H1, H2 and H3, how to use headings to improve the reading of both Google and users

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We say this for a long time now: modern SEO copywriting is a mix of analysis, on-page SEO skills, ability to do keyword research and creativity, and writing SEO today does not mean focusing only on keywords to try to intercept the liking of search engines, but take a number of user-focused strategic actions, even if they do not have a direct effect on ranking. In this perspective also includes the management of heading and paragraphs, from the famous h1 to the h2, h3 and so on, which often risks to be performed badly or not to be fully understood.

What h1, h2 and h3 (up to H6) are

The headings are the textual elements with which we visually and semantically indicate the titles, through which we can set the architecture and organization of the text of a page, thus influencing the reading and understanding of the content for both users and search engines. In practice, they are the tools with which we can define and describe the various topics and sub-topics that we deal with within the content.

The HTML language with which web pages are encoded defines six levels of titles, introduced by the letter h which is the initial heading, in fact; this means that to organize the contents of a web page we have available and we can use h1, h2, h3 tags, but also h4, H5 and H6. The progressive number clarifies that these tags have hierarchical ordering: therefore h1 is the highest level and H6 the least important; classically, the H1 element is associated with the title of the piece that appears on the page, while h2 is used as a sub-title for paragraphs along with h3 and possibly h4; H5 and H6 are rarely used, but can help you to format very long articles.

A header element implies changes to the font, as the font used by these elements must be higher than that of the body copy, and paragraph breaks before and after; in some texts, moreover, heading helps to create internal menus.

What headings are for

Readability and usability of articles, both for users and for bots: these are the two positive effects that derive from an effective use of headings, which are useful because they help readers and Googlebot to quickly understand, with a single glance, the focus of that paragraph and that section of the content.

More precisely, we can say that headings are essential for browsing on-page content , as clarified by an experiment on screen readers that we had reported some time ago, and at the same time a conscious use of the hierarchy of titles allows us to communicate better and earlier the content of a page and the way ideas are grouped, thus making it easier for users (and search engines) navigate, understand and interpret the information and the page itself.

It is therefore not a matter that expressly concerns the EES, but rather the basic rules of writing and content management, as well as common sense. And just look at a text with well-organized heading tags and one that is not formatted in paragraphs to realize immediately the difference, especially in terms of usability: even with the same information, the text without subdivision (and no variety graphics) will always appear as a “brick“, a single block of complex reading.

How to insert heading tags inside the text

The first step to writing SEO articles – but, in reality, to write content of any kind – is to have clear in mind what the structure to give to the text, assuming its architecture and drawing its structure: In this way, we can immediately determine what are the topics to cover, what space they need and, above all, what hierarchical relationship binds them.

Built this framework, it becomes easier to insert the various headings, which will naturally serve to divide the various paragraphs and eventually introduce insights on the topic that may intrigue and interest the reader (and respond to the intent search identified by Google).

In practical terms, inserting heading tags in the text is a very simple operation, whether we work in Word environment (or any other digital writing program), or that we operate directly in WordPress (which, as we know, is the most popular CMS in the world).

If we use Word, we can add header elements by choosing one of the “styles” proposed by the program: basic, the tool has 4 standard heading formats (from Title 1 to Title 4, corresponding in HTML to h1 and h4, respectively)but we can also manually change the settings and add our hierarchies.

Similarly, in the text editor of WordPress (and now also in most other CMS) we can insert the headings tags directly in the text on which we are working, by selecting the specific item from the drop-down menu that is generally found at the top left of the toolbar. In more recent versions, WordPress allows you to enter 6 hierarchical levels of headers, from Title 1 (which would be h1 in HTML) to Title 6 (H6).

How to use the h1, h2 and h3 headings

Seemly more complicated could be to learn how to use correctly the heading, that is to understand how many h1s you can use on a page, if you can use a h2 after a h3 and so on.

We can respond immediately to all these answers in the same way: there is no inviolable and iron rule, because the only real objective that we must achieve with the structuring in paragraphs is, as I said before, to make it easier for people to read the text. So, we can at best offer suggestions, best practices, but there is not a perfect solution that always works, in all circumstances, because much also depends on the characteristics of the site and the content covered.

That said, let’s start with some ideas on headings in hierarchical order, precisely starting from h1.

Normally, it is suggested to use only one h1 heading per text, but in reality we can insert as many as needed, provided that we do not confuse the subject matter. As we know, the h1 represents the headline of a web page, the title of the article that the human eye concretely sees at the top of the text or that captures the attention by browsing the home page (as opposed to the title, which is the element that appears in the Google Serps and in the tab tab of the browser): if our article (of any type) covers a single topic, developed and articulated in various paragraphs, sections and subsections, it would be better to use only one heading h1. In some cases, however, when for example the text or the same web page deal with two or more main topics, different H1 will be needed to clarify the hierarchical parity between this information.

Ultimately we decide, as architects of our text, also because this issue has no relevance to Google, which made it clear that you can also use multiple h1s, if it makes sense for the page – with all the relevance placed on the term “making sense”.

Less complex is the management of the other header tags, which are used to define the text in paragraphs with titles and subtitles: we can (more or less) freely use the number of h2, h3, h4, H5 and H6 which we consider appropriate to structure the content in the best way for the reader.

