if it ever changes, we will update you, of course.) Best of all, doing it the right way from the start might also help you spot any changes Google makes even before it becomes known in the SEO community!

The hreflang tag

The foundation of how to tell the search engine which version to show which region and language is in using the hreflang tag correctly. Making unique URLs and webpages based on country and language is a very common practice for e-commerce websites that ship internationally, so let’s use it as an example:

AFVodka ships alcohol-free vodka to three countries in the world: US, France, and Australia.

  • The website SEO expert made four URLs for the store: AFVodka.com, AFVodka.com/au, AFVodka.com/fr and AFVodka.com/us-fr.
  • The content for the Ausstralian page is almost the same as the US version, with the only distinctions being a different address, different contact info, and the prices showing in AUD instead of USD.
  • The French versions are fully translated from the English version and have a unique addresses, unique contact info, and prices set in EUR or USD, all corresponding to the relevant location.
  • The SEO expert set these hreflang tags and hoped Google would index everything correctly:
    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-US” href=”http://afvodka.com/” />
    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”en-AU” href=”http://afvodka.com/au/” />
    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-FR” href=”http://afvodka.com/fr/” />
    <link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”fr-US” href=”http://afvodka.com/us-fr/” />

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Side Note: Interestingly enough, Bing doesn’t use the hreflang tag at all, and instead personalizes by country using meta tags. While this article will focus on Google, you shouldn’t neglect Bing entirely, as we showed in this article:

Is Bing really a failure? Should you even track your Bing ranks?

It has the advantage over Google, such as dropping less-devastating updates, having a financially wealthier user base, being less personalized, and influencing Yahoo! ranks positively.

How to SERP track localized webpages the right way

The SEO expert wants to monitor their SEO campaign’s organic progress for the keyword “alcohol free vodka” in the three countries the website ships to.

Note that this is the most complete, bulletproof way to rank track such a website.

http://afvodka.com/au/ should be tracked with the following elements, which would cost 3 terms from their quota:

  • Device types: Organic local (the ranks as seen from desktop searches), Mobile-Android, and Mobile-iPhone. (The mobile search is populated differently than the desktop, which is why all three should be included, at minimum.)
  • Search engine: Google.com.au – anyone from Australia will be using that as default, regardless of which Google domain they use.
  • Country: Australia – An SEO expert could include several specific locations inside Australia (such as cities relevant to their business) and see the exact nuanced ranking differences inside a large location. For now, let’s stick to one general location. The ranking, in this case, would be what most people from Australia would see in their Google SERP.
  • Language: English – This is what’s specified in the hreflang for this page, and this will be the Google UI language people in Australia use.
    People with a German UI language in Australia might see different ranks, so if the SEO expert finds it important, they might add other languages as well for rank tracking.

http://afvodka.com/fr/ should be tracked with the following elements and would use 3 terms from the quota:

  • Device types: Organic local, Mobile-Android, and Mobile-iPhone
  • Search Engine: Google.fr – Like in the previous case, anyone from France would be using that as default, regardless of which Google domain they think they use.
  • Country: France – Same as before, the SEO expert can include several specific locations inside France, e.g. cities that are relevant to the business.
  • Language: French.

http://afvodka.com/fr/ should be tracked with the following elements and would use 3 terms from the quota:

  • Device types: Organic local, Mobile-Android, and Mobile-iPhone
  • Search Engine: Google.fr – As in the previous case, anyone from France would be using that as default, regardless of which Google domain they think they use.
  • Country: France – As previously, the SEO expert could include several specific locations inside France, such as cities that are relevant to the business.
  • Language: French.

http://afvodka.com/us-fr/ should be tracked with the following elements and will use 3 terms from the quota:

  • Device types: Organic local, Mobile-Android, and Mobile-iPhone
  • Search Engine: Google.com – It’s the US domain of Google.
  • Country: United States – In this case, the SEO expert will see what most US users see. They could also include several specific locations inside the USA, such as states and/or cities relevant to the business. Since the USA is so huge, perhaps in this case it would be smarter to specify several key states where most of the target audience is.
  • Language: French. Since this is supposed to be the French-translated version of the US site, we need to know what ranks users from the US with a French UI see and that they are shown the correct version of the website.

http://afvodka.com should be tracked with the following elements, using up 3 terms from the quota:

  • Device types: Organic local, Mobile-Android, and Mobile-iPhone
  • Search Engine: Google.com
  • Country: United States – The same rules apply as in the French-US version.
  • Language: English.

Using Exact Match webpage tracking vs. General webpage tracking

PRT’s Exact Match feature can track specific webpages and see how they rank as compared to the whole parent URL. It becomes especially valuable in this case, since AFVodka’s SEO expert could immediately know if Google shows the correct version of the website in their SERP, regardless of what their method is at that moment in time. For example, if the ranks vanish or drop, then it means Google has either changed something in their algorithm again (and the website was influenced, inflicted a ranking penalty), or it possibly had the webpages folded to a single canonical version. Which brings us to the next point:

How to track the main version of the website with FULL MEASURES – http://afvodka.com/. This is taking it a step further to the highest-quality rank tracking you can have. In this case, the SEO expert will not be using exact match and will instead leave it to be tracked as a general URL. General URL tracking will simply show the highest-ranking webpage in the entire website for a given keyword and ranking elements.

