Stop Sweating the Headings

Sometimes it feels good to be validated. In recent weeks Google has come out and said that multiple H1 tags aren’t a big deal. In part of that discussion, John Mueller said:

“We use headings to better understand the context of different parts of a page. Having clear, semantically understandable headings is useful in understanding any given page; however, we have to work with the web as we find it and a lot of it isn’t semantically structured at all.

For users, the difference is minimal — both kinds of pages can be extremely relevant to a question that they have. In turn, our systems aren’t too picky and we’ll try to work with the HTML as we find it, be it one H1 heading, multiple H1 headings or just styled pieces of text without semantic HTML at all.”

multiple h1 tags?

I can’t tell you the number of times in recent years I’ve talked to people giving themselves coronaries over the structure of their header tags. Though I didn’t have statistical data to back it up, I have had to work with enough sites with less than perfect, unfixable headers to know you can rank without a textbook setup.

“So, what are you saying smart guy?”

The key point Mueller makes is “For users, the difference is minimal.” If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Google the past few years from their concern over site speed to mobile-friendliness and mobile-first indexing, it’s that they’re increasingly looking at web pages like an end-user. If text is broken up with styled text that looks like a header with larger font size, the average user doesn’t really care. Now, in terms of accessibility, that might be a different matter…but from everything I’ve seen, as long as the page has high-quality content, is broken up using text that appears to be headers (or are out of order or duplicate headers) you can rank out just fine if the rest of your SEO is in order.

If you have multiple H1s or other issues with your headers and your pages/site aren’t ranking out well there’s a VERY good chance that other issues are your root cause. Of things you need to spend time and money working on, here’s just a quick list of other things you should look at first:

  • Page titles
  • Quality and depth of your page/site content
  • Quality and quantity of inbound links
  • Internal links
  • Visual formatting of your content
  • Structured data
  • Site speed
  • Canonical issues/duplicate content

I’m sure I could rattle off plenty more here, but you get the idea. If you’re getting your ass kicked in search you have bigger issues than your header tags.

“We don’t need to worry about headers anymore?”

No, that’s not what I’m saying. The reality is that if you have the ability to do things correctly with a single H1 tag and then use sensible descending header tags within your content you really should, and it will make your site far more functional for people using screen readers and is still the optimal way to format your pages. That said, Google has to deal in the real world and if a website has the best information about a given topic but has less than optimal code or structure, they still need to serve up the best answer to your query.

Joe Ford from Netvantage likes to use the line, “We deal in reality” and we’re aware that some people may be dealing with a current site that has jacked up headers. If that’s the case, you can work around it without having to sink a bunch of money into your site for redevelopment. That said, if you are going to update your site or launch a new one, it’s still worth doing right.

Adam Henige

Adam Henige is Managing Partner of Netvantage SEO. Adam heads the SEO and link building efforts for Netvantage and has been a contributing blogger for industry publications like Search Engine Journal and Moz.

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