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SEO Basics: Headings (H1s, H2s, & H3s)

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Headings (sometimes called headers) may seem like they aren’t important enough to affect your content’s performance in search results, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In reality, headers like H1s, H2s, and even H3s play a big role in how search engines understand your content. As an added bonus, they also help your readers to scan and sort through your posts more easily.

But what exactly are they and how are you supposed to use them to improve your site’s SEO? Let’s find out.

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What are headings?

Headings are how you label and separate different sections of content within a page or article. They’re used to indicate to readers (and search engines) what information they can expect to find within each segment of a piece of content.

Most web pages have multiple headings, including an H1 and multiple H2s. Some also have H3s, H4s, and even H5s depending on how the content is organized and what it’s about.

Headings can be identified both visually (since the size of the text typically changes based on the heading you choose) and in a page’s code.

In the HTML of a page, headings are tagged like so: <H1>your page title</H1>, <H2>section title</H2>, <H3>subsection</H3>, and so on.

Why are headings important?

Headings offer benefits to both search engines and your readers.

They help search engines by:

  • Giving crawlers and indexers a better idea of what your content is about
  • Improving and enhancing your site’s semantic markup
  • Clearly labelling your title and subsections
  • Optimizing your content for rich snippets

Headings improve user experience (UX) on your site by:

  • Organizing your posts into digestible sections
  • Improving scannability
  • Making your content easy to navigate
  • Highlighting the most important or relevant information
  • Emphasizing popular search questions and their answers

How do I use headings for SEO?

In terms of SEO, headers are the perfect place to use keywords and popular search questions and phrases. However, there are some best practices for headings you should use when writing SEO content.

1. Limit yourself to one H1 per page

H1s are reserved for page titles, so you should only use one per page. In this post, the blog title SEO Basics: Headings (H1s, H2s, and H3s) is the H1. If you have pages with more than one H1, it will be confusing for bots to crawl and index since they won’t be able to determine what the overarching subject of your content is.

Because H1s are the first heading in a piece of content, they usually have the largest text size.

2. Use multiple H2s

Unlike H1s, you can use as many H2s as you like. H2s should be reserved for new sections or topics within your content. For example, the H2s in this blog post so far are: What are headings, Why are headings important, and How do I use headings for SEO?

Use H2s to:

  • Signify new topics and sections
  • Ask popular search questions
  • Organize your content into digestible pieces
  • Improve scannability and readability
  • Make your content more visually appealing

H2s generally have a slightly smaller text size than H1s.

3. Use heading tags

Don’t mark your headings using font size alone. That won’t actually designate them as a header. Instead, you’ll need to style them within your content management system or using HTML tags.

4. Address them in your style guide

To keep your headings consistent, make sure to reference them in your SEO style guide. Keep rules regarding how you use them, when to use them, and which to use so that all of your content follows the same logic. This is especially useful when bringing on guest writers and when editing or updating old content.

5. Use H3s, H4s, and H5s when it makes sense

While all blog posts should have an H1, and most have at least a couple of H2s, other headings don’t need to make an appearance in every piece of content you write. H3s, H4s, and H5s can help to organize sections within sections, like the one you’re reading right now. While my H2 is How do I use headings for SEO?, all of the numbered tips are H3s.

This allows me to use proper semantic markup by organizing the hierarchy of the content both in terms of appearance and importance. In other words, I’m using an H2 to show you what the section is about, and including H3s within it so that you can easily scan through the tips I’m offering, in case you don’t want to read through all of them.

It also helps to keep the content from looking like one giant wall of text.

H3s, H4s, and H5s are only necessary when a specific section within your content requires its own subsections. Use them if and when it makes sense.

H3s, H4s, and H5s are all smaller than H1s and H2s, eventually switching over to simple bold text instead of a smaller font size depending on the writing software you’re using.

6. Only use headings as headings

This should go without saying, but don’t use headings for anything other than labeling a section of content. Don’t use them to emphasize text or to make a quote stand out. Headings are headings and shouldn’t be used in lieu of block quotes, bold text, or anything else.

7. Optimize them for SEO

Headings are an ideal way to fit in keywords and boost your chances of getting featured in rich snippets. While you should always avoid keyword stuffing, duplicate content, and other black hat SEO practices, popular search terms, questions, and phrases often fit naturally within H2s.

During keyword research, map out potential H2s as you build a content outline to help shape the purpose and theme of your post.

This is a great way to not only figure out which keywords to target but to define what you’re writing about.