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The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Header Tag SEO

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SEO / May 06, 2020

h1 header guide

Whether you’ve got search engine optimization (SEO) in mind in the planning phase or in retrospect, it’s never a bad time to consider the options at your disposal to help your content reach more viewers through search.

SEO in its entirety is often regarded as a rather enigmatic discipline, bound by loose rules, mixed signals, and a lack of clarity offered by our Google overlords. However, through rigorous testing and experimenting, the SEO community has made great progress in identifying actions you can take to improve your content’s chances of appearing more prominently in search engine result pages (SERPs).

At the risk of stating the obvious, given the title of this blog post, our aim is to provide a high-level overview of a page’s header tags, the role they play in SEO, and what you can do to optimize them. This article will be broken down into the following sections:

• Looking at Things from a Search Engine’s Perspective
• What Role do Header Tags Play?
• Header Tag Best Practices
• Organize your Content with Header Hierarchy
• Use a Single H1 Tag Per Page
• Include Keywords in Your Headers
• Write for Featured Snippets
• Acknowledgments
• Bloom’s Free Template to Help You

Looking at Things from a Search Engine’s Perspective

In Bloom’s SEO department, my colleagues and I have often found success in communicating esoteric SEO concepts to our clients by breaking down Google’s underlying motivations. Ask yourself “what does Google want?”, and “what actions might they take in that pursuit?”

These questions can get you a long way from the starting blocks in the race to page 1 of the SERPs.

One such example of a Google motivation breakdown is that which we employ to explain why user-experience is paramount to SEO. So much so that there’s been a slow movement to rebrand SEO as SXO; the X to emphasize the importance of the experience. That being said, for now, we’ll stick with SEO for, well, SEO purposes.

The aforementioned example is a sequence of logic which goes like this:

  1. Google likes revenue
  2. Advertisers provide that revenue
  3. Advertisers choose Google ads because the user-base is active and plentiful
  4. Users are active and plentiful because Google provides good results
  5. Results are good when they provide the right information, packaged in a good experience. 
  6. By the transitive property, Google’s utmost priority for sustained revenue growth is twofold: the right information and good user experience.

To bring things back to the topic at hand, header tags are one of the strongest indicators of a page’s contents (the right information), and also help to organize text and improve its readability (a good user experience). If used correctly, headers can be a powerful addition to your tool belt to help you satisfy two of Google’s most important motivation-based ranking criteria.

What Role do Header Tags Play?

We’re likely the last generation for whom it actually remains productive to use the “print media” analogy to offer clarity as to the role that headers play in text, given that the vast majority of text-media consumption has taken place online for over a decade. Kind of like trying to explain a smartphone to a millennial by likening it to a telegraph.

newspaper and computer

Tangents aside (you didn’t come here to read analogies for analogies), you can think about headers on your webpage like headers in a newspaper.

Readers are impatient, they have lawns to mow and kids to drive to soccer practice, typical Saturday morning stuff. They’re scanning the paper for eye-catching phrases to get a sense of the value they’re likely to derive from the time it’ll take to read your content, and nothing catches the eye like headers (safe for maybe images, but I’ll leave those for another time).

The majority of readers are, and always will be, lazy; looking for the most bang for bang for their buck. In this case, buck is time, and bang is meaningful insight.

You can use your headers to help users optimize this tradeoff by making sure the headers are clearly representative of their respective section’s contents. They should also be used frequently enough to improve the chances of bringing something of interest to the reader’s attention, but not so frequently that they lose value due to their abundance (when everything is big and bold, nothing is).

Header Tag SEO Best Practices

Alright, the part you’ve all been waiting for: Let’s break down some SEO best practices for header tags. These, like many other supposed ranking factors, have not been directly confirmed by Google, but are instead held in high regard due to the SEO community’s testing and experimentation over the past decade or so. 

Organize your Content with Header Hierarchy

h1 header tag analogy

Header tags come in 6 different shapes and sizes: h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, and, you guessed it, h6. In descending order of importance, this hierarchy of header tags is at your disposal to summarize, or premise the contents of your page in increasing degrees of topic granularity.

Think of these headers as folders on your computer desktop:

  • Parent folder (h1): Images
  • Child folder 1 (h2): 2018
  • Child folder 2 (h2): 2019
  • Grandchild folder A (h3): Summer
  • Grandchild folder B (h3): Winter
  • Great grandchild folder (h4): New Years Party

There is a very clear hierarchy in place here. Ideas, sub-ideas, and sub-sub-ideas that help someone navigate your files intuitively.

The reason why content often deviates from this model is that users don’t see which header tags are being used, so web editors can get careless without obvious consequences. Readers can depend on their common sense and ability to interpret visual cues to inform them as to what content belongs to which section, which content is important, and which is less so.

Search engine bots are not so lucky as to have a common-sense fallback. They see the green code waterfall, not agent Smith at the end of a hallway. This means content that may look okay to you and me could be sending all sorts of unintentional priority signals to search engines through improper HTML coding, which could ultimately damage your content’s ability to rank for its target keyword. 

As a final note for this section, feel free to analyze the source code of this blog page. Inspect our headers to see how we’ve broken down the sections of this article.

Use a Single H1 Tag Per Page

Using the last section as a launchpad, we now know that the H1 is the highest priority header tag, and the least granular in its description of a page’s content. Google will use your H1 to formulate an approximate understanding of the overall topic your page is discussing.

To understand why using a single H1 is considered best practice, it may be helpful to imagine a scenario where in which you choose to use multiple H1s, and the implications that decision has for a search engine bot’s perception of your content.

