Google’s John Mueller offered a clear explanation of how Google uses H1, H2, HTML headings. This explanation shows the role heading elements play in ranking and how you should use them.
How to Use Heading Elements?
On a Webmaster Hangout, a publisher asked John Mueller what was the best way to use headings.
Here is the question as read by John Mueller:
A long question on headers and H1, H2, H3… What is the best setup?
Background on Heading Tags for SEO
In the early 2000s, heading elements (H1, H2, H3) were actual ranking factors. It was mandatory to add your keywords in the headings if you wanted to rank.
But that’s not been the case for many years. Yet, it is a common SEO practice to worry about keywords in the heading tags.
The word “rote” means doing something mechanically and out of habit, without thinking about it. Adding keywords to headings tags has become a rote SEO practice. It’s done not because it’s useful but because it’s a habit. Take a look at the top ranked sites for most any query and it’s highly likely you won’t see sites seeding heading tags with keywords.
Related: Title Tag Optimization: A Complete How-to Guide
John Mueller Rebuts Old SEO Practice
Mueller begins his answer by rebutting the rote and outdated SEO practice of mechanically adding keywords to the headings in the belief that heading tags are still a ranking factor. He says that the headings are overrated and implies that some overthink headings more than is necessary.
This is what Mueller said:
I think in general, headings are a bit overrated in the sense that it’s very easy to… get pulled into lots of theoretical discussions on what the optimal headings should be.
John Mueller went on to explain that Google reads headings in the way they were meant to be, which is for understanding what the topic is of the paragraphs that follow the heading are about.
We do use headings when it comes to search. But we use them to better understand the content on the pages.
It is and outdated and rote SEO belief that H1 headings are more important as a ranking factor than H2 headings and that H2 headings are more important (as a ranking factor) than H3 headings and so on. The rote SEO belief is that one puts their most important keywords in the highest level heading and less important keywords in the lower level heading elements.
The relative importance of heading tags, that H1 is more important than H2, used to be a real ranking factor over 15 years ago.
John Mueller explains that is no longer the case:
So… this question of… how should I order my H1, H2, H3, headings and what should the content be, that’s something from my point of view isn’t really that relevant.
Clearly, heading tags can indicate hierarchical levels of information, that several H3 headers are sub-topics of the previous H2. That’s not a ranking factor issue. It’s proper organization of a web document.
What Mueller appears to address is that rote SEO idea that one heading is more important than another heading for ranking purposes.
Related: Google Ranking Factors
The Right Way to Use Heading Tags
What John Mueller takes time to explain is that heading tags are are useful for explaining what the text is about, which is the purpose of heading tags.
This is how Mueller explains it:
But rather, what we use these headings for is well we have this big chunk of text or we have this big image and there’s a heading above that, therefore maybe this heading applies to this chunk of text or to this image.
So it’s not so much like there are five keywords in these headings, therefore this page will rank for these keywords but more, here’s some more information about that piece of text or about that image on that page.
And that helps us to better understand how to kind of frame that piece of text, how to frame the images that you have within those blocks. And with that it’s a lot easier to find… the right queries that lead us to these pages.
Related: 11 Headline Writing Tips to Drive Traffic & Clicks
Heading Tags No Longer Ranking Factors?
Heading tags have made the top ten lists of ranking factors for several decades. But if you look at the search engine results pages (SERPs) you’ll see that’s not the case. Anyone who argues otherwise is denying what exists in front of their eyes.
The proper use of heading tags has changed. The proper use is to help search engines understand what the content is about. That’s it.
Mueller explains that keywords in headings are not required for ranking:
So it’s not so much that suddenly your page ranks higher because you have those keywords there. But suddenly it’s more well Google understands my content a little bit better and therefore it can send users who are explicitly looking for my content a little bit more towards my page.
Mueller then returns to explaining the proper use of heading tags:
“So obviously there’s a little bit of overlap there with regards to… Google understanding my content better and me ranking better for the queries that I care about. Because if you write about content that you want to rank for which probably you’re doing, then being able to understand that content better does help us a little bit.
But it’s not that suddenly your page will rank number one for competitive queries just because you’re making it very easy for Google to understand your content.
So with that said, I think it’s useful to… look at the individual headings on a page but… don’t get too dug down into all of these details and variations and instead try to find a way to make it easy for people and for scripts to understand the content and kind of the context of things on your pages.
- Mueller explained that keywords in headings will not necessarily make you rank better.
- Headings are useful for communicating what the content is about.
Those are important insights. Heading tags are no longer ranking factors 2003-style when they used to be absolutely necessary. But, heading elements remain important for communicating what a web page is about.
Watch the Google Hangout here: