Let’s start with the basics of website headings. Header tags are HTML elements used to designate headings on a webpage. The main header tag, called an H1, is typically reserved for the title of the page. There are also sub-headings that go from H2 to H6 tags, although using all of these on a page is not required. The hierarchy of header tags goes from H1 to H6 in descending order of importance.  It makes sense that using header tags will give your page more structure, but are H1 tags necessary for ranking?

The SEO Golden Rules for heading use are:

  • Wrap the title of your page in H1 tags
  • Use one — and only one — H1 tag per page

Now that we know what headers are, how are we to use them?  This is such a frequent question, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Muller addressed it this way in a recent Webmaster Hangout, “You can use H1 tags as often as you want on a page. There’s no limit — neither upper nor lower bound. H1 elements are a great way to give more structure to a page so that users and search engines can understand which parts of a page are kind of under different headings, so I would use them in the proper way on a page.

And especially with HTML5, having multiple H1 elements on a page is completely normal and kind of expected. So it’s not something that you need to worry about. And some SEO tools flag this as an issue and say like ‘oh you don’t have any H1 tag’ or ‘you have two H1 tags.’ From our point of view, that’s not a critical issue. From a usability point of view, maybe it makes sense to improve that. So, it’s not that I would completely ignore those suggestions, but I wouldn’t see it as a critical issue. Your site can do perfectly fine with no H1 tags or with five H1 tags.”

To determine if H1 tags are necessary for ranking, Moz teamed up with Distilled, an online marketing company for an SEO experiment. They devised a 50/50 split test of their titles from the Moz blog. “Half of the blog titles would be changed to H1s, and half kept as H2. We would then measure any difference in organic traffic between the two groups. After eight weeks, the results were in and the results were inconclusive. Google’s algorithms didn’t seem to care if H1s or H2s were used for their titles. It should be noted that while this experiment doesn’t definitely prove H1s aren’t a ranking factor, it simply shows we couldn’t find a statistically significant difference between using H1s and H2s.” According to experimenters, Craig Bradford of Distilled and Cyrus Shepard, former lead SEO for Moz and founder of Zyppy.

 

So, why should you still adhere to the rules regarding H1 tags? The conductors of this experiment believe George Nguyen made excellent points in his recent article in Search Engine Land:

  1. H1s help accessibility

Screen reading technology can use H1s to help users navigate your content, both in display and the ability to search.

  1. Google may use H1s in place of title tags

In some rare instances — such as when Google can’t find or process your title tag — they may choose to extract a title from some other element of your page. Oftentimes, this can be an H1.

  1. Heading use is correlated with higher rankings

Nearly every SEO correlation study Moz has ever seen has shown a small but positive correlation between higher rankings and the use of headings on a page, such as this most recent one from SEMrush, which looked at H2s and H3s.

 

Shepard sums up the findings this way,  “To be clear, there’s no evidence that headings in and of themselves are a Google ranking factor. But headings can provide context and meaning to a page.  Regardless, you should likely:

  • Organize your content with hierarchical headings — ideally H1, H2s, H3s, etc.
  • Use a large font headline at the top of your content. In other words, make it easy for Google, screen readers, and other machines or people reading your content to figure out the headline.
  • If you have a CMS or technical limitations that prevent you from using strict H1s and SEO best practices, do your best and don’t sweat the small stuff.”