Headings and why you should use them

This is a republish: we’ve made some minor changes to it. We decided to republish it, because this post and its content are still applicable and important now.

This post just had to be written. Somehow we have a chapter about Headings in all (!) our site reviews. Usually the website owner can’t change a single thing about the heading setup of the website, as he is unwilling or just lacks the knowledge to change the theme of the website. But headings do matter.

There are two ways headings can structure your content. In classic HTML, there would be 1 H1 tag on each page, maybe a couple of H2’s etc and these would all combine to form an outline of the entire document.

In HTML5, each sectioning tag (for instance <section> and <article>) starts again with an H1. This was done to make it easier to combine several components onto one page and still have a valid outline. It makes sense from a clearly theoretical perspective, but it’s lots harder to understand and we generally recommend against using it. This article explains what’s “wrong” with it.

Structuring the entire page

In the case of HTML4, it seems logical to use one H1 per page, of course being the main title of that page. In most cases, that’s not your brand name or website name (on your homepage it probably is, and that’s fine). On this page on yoast.com, it’s “Headings and why you should use them”. That is what this content is about. I’m not going to talk about Yoast here, so no need to make that the H1, right? Here’s what Matt Cutts has to say about it:

On a category page that H1 would be the category name and on a product page the product name. It’s not that hard, indeed. That is why we still recommend using the H1 this way.

H2 is for subheadings of that H1. Use it to divide content into scannable blocks; both Google and your visitor will like it. H3 is for subheadings of that H2, preferably. Sometimes I use H3 for blocks that should be H2, but just don’t hold that much information for the visitor, like the closing heading on this post, where I will ask you to comment on my statements – perhaps you don’t agree and we could have a nice discussion about that ;-)

I want to emphasize that this all isn’t new. Over the last six or seven, maybe even more years, not much has changed in the way we recommend using headers.

Without headings, it is all Chinese

Without headings, it is all Chinese

What I dislike most, is when people use headings to style certain elements of a website. “Call us at 0123456789” and use H1 to style the phone number. Your web designer knows better than that. Have him add a class to your CSS file for that. Even Google’s SEO Starter Guide mentions this. Second, when people just squeeze an entire paragraph in an H2 or H3. That happens more often than you think. Sales pages or landing pages love that practice. We don’t.

Look what headings we found in the attic

Have you used any H4s, H5s or H6s lately? Alright, using an H4 could be useful if your text is longer than a 1,000 words and you want to add an extra layer in the page structure. And the H4 could be used for sidebar or footer headings that don’t include that keyword you want to rank for, but any other use of these headings seems unnecessary. Funny thing is that a lot of themes just did not pay that much attention to these headings as well, sometimes making H5 text smaller than paragraph text.

You should style them to make them look more important than regular text, but don’t overdo this. These headings are extras, I think. Used in the early days of the internet, but more and more useless these days. I wouldn’t mind if we would get rid of at least H5 and H6 altogether, to be honest. Using three, four headings at most is structure enough for me.

Headings and SEO

You are going to ask this: what value do headings have for SEO? Well, we feel that the value is less than it was, but headings still help Google to grasp the main topics of a long post. As mentioned, Google might scan your post as well and why not make that as easy as possible?

There are other things like great content and schema.org markup that will help your rankings more than a great heading structure, but in the end, using a nice heading structure isn’t that hard and helps your visitors as well. So please, at least use a heading structure and the way we described it above is easy enough for everyone to use.

What are your thoughts on headings?

As promised: we are really looking forward to your thoughts on headings. They should be in any theme, but to what extent? Drop your 2 cents in the comments!

33 Responses

  1. Baz Hart
    By Baz Hart on 20 May, 2014

    Absolutely agree!
    Have been putting this into our process of content marketing since we started our agency three years ago!
    Nice to see its importance mentioned by Yoast!

  2. Steve Grady
    By Steve Grady on 20 May, 2014

    Couldn’t agree with you more, The amount of times that I’ve come across entire paragraphs in is disturbing. I generally just use H1 ( title only), H2 and H3, it’s not often I’ll use H4 but I’f I do it’s for widget headers or as your article states, things that are necessary for the user but not as important for SEO. Oddly as you say, the font size usually needs adjusting as it’s too small. I’ve occasionally focused on some geo location info by using H4 too with some success when listing areas covered or store locations.

