What Are Heading Tags and Why Are They Important to SEO?

Table of contents distinguishes sections much like H1 tags.

Heading tags. They seem like a small little detail on your webpage, but they can have a big impact on how users and search engines understand your webpage content.

Many website publishers inadvertently get this wrong. In this article, I’ll explain:

What Are Heading Tags?

Heading tags are HTML code on a webpage that, when applied properly to title and subtitle text, help distinguish the parts of a webpage and tie ideas together. Using heading tags can help search engines and website visitors easily distinguish between a main section and a subsection on the page, and how those sections relate to one another.

In a nutshell, you can think of heading tags as a way to set up the table of contents on a webpage.

So what do heading tags actually look like? There are different levels, namely H1, H2, H3, H4, H5 and H6. In HTML code, it would look like this for an H1:

<h1>Example Heading</h1>

Your website readers see the heading tags rendered as different sized headings on the page. (Technical note: Each heading level’s font and size attributes are specified in your website theme or CSS.)

For example, for the article “What Is SEO Training?,” you can see the H1 tag on the code side of the page here:

HTML code displaying H1 tag.

And when you look at the webpage, that H1 tag serves as the title for the webpage:

H1 tag serves as title of webpage.

For another example, the H1 of this article appears at the top: ”What Are Heading Tags and Why Are They Important?” The next section — the one you are reading right now — starts with an H2 tag and reads: “What Are Heading Tags?”

Note about “title”: The H1 heading functions like a title for readers. So in WordPress, the text box where you type in the H1 heading, at the top of the editor window, has the label “Add title.”

WordPress post editor where you enter H1 tag.

However, don’t be confused. The page’s title tag (also known as the SEO title or the meta title) is a separate element, and you enter it elsewhere in the WP editor. (You can read more about title tags in our article: What Are Meta Tags?)

Why Are Heading Tags Important to SEO?

Search engines crawl webpages to better understand what they are about. One of the ways we can help search engines better understand the content on a webpage is through heading tags.

If you consider that heading tags act as a table of contents for a webpage, then you can see how scanning the heading tags on the page could quickly help the search engine know what the webpage is about.

Of course, search engines are always getting better at understanding webpage content. So heading tags alone do not make or break a webpage’s rankings.

However, many of the same principles that search engines were built on long ago for crawling and understanding web documents still apply today. And heading tags are a simple way to help them do their job.

Google advises using heading tags strategically. In Google’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide, it recommends heading tags as a way to emphasize your main topics and how they’re organized on the page:

Use meaningful headings to indicate important topics, and help create a hierarchical structure for your content, making it easier for users to navigate through your document. … Imagine you’re writing an outline … Similar to writing an outline for a large paper, put some thought into what the main points and sub-points of the content on the page will be and decide where to use heading tags appropriately.

Not only that, but heading tags help you structure a webpage so that it is more primed for being selected as a featured snippet (also known as position zero). You can read more about that in our article: 3 Surprising On-Page SEO Techniques You May Not Know About

Finally, think about your website as a whole like a book. Each webpage contributes to that book. Each webpage has a main topic (the H1), and contributes to a section (or chapter) of the website.

This concept is useful when thinking about organizing your entire site into a clear theme with a good hierarchy. You can learn more about that here: SEO Siloing: What, Why, How

How to Set Up Heading Tags

You want to set up your webpage so that both search engines and users can read it with ease and easily connect the dots on the topic you are writing about. Heading tags help you do that.

They create visual markers so that a reader knows, “Yes, this is a subsection about XYZ of the main topic.” For search engines, headers help them better understand the topic because the webpage is more organized. The benefit for SEO is increased relevance for searches.

The sequence of heading tags H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6 should be used in order, to create a hierarchy. You can create subsections all the way to H6, but we typically don’t see webpages that go beyond the H4 tag as a practical matter.

An H1 heading tag should always correlate to the main topic of the page. Subsequent sections default to an H2 tag. You can have more than one H2 tag, but it’s not common to have more than one H1 tag, which represents the main topic of the page.

Further, if an H2 section has subsections underneath that, they would start with H3 tag, and so on. Confused yet?

To further illustrate, here is an example for a fictional article on how to make homemade cat food. The heading tags coincide with the main topic, its subsections and the subsections of those subsections:

How to Make Homemade Cat Food (H1 tag)
Choosing Cat Food Ingredients (H2 tag)
Raw versus Cooked (H3 tag)
Choosing a Meat (H3 tag)
Poultry (H4 tag)
Rabbit (H4 tag)
Beef (H4 tag)
Supplements (H3 tag)
Fish Oil (H4 tag)
Safflower Oil (H4 tag)
Flax Oil (H4 tag)
Putting It All Together (H2 tag)
Top 5 Cat Food Recipes (H3 tag)
Final Thoughts on Making Homemade Cat Food (H2)

Be sure to use important keywords in your heading tags, whether it’s an H1, H2, H3 or so on. This can strengthen the relevance of the webpage for a search query.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Heading Tags

Finally, here’s a handy list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to heading tags:

  • Do include an H1 on every webpage. Each webpage should have at least one heading tag because every webpage has a main topic.
  • Do use heading tags in hierarchical order on a webpage. This keeps web content organized and easy to understand.
  • Do make sure each heading tag is unique, concise and compelling to the reader.
  • Do include important keywords in your heading tags, especially the H1.
  • Don’t use excessive headings. Too many can dilute the theme of the page. Use them strategically as a table of contents, instead.
  • Don’t put buttons or navigation links into heading tags.
  • Don’t use headings as a way to style text that isn’t an appropriate header. If you simply want the formatting of the webpage to change, use CSS instead. Also, don’t use headings when bolding the text might do instead.

Now that you know what a heading tag is and why it’s important to SEO, take stock of your webpages. Are they set up to maximize the value of heading tags?

There’s a lot more to know about optimizing webpages for SEO, so check out our SEO Guide to keep the learning going.

If you could use expert assistance with your SEO projects, I invite you to contact us for a free consultation today.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay, Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn and other social networks from Bruce's author page.
Comments (10)
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10 Replies to “What Are Heading Tags and Why Are They Important to SEO?”

Great advice – I’ve implemented it straight away.

Good article about headings. thanks for sharing and continue it.

Headings help users & search engines to read and understand text. For example, they act as signposts for the readers & make it easier for them to figure out what a post or page is about. Headings also define which parts of your content are important, and show how they’re interconnected.

Agreed, use this site as an example of proper heading tags! Thanks for the read

Search Engines check how prominent our keywords are used within key elements of our web page. Heading tags are the right place to utilize our keywords. Thanks for the inputs you shared for heading tag optimization.

This is why text structure and heading use also impact SEO. Search engines pick up on people bouncing from your site.

Thanks for a complete guide n heading tags, I usually get confused on how many to use these tags on a web-page.

Your website should have only one h1 tag. If you have more than one h1 tag on a page, change the other h1 tags to an h2 or h3. Your h1 tag should be at the top of the page content.

Absolutely! The role of that header is built more around the overall user experience of the page.

A good example is how heading tags are used on this page :-)

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