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How Best to Use Headers
get the best SEO & CTR results in 2024

reading time, about 5 minutes

The very first thing that needs to be said and understood, is that the structure of the page and headers are for the human user. A good clear page structure with nice visible headings, that can be read easily help discoverability on the page.

If you think about a webpage in the same way as a newspaper article, then the first thing people do is to make sure that this is what they are looking for and that they are in the right place.

What are the Heading Tags?

The heading tags are the HTML H1, H2, H3, H4, H5 and H6 tags. Use them to denote the hierarchy of your content.

Look at the structure of this page, there is a H1 heading at the top, which tells you what this page is about. It becomes your first indication that you have arrived on a page that meets your content needs and expectations. If you were looking for running shoes, you would know instantly, that this was the wrong place. If, on the other hand, you are looking for information about HTML headings, then this looks promising. It might not be exactly what you were looking for, but it’s a good start.

Then, as you look down the page, you can see there are sub-headings. This means that you can quickly find the answer to a question, by skimming the sub-headings, or in this case, H2 tags. If there were sub-sub-headings, then they would be H3 tags and you would find them inside the H2 subsections.

H4 headings would then be found in the H3 sub-sections, etc. I hope at this point you can see the structure.

Visually, you would expect the H1 to be the biggest size in the so-called ‘font ramp’. With H6 being the least prominent. Usually, the H1 will be the most visible and standout very clearly from the page. With each subsequent heading tag becoming less prominent and usually smaller and/or with a lighter font weight. This is part of the visual appearance and has nothing to do with page structure.

How Are Pages Read?

The reason that the page structure matters, is because of the way people tend to read pages. If you have already read through the Page Titles learning guide, then you will already know that most people skim a webpage and only a very small percentage actually read all the text.

In this case, the headings and page structure provide a helpful guide to the skimmer. The more visible headings help to guide the eye to each section and sub-section within.

Now, so far this discussion has cantered on how the human uses the page headings. But, what about the machine user, the search engine and its algorithms? The short answer from Google, is that it will make very little difference. Their system is capable of determining what is a header and what is the article or body text without needing the semantic mark-up (the heading tags). This means, that using the heading tags is primarily for the human and look of the page.

There is, however, one more user that you need to consider, and that is those with a visual impairment. In this case, the screen reader that they use will use the heading tags and that will inform the visually impaired human user about the structure of the page and enable them to navigate the page more effectively.

Do I Need Heading Tags?

As discussed above, you do not need the heading tags. The search engine will process the page and understand the content even without the tags or even with the tags in a poor structure.

This doesn’t mean you should ignore the structure, but it means that the correct tag in the correct place should not harm your search engine results page (SERP) placement. It should have little to zero impact on your search engine optimisation (SEO).

A human visitor will greatly benefit from the structure and a visually impaired visitor will find the page much easier to navigate. This will have the benefit of them staying on the page for longer and that means, your ranking will be better because the longer someone spends on the page, the better the algorithms like it, probably.

Do the Search Engines Use Heading Tags?

The search engines do your heading tags when they are present, but they do not need them to process the page.

This is because, historically, people who have been designing and implementing pages have been lax in their correct use of the tags. If the heading tags are being used incorrectly, the search engines found that they must process the page regardless of the tags. This legacy means that they do not need the tags but appreciate them when present.

How Many Headings Should You Use?

There’s no hard and fast rule here. My recommendation is that you use as many as you need to make the document look nice and provide the structure it needs to be useful and easy to use.

This page uses only the H1 and H2 heading tags, other pages use the H3 and H4 tags. We use the tags that make sense and leave it at that.

One rule though, is use only one H1 tag. While Google will not care if you use more than one, it seems to be considered bad practice. My advice is use just the single H1 tag for the main page heading, then use the H2 tags as you go down the document. As demonstrated by this page.

Does the Order of the Heading Tags Matter?

The intent behind the heading tags, is that they form a hierarchy. So, each tag should have a higher numbered tag as its sub-sections.

A H2 tag will use H3 tags as its sub-sections. Then inside the H3 section, there will be H4 sub-sections.

Repeat this process for all the different levels.

If you find the page is too complex and that you are using too many headings, then consider breaking the page into multiple pages. It might be that you have more than one topic on the page and it would, therefore, be better to make each topic a page in its own right. Ultimately, this will help with your search engine optimisation (SEO).

In the end, the search engine will not care about the heading tag order, but you will find the page easier to edit and maintain if you have provided a semantic structure and used the heading tags as they were intended.

What Is the Proper Page Structure?

The proper page structure and we are only looking at the layout and the tags, rather than some of the other details, entails making the page easy for a human to read.

The question is complex, because if you have images or video, this can change the overall layout and structure of the page. Should the video be in a section on its own or part of a different section. So that, if the video and the article contain the same content, should the video be part of the introduction? This is beyond the current article.

Ignore what a search engine or an algorithm might prefer and focus on the human user. The more appealing your page, the longer they will linger on the page and this is of great benefit to you.

Make the page heading the H1 tag, then under that, use the H2 for each of your sub-headings. Then each of those H2 tags should have H3 tags with the sub-topics. If you need additional structure below each H3 tag, use the H4.

Just be aware, that if you need more than H3 or perhaps H4, then the page runs the risk of being too long and complex. Consider breaking it up into more pages.

Should Each Heading Contain Keywords?

Don’t worry about trying to get your keywords into all the headings or sub-headings. Get the main keyword into the H1 tag and then use the other H2 tags to appeal to the human user. Search engines track how long someone stays on the page before pressing the back button. Make the page interesting, make them want to read your content.

While thinking of the H2 tags, feel free to include your secondary and tertiary keywords. The more of your second and their choice keywords or phrases you can get into the whole page, the better. Make it natural, do not try to keyword stuff the page or the heading. Ultimately, it will look bad and provide a bad experience to the human user. The search engine algorithm will not appreciate it either and as you already know, keyword stuffing is a negative ranking signal. You only want the positive ranking signals.