  3. Robin
    By Robin on 20 May, 2014

    Fun. Told a customer this week to use H’s instead of simply bold text to use as heading. Have to admit it’s not easy as a normal WP user to know these kinds of things when it’s not in the WYSIWYG editor. Thanks for proving me right Michiel =).

    • Jerry Stevens
      By Jerry Stevens on 20 May, 2014

      “Have to admit it’s not easy as a normal WP user to know these kinds of things when it’s not in the WYSIWYG editor. ”

      True. I sometimes wonder why it’s not.

      • Michiel Heijmans
        By Michiel Heijmans on 20 May, 2014

        In the defense of WordPress: People who don’t know that probably should use the WYSIWYG editor anyway :D Or is that too narrow-minded?

  4. Jaap
    By Jaap on 20 May, 2014

    Completely agree with your point of view. How do you think on headers for product titles on a category page? Would you recommend giving them a header, for instance h2?

  5. George Papatheodorou
    By George Papatheodorou on 21 May, 2014

    Nice post Michiel. Any thoughts on how to avoid “conflicts” (SEO wise) between the heading tags inside the post and the widget titles (which most of the times are H4 by default in most ready made themes)?
    Should we change the widget titles to simple (bold) text?
    Or the “impact” is that minimal that we should just ignore it?
    Thank you

    • Michiel Heijmans
      By Michiel Heijmans on 21 May, 2014

      I would say focus on H1-H3, but as you may have read in the comments above sometimes H4 can be of some influence. Perhaps you can test that?

      In the logical heading structure it would make sense to give these headings H4/5/6, or not? Bold / italic should just be used to emphasize words in text.

      • George Papatheodorou
        By George Papatheodorou on 22 May, 2014

        Thank you Michiel,

        I think I’ll test it and get back to this post later on to add any findings.

  6. Marko Antonijevic
    By Marko Antonijevic on 21 May, 2014

    There are many websites (mostly e-commerce ones) that are not designed to have an H1 tag on the home page. Even though there is this option to place it in the logo (not the best solution, and not recommended), or simply not use it (no H1 on amazon’s home page), some go for strange solutions (putting the tag in the very last title on page and so on). My questions are:

    – Let’s say you inserted the H1 tag into the very last paragraph on this page (Headings and SEO). How would that affect the purpose of H tags? What happens if there are 5 titles on the page and the first one is let’s say H3, second H5, third H1, and fourth H2 (set to have the same font size)? Just curious.

    – Search Engine Land, being a trusted source for SEO and other fields, uses at least 4 H1 tag on the home page. How come?

    – Does illogical or ill-structured H tags are seen and penalized by Google. I’m asking this because there are sites that intentionally use several H1 tags in order to rank better for specific keywords, and this strategy still works for them.


    • Michiel Heijmans
      By Michiel Heijmans on 21 May, 2014

      Thanks for your response. Let me try to answer your questions one by one:
      – If you add the H1 in the last paragraph, you are just adding that for Google, right? And Google asks you to create a website with the visitor in mind. Fill in the blanks :) Make it logical.
      – There’s five, actually. One is “Get Our News, Everywhere!”. Please ask them why they use that one :)
      – I think headings only work when accompanied by sufficient textual content. It’s the title of a text, not a separate element.

  7. Robert Traynor
    By Robert Traynor on 21 May, 2014

    I probably use too many h2 headings in the body of my posts than is strictly necessary. I wish pleasing Google was as easy as displeasing Google.

  8. Carsten
    By Carsten on 22 May, 2014

    Hi Michiel

    Thank you for that post, I agree with what you write, and that leeds me to a question.

    I have been looking at the new themes that you have released, and when I look at:

    It has 4 H1’s on the frontpage

    and this page: http://strategy.yoastdemo.com/2008/09/17/another-post-with-everything-in-it/
    Has 5 H1’s

    I just do not understand that, is there a good explanation or will you make an update?
    I am looking to buy, but the use of headings have held me back.


    • Michiel Heijmans
      By Michiel Heijmans on 22 May, 2014

      Hi Carsten,

      Always nice to scan a source code for H1, right ;) Have you noticed the JavaScript in there as well? :) That bit is used for the mobile menu by the way.

      About the page: in that page we show how these headings look like.. Of course that also means an extra H1 in the content.

      Hope that clarifies things!

  9. ?????
    By ????? on 22 May, 2014

    thanks for your article
    but to be honest
    even after using h1 and h2 tags for months havent seen any particular increase in my serp result. in my mind they are only a mean for decorating an article.