Suppose you are writing an article about “superfoods”, or foods that are abnormally rich in nutrients.

Your H1 would be something to the effect of “5 Superfoods to Add to your Diet ASAP”. By setting this as your H1 header, the message you’re sending Google is that your page will discuss a wide variety of superfood candidates, and provide an overview of each. So far so good.

Next, you come to your first superfood, kale salad. You decide to code this section’s header as an H1 because you like the format or styling associated with that header tag. What you’ve now done is send Google a signal that kale salad is an equally valid descriptor of the main topic of the article. You’ve inadvertently narrowed the scope of your content, and your portfolio of potential keywords.

When choosing which pages to rank for a given search term, Google is trying to understand the underlying intent of the searcher. Suppose a user searches Google for “superfoods”. That user is likely looking for a list of viable superfoods, rather than an in-depth look at an individual item from amongst the total list.

By telling Google through the use of the overly specific “kale salad” H1 header, you’ve disqualified yourself from ranking for more generic, more voluminous search terms where the user intent is less well defined. 

Using multiple H1s also runs the risk of diluting the signal that this page element sends as a ranking signal. If Google sees that you’re using H1s incorrectly, it may choose to ignore them as a signal altogether. This means you forego a powerful tool at your disposal to communicate the topic of your page.

Use Keywords in your Headers

This one should be the least surprising amongst this list of best-practices for anyone who has dabbled in SEO before.

Typically, good content planning should involve an SEO mindset. “How will I drive traffic to my content?” and “what keywords should I target to drive the most organic search traffic?” are questions I strongly recommend asking yourself in this phase.

While there are many differing strategies and opinions around choosing the right keyword, few if any SEOs would hesitate to recommend that you include these keywords in your headers to improve their visibility for both search engines and users.

Like we discussed in previous sections, your headers are used to summarize and premise the topic of your content. It then stands to reason that using your target keyword(s) in your headers would give the signal to Google that your content is about your target keyword, which would improve your ranking eligibility.

Keyword-rich headers also send the signal to readers that your content is about their search term. This would improve the chances that they stop to read and engage with your content. 

Some of the best keyword research tools I can recommend include SEMrush, Ahrefs, Google’s Keyword Planner, Twinwords. Some are paid, some are free, some are a hybrid. 

Write for Featured Snippets

You may have noticed in your past Google searching experiences that not all search results look the same. Sometimes they’re the typical “header, url, description” we’ve all come to expect.

search engine result

Other times there are carousels, local business listings, interactive tools for unit conversion or weather. These are what search marketers refer to as “rich snippets”.

featured snippet result

Among the various types of rich snippets, is a result type known as “featured snippets”. You may recognize these as a quick answer or a description curated to address your search query. They typically appear before any other result, and are presented with more visual prominence, such as a border, larger text, and an image.

While there’s been some debate about the value of offering one’s secret sauce in the SERP before requiring a click, it seems that, rather counterintuitively, click through rates for results that give a pre-click answer outperform run-of-the-mill search results in the first position. There is greater nuance to this discussion, however, and is worth reading about if you’re curious.

The takeaway here is that, as a marketer, or someone with a marketing mindset, it’s in your best interest to be featured in this type of search result. There are many factors that contribute to a page’s eligibility to be chosen for these featured snippets, among which is the way your headers and immediately following text is written.

As we discussed, headers draw attention from Google. If you make your header a FAQ, and follow it up with a 1 to 2 sentence long, satisfying answer to that question, you improve your chances of being chosen for that featured snippet.

In this pursuit, you might consider complementing keyword research for your content with an investigation of FAQ around your topic, and working those into your content as their own subsections.

A great tool for research FAQ is Answer the Public

Acknowledgments

The topic of multiple H1s recently surfaced in a discussion with John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google. The conversation went as follows:

The question. “Can we have a clear answer to the question [of] how to handle headings and accessibility? I see a lot of multiple h1 (all but one are visually hidden) out there … Everybody treats it differently. And stuff like the <main> tag,” asked user @chaeppeli via Twitter.

The answer. As mentioned above, Mueller explained that Google’s systems aren’t tripped up by multiple H1 headings, noting that it’s “a fairly common pattern on the web.”

Google’s ability to wade through the mess that is the vast majority of website coding across the internet has and continues to improve with every update to its ranking algorithm.

While Google may be able to discern the topic of a page by looking at signals from other page elements or modifying the way in which they interpret priority signals provided by multiple H1s, it remains in your best interest to stick with best-practice and avoid forcing Google to use workarounds.

There is some amount of noise and imperfection with every additional step or workaround Google has to take to crawl and index your content. Let’s not forget the O in SEO, and work to minimize the chances that Google misinterprets your content.

Bloom’s Free Template to Help You

If you need a working document with all these recommendations and insights in one place, we created a template to help you out. Please request edit access to the document and we’ll send you a copy. 

If you have any trouble using the sheet, please email us at [email protected]. We’ll be happy to help sort it out for you.

Closing Thoughts

If you made it this far, you’ve proven yourself committed to strengthening your SEO knowledge, and driving more organic traffic to your site! This specific aspect of SEO has many other subtleties and intricacies that were glossed over or omitted entirely.

If you have further desire for education, please feel free to check out our other articles or reach out to us directly. We love having these types of conversations.

Finally, the claims and recommendations made in this article were formulated on the basis of our SEO experiences and learnings. If anything we’ve presented conflicts with something you’ve experienced in the past, please leave a comment and we’ll continue the conversation. We look forward to comparing notes!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jay Arsenault

SEO Analyst @ Bloom

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