SEO headers: Are they still relevant?

seo & heirarchy

Headings are a great way to structure a webpage, so the user has an easier time understanding your content. Header tags are an indispensable part of every writer’s toolkit, but are they relevant for SEO? 

The answer is a little more complicated than you might think, so here is what you need to know:

A brief introduction to  headers and subheaders

The header is the largest text on the page. This text is the first thing a user and Google crawler will look at when figuring out the purpose of a page. The subheaders are smaller bits of text underneath the heading that add more context.

To tell users that a particular piece of text is the title, you need to ensure this text has the largest font size of any text on the page.

Increasing font size works for users, but web crawlers are different. For a web crawler to understand your headings and subheadings, you need to tag them with either H1 for the title or H2, H3, H4, H5 or H6 for smaller headings. If you use a content management system (CMS), these tags already increase your text to the appropriate font size.

The  importance of headings in SEO

Many SEO professionals are under the impression that headings are an important ranking factor. According to Google, headings used to be a ranking factor in the 2000s (likely the source of this myth) but no longer count towards rankings. 

Google did specify that their bot uses headings to understand the content underneath them. It looks at headings to determine the relevance of the content to a particular search query. You could argue that increasing relevance improves rankings, but it is not on the same level as fixing page speed or LCP.

What is an H1 tag? Should it be optimized for SEO?

Your H1 tagged text is the title of your page and, as such, your most important header. You should ideally have just one H1 tag so that the hierarchy of headings remains consistent. Having multiple H1 tags can reduce the accessibility of your content as it becomes less apparent to the user what the page’s purpose is.

Since the title is supposed to describe the content of your page, it is also the most crucial heading to optimize to increase your relevance for a specific keyword.

How to apply H1 in HTML

  • Type out the text you want to make your H1.
  • Add <h1> to the beginning of your text and </h1> to the end.

You can apply all heading and subheading tags in HTML by changing the tag to <h2> or <h3> and so on until <h6>.

H1 vs H2 vs H3 and beyond

These tags follow a particular hierarchy. H1 is the most important heading and H6 is the least important. It is useful to use H2 titles to break up your content into separate sections and H3 titles to break those sections even further. You can divide your content up as much as you want, so long as you remain consistent.

SEO header tags best practices (H1 and H2)

When optimizing your headers for SEO, you should adhere to these best practices:

Following the ideal H1 length

Ideally, you should keep your H1 between 15 and 60 characters, though you can get to the maximum of 60 characters. If you are using the same title and meta title, you also have to keep click-through rate (CTR) in mind. Your CTR describes how many people clicked on your website divided by the number of impressions your website received.

Here’s a good example of a well-sized H1:

Example of ideal H1 length

This H1 has 34 characters as well as a high volume (for its niche) keyword.

As the title length increases, the CTR may start to decrease.

Optimizing for keyword optimization

You can add no more than two keywords to your H1 and should add other varied keywords to the rest of your headings. This way, you can maximize the relevance of your content to your chosen niche. Try to use long tail keywords as much as possible. Long tail keywords are longer low difficulty keywords that contain more difficult higher volume keywords within them. 

Enhancing user experience and intent

A good rule of thumb when optimizing your site for SEO is to try and be user experience-focused. Google is always looking for pages that provide its users with useful and easy-to-understand content. Make sure that your headings don’t confuse users or look like they were written for robots. 

When optimizing your headings for user experience, make sure that the titles help users scan the article. According to a report by Neilson Norman Group, 79% of users only skim content and only a tiny percentage reads your article completely. Ensuring people can easily scan your content is a great way to make it more engaging and accessible.

Maintaining header structure

Since headers have a predetermined hierarchy, your content will be confusing for both users and bots if you don’t follow it. For example, you should only use your H3 tags to break up your H2 sections into smaller chunks. Using both H2 and H3 tags in the same way in the same article (or even website) makes your content look disorganized. 

Here’s an example of proper header hierarchy:

Header hierarchy example

Maintaining header hierarchy is essential to content structure.

Use just H1 per page to avoid confusing the user as they may confuse the second H1 for the start of a separate article. Though using multiple H1s won’t hurt your ranking, it may confuse users.

Optimizing for featured snippets

A featured snippet is a special Google search result where Google shows users a small section of your content to directly answer a particular query. 

Featured snippets are a kind of holy grail for SEO professionals since getting a snippet often allows for some of the highest click-through rates you can get on a Google search page. According to a study published by Search Engine Land, the CTR jumps from 2% to 8% for a featured snippet.

These are the three types of snippets that you should aim for by optimizing your headings:

Paragraph snippets

Paragraph featured snippets are displayed as short paragraphs that directly answer the question asked. These snippets don’t require many schemas or special tags outside of the standard schemas for blog articles/content. All you have to do is mention a question or topic in a heading and then answer precisely and succinctly.

List snippets

List snippets are search results that show users an entire list that answers their query. To get these results, you should use a higher tier heading (H1 or H2) to title the list and then use lower tier headings (H3, H4, H5, H6) for every point/step on the list. If your entire article is a list, then use H1 to title the article and use H2 tags for every point. If the list is only a section of the article, use lower-tier headings and mark it as a list in HTML.

Table snippets

Once you create a table in HTML, Google begins reading it as a table and may even display it as a table featured snippet. Adding a caption to a table may be very helpful for giving Google context for it, but if there is no caption, Google will use the nearest headings instead. So make sure your headings give context for the tables beneath them.

Using a table of content

Tables of content help people navigate your page and gain a better understanding of what information they will find. Accessibility is important to both users and Google. Making your content easier to read will benefit your metrics.

Here’s an example of a table of contents:

Example of a table of contents in WordPress

With a table of contents, users can quickly navigate to any section of your page.

Headers, particularly H2s, can be displayed on this table of contents to make navigation between sections easier. In fact, many content management systems such as WordPress have extensions and internal options to create these tables automatically, using just the headings on the page.

Using the right number of H2s

You should have two to four H2s per page, but you can pass this limit if it makes sense for the content. Treat the H2s like they are marking different chapters in your content. Dividing your content into too many large chapters may be confusing for the reader. Instead, try to use smaller sections and subsections (H3s and H4s) within them. 

Examples of good headings and subheadings

Here are good uses of headings and subheadings, particularly the hierarchy between headers and subheaders.

This ransomware article is a great example of maintaining header hierarchy. H2s are used as broad headings, and H3s are used to divide up those broad topics into more specific and digestible chunks, as shown in the screenshot below:

Example of header hierarchy

Numbering your headings can be a great way to add structure to your content.

This article is much easier to understand thanks to this breakdown. The headings are all short and very clear about the information that follows them. This simplicity also makes the article much easier to skim, which is great for user experience.

Most articles will not contain headings beyond H4 so make sure you are effectively using smaller headings like H3 and H4. These headings play an important role in making your content more skimmable, since they give more specific context than the larger headings (H1 and H2). A great example of this can be seen in this article related to civic management.

Example of H3 headings

Short and succinct headings make reading a lot simpler, because readers have to do less work to understand your content.

This article uses H3 headings that tell users everything they need to know (in this case, the benefits of engaging in civic activity) and also uses small chunks of text that a reader can quickly digest. Making skimming convenient is great for the user experience and will improve the quality of your article.

Another excellent example for heading use is this guide to picking a bank partner. It uses subheadings to great effect. Instead of keeping the subheading and heading in the same tag, the article uses the “strong” tags for all subheadings. It then uses H4 tags for all the minor headings that are underneath the section heading (H2) and subheading (strong), as seen below:

Example of optimized subheadings

The subheading here adds a little extra context and encourages readers to keep reading.

Subheadings should be prominent but never as prominent as your main heading. They can be used to highlight some additional information or even just as a way to make sure the reader stays on the page. 

Organize your content with headings and improve SEO

Structuring your content and understanding SEO headings can be a difficult task, especially if you are just starting out. Headings can make or break a piece of content and should be carefully crafted.

If you need help with your content or just want to improve your SEO, get in touch with our team of digital marketing consultants

Frequently asked questions

What is a subheader?

A subheader is the smaller text that sits beneath the main heading and provides more context for the user. Subheadings allow headers to remain simple, making the content appear cleaner overall.

Heading vs header: what’s the difference?

When talking about content, headings and headers are essentially the same things. The word header is also often used to describe content that is part of the page instead of the text. These headers remain visible on top of the page regardless of how low a user scrolls.

How do you add H1 tags in WordPress?

To automatically add the H1 tag (or any heading tag) to a page, follow these simple steps:

  1. Highlight the text you want to use as your title.
  2. Move your cursor to the top of the page in the toolbar to the “paragraph” option, which will bring down a list of heading tags.
  3. Click on H1 and you are ready to go.

Should every paragraph have a heading?

No, headings should be used to separate topics, not paragraphs. Two paragraphs could be describing the same topic and should be under the same heading. However, it should be noted that some headings may only have one paragraph underneath them.

What are the header sizes in HTML?

Below are all of the standard sizes most commonly used by browsers for heading tags:

Header tagPixel height
Size in em (1 em is 16px)
H132 px2 em
H224 px1.5 em
H318.72 px1.17 em
H416 px1 em
H513.28 px0.83 em
H610.720.67 em

Header sizes in HTML.

Should the main keyword be in the meta title, description or H1?

Ideally, you should use keywords in your meta title, description and H1 and target different keywords in all three. You should add your main keywords to your H1 since 80% of Google search results end up using the page title instead of the meta title. But you should still have related keywords in your meta title, just in case.

Momin S

Momin Shahab

Momin Shahab is an SEO consultant at Productive Shop. He has worked in SEO on an international level for upwards of three years at various companies. He has gained training in content marketing, project management and data analysis. When he's not working or researching SEO, he is reading and collecting books.

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