  10. peter
    By peter on 22 May, 2014

    Although super familiar with Htags..Excellent job clarifying their uses , the where and when to use sort of stuff. Helped back up my practices of using H tags and actually gave me some good ideas for using the H4/5 and 6.

    Thank you and looking forward to more intel.

  11. Ollie
    By Ollie on 22 May, 2014

    Decent article. But I feel that this is already fundamental SEO knowledge and has been for the past 7-8 years. Everyone knows you need at least an H1 on every page, especially the homepage. It is interesting that you recommend against ever using H5-H6, or even H4, but that makes sense since three levels of headings is generally enough for the user and anything else is just to manipulate search engines.

    I also found the article you linked: http://blog.paciellogroup.com/2013/10/html5-document-outline/, about why we shouldn’t use multiple H1s as HTML5 allows for and even recommends, to be much more informative.

  12. Da Lat
    By Da Lat on 23 May, 2014

    I agree to take advantage of the heading, but almost wordpress theme they do the h1 for blog name & put it on every page, post

    • Michiel Heijmans
      By Michiel Heijmans on 23 May, 2014

      And they shouldn’t ;) That can probably be changed by creating a child theme and changing header.php

  13. Marek Andreánsky
    By Marek Andreánsky on 26 May, 2014

    Had a look at Mystile (from WooThemes) and the is used for the site title on every page!

    Sure there’s a second for the actual title (and Google can learn to ignore the fist tag, but I am disappointed with WooThemes.

    Here’s the theme in case anyone would like to dissect it http://www.woothemes.com/products/mystile/

  14. Tim
    By Tim on 2 June, 2014

    Headings are great for breaking down articles into smaller, easy to digests parts. And should prompt a visitor to want to read it, a long article with just a few paragraphs would be less appealing to read.

  15. Susanta Sahoo
    By Susanta Sahoo on 19 August, 2015

    Headings are supposed to be semantics-compliant. If you want to style your content, using classes is a logical idea. A lot of genesis theme users tend to question the use of h1 in the site title.

  16. Lionel Reed
    By Lionel Reed on 19 August, 2015

    I am 100% agree with your opinion. I think Heading is the first impression of any page, so it really matters for website. Thanks for sharing such a useful article with us.


  17. Anna
    By Anna on 19 August, 2015

    Great advice regarding H4 usage in sidebar or footer.

  18. Nigel Abery
    By Nigel Abery on 19 August, 2015

    Hi Michiel. The theme I am using has an opion for custom healing that allow a h1 to look like a h2 or h3 and visa versa. Do you think using these will be bad for SEO? Will google think that I am trying to trick it or understand that it is for come tic reasons?

  19. Daniel Louwe
    By Daniel Louwe on 20 August, 2015

    Headings are also very important for accessibility! Screen readers try to leverage the layout of a document when determining how to present it to the user in a sane manner – one feature being the ability to list and skip between headings. If you don’t use headings or use them in a non-semantic manner (incorrect order, missing h1 before h2, etc.) then you’re forcing these users to read the entire document from start to finish with few useful means of skipping through.

    Keeping these users in mind is – to me – one of the best ways to decide on how to place headings on your page and in your content.

  20. Ciprian
    By Ciprian on 20 August, 2015

    On a long page with a lot of text, the number of headings should be based on their type.

    For example, one H1 heading, two H2 headings, three H3 headings and so on.

    I would also stop at H4, and eliminate H5 and H6, as this could be styled differently, such as boxes or floated elements.

  21. Oddluzanie
    By Oddluzanie on 21 August, 2015

    Maybe this is not a good question, but I have a problem: I am changing my h1, h2 and h3 headings but when I am testing my site in ex. woorank.com there is no change. How could it be? Maybe someone can help me. Cheers.

    • Michiel Heijmans
      By Michiel Heijmans on 21 August, 2015

      Eh.. Woorank? That would mean you’d have to address them for that, right? Feel free to have us check your website for you by ordering one of our site reviews.

  22. Santosh Das
    By Santosh Das on 23 August, 2015

    I use Sub-Headings up to H2. No H3 or H4….

  23. Kerrie
    By Kerrie on 23 August, 2015

    I place my primary keywords in H1 tag and secondary keywords in H2 tag and so own. I think according to Google you should place your primary keywords in H1 and secondary in H2. Am I right guys?