How Should I Structure My Heading Tags?

by Ruud Hein June 19th, 2012 

headings 

Summary: structure them the way a 10 seconds common sense look at the document tells you to.

Playing with search engine ranking through manipulation of <h>eading tags is like changing the course of a bear by throwing pebbles at it; a waste of time if not completely useless.

What Are Heading Tags?

HTML has tags to signify a heading, like in a newspaper article or the start of a chapter in a book.

The idea behind <h>eading tags was and is simply to have an logical underlying markup structure for the visible content; nothing more, nothing less.

There are 7 levels of heading tags, ranging from "this is the title of this whole thing" to "this is a part within the other part" etc.

Heading tags are written as <H#>…whatever forms the title…</H#> — where # is a number between 1 and 7.

Heading tags have their own built-in appearance in the HTML language: the size of the font and the space around the title change by using a the heading tag. Every part of the appearance can be changed though using CSS.

What's The Meaning Of <H>eading Tags For Search Engines?

People working in information retrieval intuitively knew that the title of an article or book, its subtitle and paragraph headings, all give valuable information about what can be found in the document. It doesn't take a genius to know what to expect in a document which cover page reads — in large bold letters — "The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine".

It went that the meaning-value of words in the heading is higher than those in a footnote of an article.

But once the search engine engineers concluded this and codified it in the algorithms of their search engines, search engine optimizers deducted what was going on.

Like every on-page element, the user has direct and immediate control over the heading tags: it is easy to manipulate the keyword meaning of a document once you know where the most meaning-points can be scored.

As a result parsing meaning of a document from its headings was dialed down and has become dependent on many off-page factors instead.

The meaning-points have been reduced so much — or have become so strongly co-dependent on other factors — that search engine optimizers can no longer detect strong ranking value for any heading tag but the <H1>– and even then faintly.

Why Do You Recommend <H>eading Tags?

  1. Because it makes (common) sense
  2. Because common sense pays off

The basic barebones structure of a published document in the form of Title followed by paragraphs of content is what it is. The way to markup text so a machine (a computer) knows what the title is is by wrapping the title of the document in <H1>..</H1>, etc.

That it has become hard to discern ranking changing based on heading tag manipulation doesn't negate the immediate fact that search engines most likely still parse these heading tags for pointers; it just has become hard(er) for us outsiders to "see" it through all the other factors.

Good, common sense practices do pay off, time and time again. When the discernable ranking value of taking a moment to write a meta description for a page had gone, many stopped the practice. Others went on because it made and makes sense in and by itself; outside of the world of manipulating rank. Now we know that meta descriptions are regularly used as a search result snippet and that a good meta description can actually increase your CTR; bingo – win. Additionally the increase CTR on search can in turn cause better or sustained ranking: bingo – win again.

Doing things the sensible way … just makes sense.

How Should I Use <H>eading Tags?

As makes sense according to the document(s) you work on. Label the title with meaning in mind, not a search engine.

Label sub-titles, sub-headings, according to their level and as makes sense in and by itself.

Can Menu's Or Menu Items Have <H>eading Tags?

While a menu section can have a title or heading too, <h>eadings generally apply to the document itself; not to the template which surrounds the document.

Generally other HTML tags can be used it but otherwise go for one of the lower heading values. Personally I like to reserve H1 through H4 for my document though.

Conclusion

  • <H>eading tags have common sense meaning
  • placing heading tags is a logical, intuitive process
  • while search engines once placed considerable value on heading tags misuse of those tags have made search engines a bit wary
  • but using a logical, natural flow of headings remains sensible; for immediate correct document markup, for future machine parsing, and for eventual reconsideration of ranking factors
    • no loss, lot of potential gain

If you liked this you might enjoy Does Adding A Title On My Links Help With Ranking?

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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6 Responses to “How Should I Structure My Heading Tags?”

  1. Eric says:

    All else being equal it also provides some formatting that makes the post easier for a user to read.

    Eric

  2. Dan says:

    Interesting point of view but i found that this page doesn't have a H1 and I know that on every page should be one and only one h1. So, how important is for a page to have and h1 tag and what happens if the page doesn't have this tag ?

    thanks

    • Ruud Hein says:

      The H1 is the only heading tag that still has some added value.

      When a page doesn't have an H1 another element usually indicates title of the page and it can be used instead.

  3. Roman says:

    I thins that using H tags in menus is unnatural and could be deemed suspicious by Google. Natural usage works, but one should always have SEO in mind when designing and making headings to make some compromises that are both readable and make sense to human beings while still use keywords etc.

    • Ruud Hein says:

      For me the other way around works good: design with common sense usability in mind. So far *those* are the very tweaks Google has been making. Too many ads? Down vote. Too much crap above the fold/content? Down vote. Keyword stuffing? Down vote.

      Same holds true for headings. Common sense tells me my footer isn't the H1 heading of a page, for example :)