In 2014, How Important is an H1 Tag for SEO?

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”.

H1-article-image (3)

Screenshot taken 5/15/14

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.


Featured image via Shutterstock

Marc Purtell
Marc Purtell is Director of SEO at Matomy SEO, a search marketing and SEO consultancy that is part of the global performance-based marketing company Matomy Media Group (LSE:MTMY). He can be contacted at

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36 thoughts on “In 2014, How Important is an H1 Tag for SEO?

  1. On-page elements are still super important. Just the fact that there are so many additional factors that go into rankings (social signals, off-page, etc.) seems to dilute the impact of how good your on-page SEO is

  2. It;s important to remember that even though good content is super important, it does not mean that traditional on-page optimization should be thrown out the door. It’s a combination of both practices that will help your website.

    1. Great point Jordan. Another thing to note is that the page must also be optimized for social sharing, such as with optimized Open Graph tags.

  3. In 2014 we can say that SEO starts from the on-page only when on page is perfect we can go for Off-page. Its good to know that H1 gives like a question have an impact on knowledge graph.

    1. Yes Ram, many of the on-page elements can also assist with off-page signals when they are best optimized for user experience and social sharing.

  4. H1 tag from the very beginning has been a ranking factor as well after of releasing hummingbird update it’s even more important to put it on page for showing results on top of SERP. Knowledge graph always look for the most appropriate data and hence H1 define that which text or line has much priority and by highlighting that it done in well manner.

  5. You say “The bounce rate is arguably the most important engagement metric as measured by Google’s algorithm”. If your page doesn’t rank well on a particular term and as such you have very little to no traffic on that page, how can Google measure bouce rate as a ranking factor. Surely on those that are top of search results will be able reap the rewards of this particular metric.

    1. You are correct Martin. It is very difficult for search engines to assess engagement for pages not already ranked – unless they are mining analytics data ;)

      Bounce rate is more of a ranking factor for pages already receiving organic search traffic.

  6. Hi Marc, great article. One quick question, you say it is good practice to format your h1 as a question, but would your format your h1 as a question on a product / service page?

    Also, when creating your h1 would you look to use a longer tail version of the keyword in your title tag or would you opt for a close variant of your targeted keyword?

    1. Thank you for reading Harry! I would recommend formatting the H1 on resource pages as questions, but not so much product/service pages. The reason is that it may confuse users which would be counter intuitive to using the H1 to better engage them.

      I would opt for using a close variant of the target keyword in the H1 so those landing on the page who searched that keyword would see it right away :)

  7. “…having a keyword simply in a bigger font had the same impact as formatting it with H1 tags”
    Woah, if this is true it changes everything doesn’t it?

    1. Hi David, it is not a major change because it is all about making the keyword prominent on the page. Whether formatted with H1 tags or otherwise, it is important that the keyword stands out.

  8. I agree with you Marc, H1 is a very requirement for user interaction. A proper heading makes viewer to read the further content on the page. In many cases a well niche optimized H1’s results in getting huge traffic for the blog or website. So H1’s are crucial from both user and search engine point of view.

  9. Can’t agree with the bounce rate comment as it is not borne out by many observations and directly contra’s what some G Engineers say – a high bounce rate can be a great result! (searcher found exactly what they needed on the landing Page and didn’t need to go further)

    1. Hi Aidan, that may be true for an actual bounce as long as the user doesn’t return to the search results page. If they found what they were looking for, they may bounce from the page, but not by hitting the back button. Those returning to the search results are likely still looking for the right result.

  10. I got a local company to go from #6 in the local carousel to #1 by adding an H1 tag on the homepage with the keyword in it. It wasn’t a super competitive industry, but nonetheless, it still boosted it’s rankings.

    First, I had to optimize the Title tag, got a review for them, and built a couple links, and they jumped from page 2 to page 1 (#6 in the carousel). Then the H1 tag finished the job.

    Like I said, it’s not a competitive industry, but yes, H1 tags still play a role.

  11. Thank you Marc. That’s an awesome piece of information to play safe! Can we write more than one H1 tag in a single web page? Because many blogs and websites mention we cannot use more than one H1 tag to optimize our content.

    1. Hi Satish, that is a great question! Any given page should only have one H1 tag and it should be attached to the actual headline of the page. Otherwise, it may appear spammy to search engines.

  12. There’s nothing wrong with having well-crafted h1s but it seems like you are conflating ranking because you had engaging, keyword-focused h1s with ranking because you had engaging, keyword-focused headlines. I imagine a lot of sites that use h1s are ranking well these days because well, it’s been accepted SEO folklore that you should use h1s – it definitely did use to make a difference – so most SEO’d sites do it. When my site was built, the headlines were tagged as h2 with the site name tagged as h1 (#DOH!). It ranks for tons of competitive queries. In my view, use h1s if that makes sense for how you are designing your site, but don’t stress about not using them either.

    1. Couldn’t agree more Andrew! If the H1 adds to the user experience, it is much more valuable than simply having an H1 to be “SEO’d”. If it doesn’t add to the user experience, it becomes relatively negligible. Thanks for reading!

  13. Although the H1 is something we evaluate in site audits, it’s something we don’t stress as much theses days. There are dozens of things holding higher influence deserving attention, well ahead of H1.

    Having keyword-rich H1 tags have not been very significant for years now.

    If you can easily implement H1 and H2 usage, I say go for it. But it’s not something that will be easily measurable from a rankings standpoint. A site could change all their headings to an H1 format today, make no other major changes, and will quite possibly see zero change in rankings and traffic over the coming weeks.

    I see Heading tags becoming nearly obsolete as a ranking factor in the next couple years, much like meta keywords years ago.

    1. Clint, you are correct in that the keyword doesn’t necessarily need to be formatted in an H1 as long as it is prominent on the page. The goal is to prevent visitors entering the page by searching for a particular keyword from bouncing.

  14. What are your thoughts in multiple h1 as allowed via HTML 5. My feeling that a given page should still one have on1 h1 tag. Adding additional h1 tags may dilute the value of each as Google tries to figure out how much weight to give each one? What say you?

  15. That is a very interesting question Christian, thanks for sharing! In the case of HTML 5, each content section, as identified using or tags, can have its own H1 tag.