It’s hard to deny the power of a well-written headline. A headline alone can compel someone to pick up a newspaper—or, these days, to click on an article. But unlike a newspaper headline, an online headline plays multiple roles. It has the power to aid readability in addition to the crawlability and rankability of a page.
Hence why header tags have yet to diminish in importance. For content marketers, it’s equally important to have a proper strategy for using them. Keep reading for practical tips on how to format, write, and utilize your own header tags to improve SEO.
What are header tags?
Header tags are HTML elements signifying headings and subheadings in your text. They range from H1 to H6 and are written as <H1>, <H2>, and so forth. As an example, the heading above would be written as…
<h2>What are header tags?</h2>
Search engines use this piece of code to decipher how to display a piece of text. They simultaneously help crawlers understand the hierarchy of content and infer the main focus of a page.
You’ll likely only need to use H1 to H3 (or, occasionally, H4). As indicated by their numbers, H1s tend to be used for the titles or the most prominent headlines of a page, while those that follow are used for subheadings and subsections. Here’s an example of how a page may be organized using header tags.
The old way of using header tags
Just like everything SEO-related, the SEO impact of header tags has changed over the years. In the early 2000s, header tags were considered to be ranking factors in their own right—you needed to include your keyword in your headings if you wanted to rank high in SERPs.
In the same vein, H1s were considered more important than H2s—which, in turn, were more important than H3s. Your keyword needed to be included in the “more important” header tags to truly count.
Naturally, many SEOs and marketers started to apply very prescriptive rules for how headings should be used. For instance, many required (and still require out of habit) that H1s only be used once on a page, and that their primary keyword be used X number of times within headings.
The new way of using header tags
Today, the role of header tags is not as bland as it once was. Google’s John Mueller even went on the record to say that the above rules are an outdated practice: “I think in general, headings are a bit overrated in the sense that it’s very easy to…get pulled into lots of theoretical discussions on what the optimal headings should be…[So this question of] how should I order my H1, H2, H3, headings and what should the content be, that’s something from my point of view isn’t really that relevant.”
Put simply: header tags themselves aren’t ranking factors. Their core purpose is to aid the user experience and provide context for the content below them. As crawlers aim to anticipate human behaviors, they’ll use header tags to quickly digest your content in the same way a reader may skim your content.
From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you use an H2 or H3 for your subheadings. One is not necessarily more important than the other. Google differentiates these two tags only in the sense that they represent hierarchical levels of information. For instance, several H3s underneath an H2 indicate that they’re sub-topics to a larger theme. You won’t be penalized if you don’t use an H2 at all in your content.
The bottom line is this: return to your roots. Recall the original, human purpose of headings and focus on providing a clear structure to your content. You’ll be rewarded for keeping your readers engaged on your page—more than you would for simply stuffing your headings with your keyword. Don’t get hung up on old SEO advice and instead, test and evolve your strategies.
In rare cases, Google will use your H1 heading to populate the title tag in search results. However, this isn’t something to bank your strategy on, especially if you follow best practices of writing custom title tags.
Best practices for writing headings
1. Target the human reader
Header tags should first and foremost be written with consideration to your human readers, not Google. By focusing on your readers, you should naturally emphasize the most important points or soundbites in your headings.
Similarly, this should help you to naturally include keywords and related terms in your writing. There’s no magic number of how many times you should use your keywords in your headings or body content to make them rank. And if including a keyword makes a heading sound awkward—then it’s probably best to not include it.
Search engines consider multiple on-page and off-page factors, including content relevance, backlinks, and good UX. Prioritizing your reader will allow you to check off various boxes. Instead of being left with forced, keyword-heavy copy, you’ll reap the benefits of compelling, shareable content.
2. Prioritize clarity
Strike the right balance between creative and informative content. When it comes to headings, it’s especially easy to get carried away with trying to make your copy sound catchy.
But remember that headings are an instrument of organization. Headings that are too obscure and don’t clearly introduce the information below them can result in a confusing experience. Focus on making your header tags easy to understand, like the chapters of a book. If someone were to only scan your headings, would they get the gist of what you’re trying to say?
Google sometimes generates featured snippets in SERPs, which highlight pieces of text from within your page. Google will look at your headings to help generate these snippets, so it’s super important for headings to be clear and logical.
3. Make sure your header tags are visually unique
Aside from making your headings sound unique, ensure that they look unique. It should be very easy to tell the difference between an H1 heading and an H2 heading.
In most cases, your H1 will use the largest font size, while your H6 will use the smallest. While this may seem like common sense, it’s not unusual for sites to lack consistent style guides or for sites to format headings too similarly.
Consider using different font weights in addition to font size when deciding on your styles. You may even choose to use different font colors strategically.
Note: the way your headings look has nothing to do with rankability but everything to do with reader experience. Readers should not have to do a double take to understand what subheader belongs where.
4. Use just the right amount of headings
While a long wall of text can be a bore, too many headings can be distracting. As a general rule of thumb, you should add a heading every 300 to 400 words or whenever there’s a clear switch in thought.
Keep in mind that the reading experience can vary from device to device. On smaller screens, headings may take up a lot of space and require readers to scroll to find what they’re looking for. To solve this, pay attention to your typography (the actual size and weight of your mobile fonts) plus the length and frequency of your headings.
In short articles, headings should be fewer and higher-level in thought. In longer, denser articles, they should be more in-depth without overcrowding your page.
A final word
There are tons of opinions about the proper use of heading tags. But at the end of the day, your headings are only as good as your readers consider them to be.
Take care to use headings and subheadings in a logical way. Speak to your audience and make sure that your headings are useful, not just catchy.