Heading Tag SEO: It’s All About the Outline (and the Audience)

using a computer

Most publishers know that heading tags, like meta descriptions and page title tags, are a key component of a website’s content structure.

But how much do they really matter for SEO, and how should you use them?

Glad you asked, because that’s the focus of our SEO Like a CEO series today!

What are Heading Tags?

Heading tags are — get this — HTML tags that mark up a section of text to be a “heading.” In other words, it’s the important, large text that describes what the section of content that follows it is about.

For the HTML geeks that do their markups themselves, they’re the <h1>, <h2>, <h3>, <h4>, <h5> and <h6> tags inside HTML.

Anything between the <h1>Heading</h1> opening and closing tags is what’s going to be marked as a heading.

Inside WYSIWYG editors like Gutenberg or the old Visual editor in WordPress, they’re labeled as “Heading 1” through “Heading 6.”

Both naming conventions refer to the same thing — a heading that’s used to describe the text that follows it. The numbers (1-6, or however many you use) are the order of importance.

In HTML, they’re also styled by default to be largest at the H1 level, with each subsequent heading tag appearing in smaller text. H1 is the largest text, and H6 is the smallest.

By default, they’re also bolded, with a heavier font weight, to make them stand out more.

Mediavine Pinterest image - Heading tags: What they are, how to use them, and why they are important for SEO.

Do Heading Tags Matter for SEO?

While the SEO community may not universally agree on how much heading tags matter in 2020, Google is quite clear about it in the SEO Starter Guide.

Warning: prepare for meta overload.

In the “Help Google (and users) understand your content” heading, Google recommends using heading tags as its third piece of advice, after page title and meta description — not coincidentally, the two pieces of Mediavine SEO content that preceded this article.

It’s also no coincidence that Google organized the Starter Guide as an outline, using H1, H2 and H3 tags, and advises you to do the same with your content.

Our SEO Like a CEO series is being organized the same way, only I’m writing it in reverse, starting with long tail keywords — or what would be my H3 tags in the SEO Like a CEO outline — and then working my way up.

(Sorry. Like I said, very meta.)

Anyway, like we always say, if Google is telling you to use heading tags as the third piece of advice in helping Google (and your users) understand your content, it’s safe to assume in still matters for SEO.

woman in orange shirt who is coding header tags

Which Heading Tags Should You Use: H1, H2, H3, etc?

Ideally, you should use all of the above.

Heading tags are numbered to be be used in descending order of priority, so your most important heading should be H1. H2 tags are under H1 tags. H3 tags are under H2/H1 tags.

You get it, but here’s an example in outline form:

  • H1: Post Title
    • H2: Section 1
    • H2: Section 2
      • H3: Sub-Section 2A
      • H3: Sub-Section: 2B
    • H2: Section 3

For any given blog post, your post title should be the H1. It’s important that it contains something similar to what you would use for your page title and contains your keyphrase.

Now, your usage of H2 and H3 tags will depend on how you organize the post.

As Google mentions in its Starter Guide, you should write your posts like an outline. Organize your sections before you even start to write them.

For example, before I began writing the article you’re currently reading, I organized my H2 tags ahead of time so I could plan what to write.

In this particular post, and most of my SEO series, you’ll see a similar pattern of H2 headings. What is X? Does X matter for SEO? And so on. These are a series of questions I answer.

It helps keep me organized, but more importantly, it gives the audience a heads up when I’m discussing another facet of today’s subject or the chance to jump to the section they care most about.

For example, if you already know headings matter for SEO, or assume they do, then you can skip on down. That’s how readers skim the internet, and it’s why headers are so important.

So what about those H3 tags?

Yes, I really did put that question itself in an H3 tag. Would you take advice from me otherwise?

If the sections under your H2 tags require sub-sections, that’s when H3 tags enter the picture.

Again, think back to the outline. Are there subsections of the main sections within your blog post?

If so, use h3 tags and don’t be afraid! If you don’t like the way they look in your theme, contact your theme’s support or hire a developer to fix them.

Please don’t skip out on what’s called correct semantic HTML because of the aesthetics. Follow H tags in the order they were meant to be used.

What about H4, H5, H6, etc?

I’ve rarely seen posts that naturally use these, and typically they are used by more structured, “computer generated” HTML like Create.

For example, in Create, let’s say you’re making a delicious bundt cake with a glaze. Your recipe title, or “Olive Oil Bundt Cake with Pecan Streusel” will be the H2 (since it’s under your post’s H1).

“Ingredients” will be one of your H3s (“Instructions” will be another). Now if you use any ingredient groups, those would end up being H4s, such as “For the Glaze” and “For the Cake.”

It makes sense in that context, and it’s the correct HTML. But it’s a rare case in which writing a conventional blog post will you get down to that level.

If you do, though, it’s completely fine. Just please don’t skip H2 and H3 and jump to H4 because you like the way it looks. You need to use them in the correct order to reap the SEO benefits.

Once more for those in the back: H1 for your blog post. H2 for the sections of your post. H3 for any subsections under that.

the hands of a woman in a light blue sweater using a smartphone while holding a laptop in their lap

Should I Use My Keyword in All of My Heading Tags?

Apologies again for the meta overload, but yes, I used my keyphrase, “heading tags” in this heading, so you can probably guess where this is going.

When we talked about keyword prominence, I made a big deal about making sure you use keywords inside your heading tag. However, that advice was typically geared towards making sure it shows up early in your H1 tag.

You can certainly use your keywords again in your H2 or H3 tags, but the key is not going overboard and running the risk of keyword stuffing, as we discussed about in our keyword density post.

Use the keyword or phrase where it’s natural in a heading tag. Remember, readers are skimming through your content and using the H tags to figure out where to stop and read.

Does the heading read okay without the keyword? If so, don’t unnaturally try to stuff it in.

Does the heading require the use of the keyphrase to make sense? Then great, use it!

Don’t worry about what the SEO rumor mill says this week or last week. Worrying about your readers and their interactions with your content will never steer you wrong.

female developer wearing a green sweater and typing on a desktop computer in a home office

Can I Have Multiple H1 Tags?

Yes. If you’re using them correctly, there are times in which you’ll want multiple H1 tags. Google has answered this question multiple times, and there’s a nerdy term I use a lot called “Semantic HTML.”

It basically means using HTML the way it’s meant to be used. For example, as we keep saying, H1 is there to define the most important heading.

Now, funny story, in a semantic HTML you can have multiple sections (which even have their own <section> tag!). In semantic HTML, each of these technically reset their headers. So under each section you should start back with an H1.

There are technical reasons why you’d want to start over with H1 tags. For example, when we first launched Create, we followed semantic HTML and websites had multiple H1 tags.

We later made Create default to H2 tags because of this rumor. While it’s not true — you can have multiple H1 tags if they’re following semantic HTML — it sure is easier this way.

For the purposes of your blog post, when you’re writing it yourself, chances are you’re not dividing things up with multiple HTML sections with different headers, footers, etc.

When writing a blog post you should only have one H1 tag, but you can and should have multiple H2 and H3 tags.

Powerful On-Page SEO in Your Control

Combined with meta descriptions and page titles, heading tags are a key piece of your on-page SEO strategy that you don’t need to be an HTML geek in order to master.

Coming up with a good outline at the onset takes some effort, and it’s important to keep the key points described above in mind, but there’s nothing you can’t handle from a technical standpoint.

If you take one thing away from this post, remember to focus on the reader when outlining and writing heading tags.

When it comes to accessibility for audiences and search engines alike, this rule of thumb will never steer you wrong.

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