How to Use Header Tags for SEO

SEO, Web Design

What Are Heading Tags?

Headings are basic HTML elements that work as building blocks for your site. There are six different levels of headings in HTML: H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, and H6. They’re used to denote section headings and organize a webpage, just like headers in any other document. H1s are the biggest (think page heading), and H6 are the smallest (for tiny subsections nested within other subsections).

Why Do I Need to Use Heading Tags for SEO?

notebook phone and laptop with web design project
Heading tags help keep you organized.

“Need” is a strong word, but you should use heading tags for two main reasons:

1 – It’s a better user experience for the people who visit your site.

Most people probably don’t want to read 1,000 words that you lumped into one paragraph. It’s nice to be able to skim text quickly (especially on the internet), and that’s hard to do when a webpage greets you with a massive wall of text. Headings add some negative space, break up text, help define the article’s structure, and get your main points across more quickly.

2 – It’s a better experience for search engines.

A search engine’s primary function is to return results that people will appreciate. Since people tend to like organized webpages with clear sections, that’s one of the things search engines consider. Headings also make it easier for search engines to crawl a page and understand it. Imagine if your entire page was reduced to just the headers, and those headers were organized into a bulleted outline. Would it be clear what the article is about?

Headers as outline of article
If all you see are these heading tags, you can start to imagine what this article would say.

Best Practices for SEO Headers

Without getting too far into the weeds, there are a few easy things you can do to optimize your headings for search engines. Many of these heading tips for SEO will seem intuitive if you’re already focused on creating a great user experience for your website visitors.

Work from the top down.

It’s generally best to nest headers from H1 down to H6 without skipping steps (more on this later). Think about the outline example again– your page will flow more naturally when you put smaller headings inside of bigger headings instead of vice versa. Say you have a blog post about vegetables, which contains smaller sections for carrots, broccoli, and onions. “Vegetables” could be an H1, and “Carrots,” “Broccoli,” and “Onions” could all be H2s.

row of Russian nesting dolls
Organize your headings like nesting dolls– biggest on the outside, then work your way in.

Stick to one H1 tag per page (probably).

Google has said you can use as many H1 tags as you want on a given page. The algorithm is already smart, and getting smarter by the day, so it can probably figure out any layout that isn’t too crazy. That said, a lot of SEO experts recommend reserving H1 for the title of the page. Since no other section of a blog post is at the same structural level as the title of the whole piece, it doesn’t make sense to use the same heading tags for them. Depending on the design of your site, the same is probably true for your main pages too.

Don’t skip steps.

People and search engines alike can probably make sense of the page as long as your headings are consistent and intuitive. That said, the easiest way to be consistent is to not skip steps between heading tags. In other words, if you’re making subheaders under an H2, you should probably go with H3s. If you need to go down another level after that, use H4s.

It is ok to skip steps going in the other direction. Once you complete an H2 section, even if you ended it on an H4 within that section, it’s ok to bounce back out to H2. See below for more clarity on how that might look.

how to organize section headers by going smaller one step at a time
Get smaller one step at a time, then jump back out to a bigger header as needed for consistency's sake.

Don’t overdo it.

Don’t think making your whole page an H1 will make Google think all the information is more important. If it makes sense to have a header somewhere (i.e., if a header would make your site easier for people to read), add one. If it doesn’t, don’t. A whole page full of headers with no paragraphs would look silly to people, and search engines are likely to pick up on that, too. Trying to trick or manipulate Google is almost always a bad idea, and will likely come back to bite you.

Include SEO keywords in header tags.

Don’t do this in a spammy way– stuffing the same keywords in every header is a huge red flag. If you’re a vegetable seed seller trying to rank for “how to grow vegetables” and related key phrases, that’s what you should write about. If your website contains the information your target audience really wants to know, putting keywords in your header tags should come naturally. Good UX almost always leads to positive SEO results.

Smart combinations of headers and subheaders may even make their way into featured snippets at the top of Google results.

First, focus on adding value for people, then make small tweaks to include keywords after the fact. Don’t replace an interesting and informative heading tag with a boring keyword. If you want to rank higher in search engine results, producing great content is more useful than cramming keywords where they don’t belong. It’s bad for your reader if heading tags aren’t very relevant to the text underneath them, and Google will sniff that out too.

Think about featured snippets.

Google is getting better at zero-click searches. That is, the algorithm is figuring out how to show people all the information they want without making them click into an actual site. It’s easier to do this when articles are well-organized, which means those articles may get preference from the algorithm. If you want to rank for “vegetables to grow in the fall,” make that the title (H1) of your article. Then an H2 for each of your fall vegetables. It will be easier for Google to present a list, and people are likely to click into the article for additional information about how to grow each type of vegetable.

google search results about zero click search results
This ended up being a zero-click search because the search results gave enough relevant information.

Keep it short and sweet.

This is especially important for H1 tags because search engines are likely to display the title of your page in their results. If you want people to see the whole title, it will have to fit into the search engine results page. Further, watering down your headers too much starts to weaken their effect as relevant organizational tools.

Don’t sacrifice quality or clarity by making them too short, but try keeping H1 tags under 70 characters or so when you can. This becomes less important as you get to smaller headers. As you can see, there are lots of full sentences in H3s in this very blog post. That won’t cause any problems (hopefully, at least!), but it’s not advisable to start putting full paragraphs in heading tags.

You don’t have to use every type of heading tag.

Don’t feel like you have to use every tag all the way down to an H6. Smaller tags don’t carry as much weight anyway, since they’re intended to denote more granular subsections. This particular blog post only goes as small as H3. If you can get your whole article done with an H1, and some H2s, great. If it really makes sense to just use an H1 and some paragraphs, fine. As always, the focus is on clarity, consistency, and a good user experience.

binary code raining down on a robot
Don't inundate your readers (or the algorithm) with unnecessary levels of heading tags.

Ranking on Google in 2019

Search algorithms exist to return good experiences for the people who use them. Help the algorithm do its job by adding heading tags that make your page easy to understand. Don’t sweat the small stuff too much– just think about what makes people want to spend a lot of time on your site, visit often, and share it with their friends. If you want to learn more about optimizing your heading tags (and other SEO methods), join the mailing list below or reach out at any time.

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