Headings in On-Page SEO

From a readability and overall usability perspective, headings help organize large sections of content so that they are easier to read. There are a number of headings to choose from when structuring your page from the h1 tag all the way to the h6 page. Many SEO’s recommend that you use at least 1 H1 tag per page, and that a keyword should be present in that heading.

Our rule of thumb for headings and SEO is this: try to use a heading with a keyword, preferably an H1 tag but don’t force it, make sure that it naturally occurs.

Headings should be relevant, consistent with the pages topic, and should always enrich the user experience from within the page. For some disabled users such as those with difficulty with vision, H tags give them a much better point of reference when navigating the page. By creating relevant and easy to read headings, users can easily scan through the page and identify which sections they want to read.

One of the biggest reasons most SEO’s think that H tags are such a big deal is the fact that they are so prominent within a web page. Keyword prominence still plays a very big role in SEO and that is why we included such a large section within this guide.

Always stay away from shady tactics such as stuffing keywords, hiding them, or repeating the same one over and over again.

Keywords in Headings

Sadly, we can’t say if headings or h1-h6 tags are Google ranking factors because we just don’t know. Google has never come out and said this. Lots of case studies across the web have shown correlations pointing to the fact that having keywords in an h1 tag improves rankings.

There are even case studies saying having keywords in H tags don’t have any correlation to rankings at all! Bill Slawski said it eloquently:

So our advice is this: if we don’t know they help with ranking, and we know for sure they don’t hurt you then just use keywords in your headings regardless. Be natural, don’t be spammy, and for gods sake make sure they make sense.

Bulk H Tag Analysis

If you are working with an existing website it is probably a good idea to do a full analysis of your H tags. There are a number of tools out there on the web to get the job done, but our preferred version is Screaming Frog SEO Spider. Of course there is a lot more you can do with this tool, but one of the best features is being able to see all of your H tags all in one place. One of the beautiful things about this tool is you can also scan your competitors as well and do a full SEO audit.

In the illustration below, we highlight the first 21 H1 tags that we scraped from the NY Post website. As you can see we can not only see the H1 tags, but the length as well. From here if there are any glaring errors we can note them for later or open it in a browser and fix them immediately.

Always remember, as with most SEO principles there are usually two sides to the equation:

  • Search Engine Optimization – optimizing your headings so that search engines like them
  • Human Optimization – optimizing your headings so that humans like them

The real art is when you can find a way to balance out both of those principles and meet in the middle.

The H1 Tag

I thought I’d give this tag its own subsection simply because so many SEO’s tend to talk about the H1 Tag. The H1 tag, also most of the time the largest of the H tags is said to be the most powerful tag as a ranking factor. I do not know this as a fact, nor does any other non-Google civilian but like the saying goes if enough people say it, it must be true.

The fact is SEO has been around for a long time, and the fable of the H1 tag exists mainly because it has worked for so many people.

Most professional SEO’s only recommend having 1 H1 tag per page. For instance in this page we have 1 H1 tag as the main section title and H2 tags dividing subsections.

The bottom line on H1 tag usage for SEO is this: we know it won’t hurt you, and it most likely helps you, so use them in good health.

How to use H1-H6 Tags

If you’ve got some HTML knowledge under your belt, this should really be a refresher course. Basic usage:

Don’t forget, the smaller the number generally the smaller the font size. You can also style them with CSS or inline style elements if you’d like.

As with any principle in SEO, don’t go overboard. The difference between an amateur SEO and a professional is the one who knows how to implement these tricks effectively without going overboard or raising any kind of red flag from Googlebot.

Let all of this knowledge soak in for a bit. If you take a poll of a dozen different SEO’s you are more than likely going to get a dozen different answers. These are my personal recommendations as an SEO, take that for what its worth.

H Tag Design and SEO

The cool thing about the modern web is we can get CSS to do the heavy work for us. Did you know you can “program” H tags to be whatever size you want?

Some websites the H1 is 60 pixels and the H3 is 20pixels. Other times the H1 is 120 pixels…or the H1 is 30 pixels.

Use design to your advantage.

H Tag Misconceptions

Most aspects of SEO aren’t easily definable in a few short sentences. One great example of this is looking at “SEO headings” or “H tags” in most SEO reports. Let’s look at this snippet of a Woo Rank SEO Report that didn’t “pass” due to it’s H-tags, or lack there of:

The page that was scanned in the report has 1

tag and 3 tags. Ok, that’s good. If you talk to most SEO’s they’ll tell you a few key pieces of info about h tags:

  • you don’t need to have h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 on every page…that would look ridiculous to be honest
  • h tags are important for SEO mainly because of the keyword prominence aspect of them
  • use keywords within h tags
  • for most sites, its fine to just use h1 and h2
  • many SEO’s just use h1’s within their websites

In short, if some SEO tool tells you you are lacking h tags or have “failed” because of it, I would definitely note it, but don’t go running to your site making changes because you only have 3 h5 tags for example.

For now, let’s go back to what we said above “…it is fine to just use h1 and h2 tags.” One of the most well-respected on-page SEO tools in the world Screaming Frog, only checks h1 and h2 tags. Checkout this snippet from their SEO report:

You can see they note the text of the H tags, and how long they are. They basically give you a birds eye glimpse into your websites h tags.

If you saw this report and saw that all of your pages, or even most of them were lacking h1 and h2 tags, I would definitely take a look at that.

In short: not having H tags in your site will not hurt you, but having optimized H tags will definitely help you.