As search engine algorithms continue to evolve, various elements, both on and off page, experience shifts in their importance as a ranking factor. Elements that were once important ranking factors have lost some of their influence on search engine performance in the modern day landscape. Additionally, as more and more new ranking factors are introduced, the impact of any one factor is reduced.
The H1 tag has long been an example of an influential ranking factor and important signal to search engines as to what a page of content is about. The proportion of the H1’s influence on rankings compared to the overall picture has diminished over time, but is still an important ranking factor to many of the top minds in the SEO industry. This is illustrated by Moz’s bi-yearly survey on search engine ranking factors. Based on the opinions of 120 leading search marketers, the latest survey (conducted in 2013) ranked page authority as the most important ranking factor with a relative score of 0.39. Keyword usage in the H1 tag received a score of 0.12. This places the H1 tag in the bottom half of ranking factors, but nonetheless still a factor.
Of course, there are many in the industry that will argue that a keyword-targeted H1 will not help a page rank. In an online whiteboard session, Rand Fishkin described some tests that were run to see the importance of H1 text. These tests resulted in discovering that having a keyword simply in a bigger font had the same impact as formatting it with H1 tags. Others, such as Jayson DeMers in a recent Forbes article, believe that the H1 is an essential on-page SEO element, even in 2014. The lost opportunity in this argument is that both sides tend to focus on the direct relationship between an H1 tag and its ability to help a page rank by including a keyword. What is not often mentioned is the effect an H1 headline has on other ranking factors and overall user experience. Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, it is important to look at the indirect ranking effect of the H1 tag.
H1 Effect on Other Ranking Factors
While keyword prominence is still an important ranking factor, whether it is within the H1 or simply highlighted at the top of the page, there is another level to the effect of the H1 tag on organic search performance. A page’s ability to effectively engage users is another way Google organizes its search results. The bounce rate is arguably the most important engagement metric as measured by Google’s algorithm. Technology reporter Steven Levy was granted access to Google’s headquarters for his book In the Plex. According to the book, Google’s engineers identified bounce rates of search results as a signal of quality or lack thereof. If a search engine user does not return to a search results page after clicking on an individual result, this is the strongest signal to Google that the user was happy with the result. Alternatively, if a user quickly returned to a search engine results page after clicking a result, the page will be identified to be a poor result and can therefore be demoted in rankings.
The significance of the H1 to this engagement metric is that it is often the first page element a user sees upon landing on a page. Therefore it is imperative that this headline assures the user they are in the right place and have found what they are looking for. If a user is confident that they have found their answer, they will likely spend some time on the page, resulting in the “long click”. This illustrates how the H1 is not only a direct ranking factor (considering keyword usage), but also an indirect ranking factor by assisting in user engagement.
The Hummingbird Perspective
The Google Hummingbird algorithm update, which aims to provide a positive user experience, opens up a great opportunity for optimizing an H1 tag. A key feature of the Hummingbird algorithm is Google’s drive and ability to look past the keywords in a search query and extract the user’s intent. By understanding the search intent behind a target keyword query, an H1 can be crafted to speak directly to that intent. If Google agrees with your interpretation of the user’s intent and it is effectively communicated in the H1 tag, this can certainly lead to a ranking promotion.
In order to position a content piece as an answer to a user’s query, it is good practice to format the H1 tag as a question, and answer that question in the body of the page. Since the launch of Hummingbird, I have taken note of an influx of top search results containing a question in the H1 tag. Although this is not a scientific observation, it is reinforced by Google’s knowledge graph returning a question based on a short-tail search query, such as “allergy symptoms”.
In order to have some great, Hummingbird-optimized H1 tags, try to understand what a user may be asking when they are searching for a keyword the page is targeting and format that question on the page with H1 tags.
All in all, when focusing on on-page optimization in 2014, it is absolutely still valuable to spend some time and attention on the H1 tag. With an H1 optimized for the 2014 SEO landscape, you will be providing a positive experience to your users and still receiving the added benefit of improved positioning in search engine results.
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