In a previous article, we explored the evidence around H1 tags as a Google ranking factor.
Now, let’s take a look at the rest of the heading tags — H2 to H6.
Will using these tags help your content rank higher in Google?
And can using specific keywords in H2 to H6 tagged headings help you rank for those terms?
Let’s check it out.
The Claim: H2-H6 Tags As A Ranking Factor
The belief here is that the keywords you use in H2-H6 subheadings are more heavily weighted in Google’s algorithm than words in plain text and that tags are therefore a ranking factor of their own.
The Evidence For HTML Heading Tags As A Ranking Factor
Once upon a time – circa 2005-2010 or so – subheadings sure seemed to count as ranking factors. Using your target keywords in higher-level subheadings (typically your primary keyword in your H1 and secondary keywords in H2s and H3s) helped you rank for those keywords.
That was back when text as a whole, and what you did with it, was more heavily weighted.
Using a certain keyword density and placing keywords in specific places was considered best practice for optimizing content for sites like Suite101, About.com, and WikiHow. These sites were a nightmare for Google because much of what it used to evaluate webpage quality worked to their advantage.
With a solid technical foundation and the perceived authority that publishing massive amounts of content (and getting links to that content) provided, on-page SEO tactics like optimizing your subheadings was a just-add-water recipe for high rankings.
Fast forward to August 2020, and Google’s John Mueller flat out told us that headings are indeed a ranking factor:
“So headings on a page help us to better understand the content on the page.
Headings on the page are not the only ranking factor that we have. We look at the content on its own as well.
But sometimes having a clear heading on a page gives us a little bit more information on what that section is about.”
He went on to say:
“And when it comes to text on a page, a heading is a really strong signal telling us this part of the page is about this topic.
…whether you put that into an H1 tag or an H2 tag or H5 or whatever, that doesn’t matter so much.”
The Evidence Against H2-H6 Tags As A Ranking Factor
If all you took away from the above interview excerpts was that Mueller said heading tags are a strong signal, you probably think they’re a lot more valuable than they’re likely to be.
We know that pages can rank with no heading tags at all.
We know that adding a certain keyword to a heading tag won’t shoot you to the top of the Google rankings.
What Mueller said was that heading tags:
- Help Google better understand the content.
- Give Google a little bit more information.
- Are a strong signal of what a specific part of the page is about.
Google has made great strides in developing a more nuanced understanding of each webpage by adding more (and more complex) factors to the algorithm.
It’s constantly testing and updating the algorithm to better “understand” relevance, relationships between entities, and searchers’ perception of a positive, high-quality experience.
And as new, more accurate ways of understanding these complex issues were incorporated into the algorithm, those older signals were inevitably diluted.
Why? Because like so many former ranking signals – text formatting, keyword density, and .gov links among them – subheadings are just too easy to game.
Anything you can explicitly “tell” Google can be used to manipulate the algorithm.
H2-H6 Tags As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
HTML heading tags are an important:
- Structural element that helps readers and search engines navigate the content on each webpage.
- Accessibility aid – heading tags help browsers, plug-ins, and assistive technologies navigate the page.
- Navigational tool. They can help improve user experience and highlight important information.
They’re a confirmed ranking factor, but including specific keywords in heading tags isn’t your ticket to the top of the Google SERPs. You’ll have to take a ride in your time machine back to the first decade of this century to see any major ranking impact.
Much like the H1, this one got misused and abused. Google got wise to all the keyword stuffing, overuse, and sites trying to disguise heading tag HTML with CSS.
Want to reap the greatest rewards from these page elements? Focus on the user experience benefits of heading tags and their utility in giving your content structure.
Featured image: Paulo Bobita