The Optimized Publisher: Heading Tags

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The Optimized PublisherIn one of my earlier posts, URL Structure and Site Architecture, I talked about the importance of organizing your site via a hierarchical structure and mapping your website by categories and subcategories. In this post, I am going to explain how good page architecture can not only keep your site well organized, but also add a little link juice to your page rankings in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Heading tags are an HTML navigational element in your code that adds style to your pages. Ranging from H1 (the page header and the most important tag on the page) to H6 (the tag of lowest importance), these tags are the outline of the content that the user sees when your page comes up in the browser.

For example, the H1 tag for the Doomsday Kids homepage is “<h1 class=”site-title” itemprop=”headline”><a href=””>The Doomsday Kids</a></h1>”, shown as The Doomsday Kids at the top of the page. There is also an H2 tag for the page: “<h2 class=”site-description” itemprop=”description”>Apocalyptic Adventures for All Kinds of Kids!</h2>”, shown as Apocalyptic Adventures for All Kinds of Kids! in italics at the top of the page.

Search engines also read your heading tags when your page is indexed during a crawl. They want to make sure that your Hs match the rest of the content on the page, confirming that you are not leading the visitor (or the spider that crawls the page) astray. Correct use of heading tags can give you a bit of a bump in SERPs rankings. Missing those tags, however, can detract from a customer’s experience on your page and prevent you from boosting your page rankings.

Unfortunately, there are a great number of coders and developers who have misappropriated the use of the H tags to help them organize HTML code and format the text on the page. Heading tags offer a bit of order to the chaos of webpage code environment, which is why they are often abused, containing repeated and duplicate information or often no information at all—a greatly missed opportunity when it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). You should think about the H tags as the outline of the content on the page.

The scores of the participants in this SEO Factor were the lowest in our evaluation: a 1.3 aggregate score (an “F” grade) with no individual website receiving a score higher than a 2.0.

Heading Tags

There is a lot of work to do here when it comes to heading tags. Let’s delve deeper into the HTML together, shall we?

H1: It Takes 1 to Know 1

The little kid comeback “It takes one to know one” could not be a more apt description for H1 heading tags. By using an H1 tag, you have told Google what the page is about. Here’s how to create the best H1s:

Start at the Beginning: When you are creating an H1 and subsequent heading tags, you need to do it on a per-page basis. When I discussed site architecture, I encouraged you to create a map for all your website pages. Now, think about a map for each page individually. Stay away from the domain name and tagline for your site and focus on the other information on the page. Is this a book or author page? That could be your H1 for this specific page.

o You might have noticed that the H1 and the page title tag seem a bit similar. While they may share similar traits (describing the page and using appropriate keywords), the page title is what search engines use most often to find your site page. Heading tags influence SEO a little less than page titles and are more for search engines to establish context for the page content. If at all possible, however, we usually recommend that the page title and the H1 tag be the same.

Just Use One H1: As I have stated many times in this series so far, duplication in SEO is bad, bad, bad—from URLs to page content. Using more than one H1 on a page might annoy search engines a bit, giving your page less ranking weight than it should. The University of Hawaii Press Home Page uses H1 tags for each of its navigational elements instead of the outline of the content that is on the pages. Remember to use other H tags (H2, H3, etc.) to map out individual page structures, letting Google know the page’s organization and what subcontent relates to the main category. You can use multiple H2 and H3 tags, as long as they are subsections within that page’s content.

• In a similar vein, do not use the same H1 for multiple pages within your site. Just as every page has a unique page title, so should each H1 for that page use unique content to describe that page. Repeating your H1 could confuse search engines as to where to find the search terms among the SERPs, leading them to your competitor’s results instead.

Words Are the Key: Search engine spiders will be checking to be sure that the keywords in your H1 tag match the content on the page. While some keywords may repeat between pages, try to use unique tags for both your H1 and page title tags. When creating these tags, put yourself in the shoes (or keyboard) of the user. Ask yourself what keywords or phrases they would type into a search field and model your tags around this text.

o Don’t use images for your page headers. Search engines cannot read images. By substituting your H1 and other tags with pictures or graphics, you are missing out on the boost in link juice. If you are set on using images, consider image replacement options in your style sheets.

o Try not to cram your H1 with extra keywords that do not fit into standard sentence structure. Search engines view this type of “exploitation” as spam and may lower your link juice level accordingly.

Get the H in Here: Other Useful Heading Tags

As mentioned above, using more than one H1 tag can be confusing to search engines. On pages that have additional headings or subcategories, other heading tags are available, from H2 to H6. You can use as many H2/H6 tags as you need to. They can be extremely helpful to you, Google and your customers:

• Have a look at this blog post. If you notice I have used a few subheadings throughout. This helps break the page up into “bite-sized” sections for your readers. It lets them know what each section will focus on and allows them to skim/scan the text to look for specific information. One long page of text that is not divided into subheadings can look a bit daunting to read, even if it is an interesting topic.

o A good example of dividing up a page into digestible content can be seen on the Wayzgoose Press homepage. However, they could really use an H1 tag to create more of a presence for the search engines.

• Dividing your page in multiple heading tags allows search engines to scan your page for content faster during a site crawl. Keep in mind that the tags must be in ascending order and consecutive – H1, H2, H3 vs. H1, H4, H5 – although there can be multiples of heading tags after H1. Going out of order, or skipping a tag, can stop a site crawl pretty quickly, leaving behind important aspects of your page.

o For example, the SilkWords homepage could possibly benefit from adding an H1 tag for the page title and multiple H2 tags for “Learn About SilkWords,” “Featured Stories,” etc. They could go further still with H3 tags for “Read Stories,” “Acquire Hearts,” and “Earn Badges” under the proposed H2 tag for “Learn About SilkWords.” Actually, these tags should not be section headers, but truly describe the content below the tag. This is sometimes difficult to do, so just like the rule about commas: “When in doubt, leave it out.”

• A hierarchy of ordered H tags makes your site pages accessible to users who are visually impaired or have other similar disabilities. By using screen readers, they can navigate through your site using the H tags as a guide. So the deeper your H tags go, the better the navigation.

Give Me an H: Final Thoughts on H Tags

If your website is already established, and you do not have proper heading tags incorporated into your HTML, you might have second thoughts about revising your H tags. Fortunately, you can rely on a few SEO plugins or an SEO expert to help you figure out the best strategy to turn your H tags into something that your customers and Google will notice.

While the H1 and other heading tags may not be as important as page titles or proper URL structure, they are another tiny step toward SEO and better page rankings compared to your competitors. The goal is to get you noticed in the SERPs, and adding proper heading tags to some of the other SEO factors that I have outlined will bring more traffic to your website.

Heading tags are great shortcuts for search engines and customers. In the next post, I will tell you about another shortcut that will make Google and other search engines happier when crawling your site for information – Structured Data Markup.

How do your H tags stack up? Let me know in the comments below.

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Next Article: The Optimized Publisher: Structured Data Markup

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