The ranking elements in this case will use 2 terms from the quota:

  • Device types: Organic local, Mobile-Android, and Mobile-iPhone (not much changed here).
  • Search Engine: Google.com, Google.com.au and Google.fr
  • Country: United States, Australia and France.
  • Language: English (for Au and US) and French (for US and Fr).
  • **Exact Match: Set to “No”

Using extra measures with general rank tracking, in addition to Exact Match, can help identify Google “page folding” or any other inaccuracies with an almost 100% certainty. If everything is correct, the SEO expert should see the parent URL ranked for English-US and the alternate versions ranking for their corresponding countries and languages. And if something is off, the discrepancies will show up in the General tracking. For example, no rank for http://afvodka.com/fr/ will be shown in Exact Match tracking, and instead, http://afvodka.com will be ranked in France.

PRT tip! Before you add anything for SERP tracking, don’t forget to organize and create shortcuts!

Adding the webpages to a single URL group will help your SEO expert see the relevant ranking data for that campaign in one place, and adding tags will further organize the data. For instance, they can make two types of tags here, one for Exact Match and one for General Match. Add as many tag categories as you can think of—it will help you navigate the data.

For our full shortcuts guide, see:

PRT’s newest feature will help you manage your workflow faster than ever before

How Google handled localized alternate versions of websites before the update

The way Google handled localized versions and page folding over the years was not always great, and it made SEO frustrating in some cases. But following some recent updates, Google is claiming to be handling page folding better than ever. Let’s look at that.

Page Folding, for those unfamiliar with the term, is when Google takes webpages with content they find to be duplicated and ‘folds’ them under the same database record in their search engine. The original idea behind it is very promising; it’s done to provide higher-quality search results while helping the ranking of the website. That way, instead of having a few low-ranked duplicate webpages, you could have a single strongly ranked URL that is relevant to several search factors.

The main problem was the way Google decided which pages to fold and which to rank, and what was considered canonical was too convoluted. Google would sometimes rank the wrong webpage for a specific country because it would fold the URLs into a single URL they deemed canonical. This would lead to users seeing the wrong info when they were searching from a specific location or under certain search conditions, such as a specific Google domain. Using the example above, a person searching for “alcohol free vodka” from Australia would end up seeing the less-relevant canonical main website directed at USA users, regardless of whether the hreflang tag was correct or not. This led to a whole lot of headaches among SEO experts promoting international websites.

Localized pages today: The current way Google handles hreflang

This dynamic began to shift following the update Google made last year when they announced a change in the way they label country services. It was no longer possible to escape geo-targeting, and it didn’t matter which country’s Google domain you used (the ccTDL)—you would get the SERP corresponding to your physical location. So if you were in Canada, and you used Google.fr to search, you would still get search results by default from Google.ca, which are relevant to Canada. This is why, in our main example, we chose corresponding Google domains as the search engine for the country we were tracking for.

With this move, Google search became more geo-targeted than it ever was. It will only get better the more it evolves as part of a continual development to make search results as accurate and as tailored to the user as possible.

This post-privacy change also buried the last traces of manual rank tracking and made rank tracking with specialized tools the only viable solution. So, before we finish this article, you might want to catch up if you aren’t in the loop. We wrote about the update  here in more detail and what it means for tracking your ranks:

Why Google’s latest change is another nail in the coffin for manual rank checking

Having several separate ways to provide geo-targeted search results led to a lot of inaccuracies, so simplifying to show only local results by default has made things smoother. It’s an especially important and welcomed change for websites that target multiple countries.

So, how did this change influence Google’s approach to international versions of websites? Well, Google says their ranking methods have improved to the point that even if pages are folded, hreflang tags will still be respected, and the right version will show based on a person’s location or search preference (if all the inner linking makes sense of course. Blatantly duplicate pages will probably not enjoy any benefits).

How long this state will last is anyone’s guess. For now, the best ways to avoid page folding were, and still are

  1. formulating the hreflang tags correctly,
  2. SERP tracking your webpages the right way by using PRT’s Exact Match with general parent URL tracking, as shown at the beginning of this article, and
  3. keeping content unique and relevant to the target audience. Instead of just duplicating pages for different countries, add unique content for each country. (Translated content is considered unique and will likely never be folded.) So be original or face the fold.

Now that you have the knowledge and tools to SERP track your international pages correctly, feel free to spread the word and share this article so that others can benefit as well! Also, share your thoughts in the comments below and subscribe to our blog to get the latest tips and news from the ever-changing world of search engines.

By the way, Google is changing all the time, not just in the major updates that get published and known. If you want to learn more about the smaller changes we never hear about and how they can make other SERP trackers inaccurate, you need to read this one:

The truth revealed! Why are some SERP trackers more precise than others?


PRT started detecting ranking changes in locations only a few miles apart before anyone else did and subsequently introduced Exact Location tracking as part of our own race to track Google as closely as possible. We are currently the only SERP tracker that can show you ranks as seen from tens of thousands of different locations on the planet. Not only that, but we can filter those ranks further according to the device being used and UI language. Join more than 50k users from all over the world today, and start receiving the highest-quality ranking data for the best price on the market!

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