Without being tied to specific schemes, what matters is to create and publish a text that is well organized and structured, that is “visually” clear and helps the reader to immediately form an idea of the theme that will be treated and the way it will be discussed. Generally, the first paragraph introduces the topic, while all its nuances and declinations will be deepened in the paragraphs and subparagraphs, until there are no more topics.

Tips for the management of SEO headings

Of course, there are a lot of resources around that suggest best practices to make the best use of header tags in SEO perspective, and we can summarize what are the generally offered tips

  • We have 6 header levels available – from h1, which is the first header, up to H6, and we can use them all with confidence, although it is rare to get a full use of all headers in the same article.
  • In a medium-length text (1500-2000 words) the level h4 is usually not exceeded.
  • In principle, a web page should cover only one topic and even individual paragraphs and subparagraphs should focus on only one secondary theme to the main one – but there are exceptions, as mentioned.
  • H1 introduces and opens the article.
  • Applying more than one H1 or skipping completely the headings could create a confusing page structure and make reading and user experience more difficult, as well as complicating accessibility to resources.
  • The heading tags should be inserted in the text in descending order according to the organization we intend to give the content: the main title is h1, the main paragraph or paragraphs should be titled with an H2, the next internal sub paragraphs with h3 and so on.
  • The criteria to follow is that of the hierarchical order and the graphic aspect can help us to understand it: the font of the H1 is larger, that of the H2 smaller and so to degrade up to H6, which immediately informs readers that the smaller titles are hierarchically inferior to the previous ones.
  • Respecting the hierarchical order also means that the header of higher degree can accommodate one of lower degree: in other words, within an h2 we can open an h3, and then later an h4, an H5 and an H6, but it is not advisable to jump immediately from h2 to H5.
  • If it is not recommended to skip the hierarchical scale forward, we can instead “go back”: for example, we can create a structure h2-h3-h4-h3, to treat in depth a theme and then return to the slightly higher level, if this does not confuse the reader.
  • Still as an element of possibility, we can also create a text that has only an h1 and many h2, or a title h1, a title h2 and various titles h3: as said, there is potentially no limit to the number of heading that we can use (also of equal degree).

To help us, we can think of the structuring for headings as the management of a book: the element h1 represents the title of the work – in principle there is only one and it is the most important element – while later there are h2s, or chapters, which introduce certain sections and help the reader to understand the topics addressed, and then the h3s which further define certain concepts and so on.

H1, h2, h3 tags and SEO: how to choose the keywords

Over time, the headings have become a sort of “free zone” for SEO that, unable to use directly in the main text the most unnatural and ungrammatical keyword (those without articles or prepositions, for example, or formulated in ways far from spoken language), have turned their attention precisely to the various h2 and h3 of the article, making them the realm of optimized keywords.

If it is however appreciable the attempt not to bend syntax and grammar at all costs to the reasons of writing SEO, and therefore to avoid forcing too obvious in the text that could annoy the reading of users, even an excessively conventional use of heading is not advisable, if it does not add value to the information provided to readers. So, it’s okay to use precise keyword strings in a header tag to try to intercept the interest of the search engine algorithm, but provided you do not exaggerate and do not exceed in over-optimizations (also because Google and its competitors are becoming increasingly smart to understand what we are writing, mindful of the intent rather than the string of words we use).

More important and useful would be to use paragraphs and subparagraphs to insert valuable information for users – and therefore searched: in this sense, using the suggestions on related searches that also come from Seozoom allows us to analyze the various facets of the theme we are dealing with, without ending up out of focus compared to the main search intent, also identifying any long tail keyword that may serve to please our audience.

H1, H2, H3 and SEO: what is the effect on ranking?

It may seem surprising (and perhaps disappointing), but at the end of this talk we did not discover a technique that allows us to improve the positioning of our pages.

In fact, learning how to manage headings does not have a direct effect on Google’s rankings, but can lead to side benefits, because they can affect the user experience and more accurately define the topic of the page even for crawlers.

If we use header tags accurately and in a smart way we make it easier for search engines to recognize topic, structure and text quality, but above all we offer a service to human readers, which can follow in a simpler and clearer way (both visually and conceptually) the topics addressed, thanks to a precise and orderly architecture.

Google’s position: from headings no direct effect on ranking

Google has repeatedly clarified that headings does not directly help positioning, however useful in other forms. Recently, in particular, John Mueller said that semantic HTML and hierarchy tags are not a quality signal used in Google Search for ranking purposes, “but surely they help us to better understand the pages, so that we can show them better for the appropriate queries in the search”.

Catching the eye of the reader (also) through heading tags

In general, everything we can do to help Google understand our website and pages as a whole is a good thing, and even if using a good semantic HTML structure with the correct header elements does not tell Google that our page or site is of quality, it is still a way to improve the way we propose to real people who enjoy our content.

More precisely, it is also with the right page titles and paragraphs that we can capture the attention of the reader, and consequently interest him and increase the chances that he can read all the content, deepen other articles (maybe those linked internally) and in the future return to visit our site. And this is a central aspect for SEO copywriting, which is also ability to be found and appreciated by users, before they get a good ranking in Google’s SERP.

In short, headings help us to build the architecture of the text and to immediately communicate to the reader to understand how the piece will be structured; helping the reading, increase the chances that the reader-user will return to read, thus providing support to improve the performance of our pages.

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