Do Headings Really Impact Rankings?

When it comes to search engine optimization, the process of ensuring your site receives the best possible ranking is often painstaking. Indeed, there are practically countless details to keep track of, and even the seemingly least essential website elements are a topic of debate among experts.

For instance — do headings really impact rankings? This is a question posed by many SEO experts and content creators alike. And we’ll provide an in-depth answer right here! We’ll look at the nature of H1 tags and see if using them indeed improves your chances at a great website ranking.

Simultaneously, we’ll see Google’s official stance on the issue and the results of some independent research.

H1 Tags 101

So, what are H1 tags in the first place? These are HTML code snippets that are there to highlight some of the most crucial information displayed on any page. Mainly, these tags are used when showcasing the titles of your blog posts or pages. For instance:

<h1>Do Headings Really Impact Rankings?</h1>

Their purpose is to stylistically convey the primary topic of each page to website visitors. But, perhaps equally importantly, they’re also there to showcase the essential structure of a page to search engines. When you put a title in H1 tags, search engines view this as the “title” of your page’s content.

In practice, this means text that’s bolder and bigger than anything found in the surrounding text, making it the easiest thing to read, and usually the first thing you see. The H1 text usually doesn’t contain more than a couple of words, though some write entire sentences.

Headings Impact Rankings

Importance for Readers

Essentially, using H1 and other headings is definitely a good idea. If you don’t, your pages are bound to seem structureless compared to other online content. Remember, it’s all about the user experience. If readers don’t find it easy to dissect the essence of a page at a glance, your bounce rates will skyrocket as everyone starts going elsewhere for their information.

These days, people are more likely to skim a page than to read it in detail; the average website visitors’ attention span is staggeringly low. With that in mind, you need to provide them with some basic information right away, like precisely what your page is about. In this case, the H1 heading serves as a signpost, and so do others.

Speaking of which, we should point out that H1 isn’t the only kind of heading out there. There are subheadings as well, all the way to H6. These decrease in size and importance, with H6 being the least crucial one.

Along with the H1 heading tags, these serve to provide further structure on your page’s content. The hierarchy that these subheadings create is an excellent feature in terms of user experience; people can glance over your text and see its major “plot beats” before reading. This ensures far lower bounce rates than just an endless wall of text, particularly when we take mobile users into account.

H1 and SEO

Google values positive user experiences, and websites with low bounce rates receive better rankings. From that standpoint, the answer to the question of do headings really impact rankings seems abundantly clear.

But when we get into the weeds of the topic, we need to answer a more specific question: Does H1 tags’ usage ensure a better ranking in Google’s search algorithm? The opinion on this is divided, and SEO circles have not reached a unified conclusion.

John Mueller of Google has frequently claimed that a website without H1 tags can rank just as well as one that has them, from their algorithm’s perspective. However, while this may not be a technical metric that Google values anymore, many SEO experts point out that, as we’ve concluded above, headings have an indirect positive effect through user experience and readability.

In other words, Google is not likely to give you the first SERP position just because you’ve included heading tags on your website. However, if your visitors respond better to more structured content — and they probably will — this behavioral change is something Google notices. If your content becomes more engaging and captivates users, these are metrics still held in high regard by Google. Lower bounce rates and higher retention will definitely have a positive impact on your rankings.

Many surveys conducted by industry professionals and influential companies like Moz have concluded that tags are actually among the top five most important ranking factors in practice. When combined with on-page optimization factors like including keywords in the heading tags, they become even more crucial.

Also, we should point out that even John Mueller recognizes the importance of heading tags. While he said that this isn’t considered a direct ranking factor by Google anymore, he also stated that using headings and subheadings makes it easier for Google’s crawlbot to understand the structure of your website.

Implementing Headings

Seeing as headings really impact rankings in certain aspects, the question is — what are the things to keep in mind while implementing them?

First of all, each page on your website should contain an H1 tag. This tag, as we’ve pointed out above, should include a short title of your page. It should be something that immediately provides users with information on what the page is about.

Simultaneously, we don’t recommend including more than a single H1 tag in one page. All subsequent content categorizations should use H2 or lower-level tags. Think of your page as a newspaper article. In that analogy, your H1 tags are the headlines. And your front page only has one large headline; the rest are less important and presented in smaller fonts.

Also, make sure that each H1 tag across your website is unique. The last thing you want is for your website to contain duplicate content, both from other pages on the site and from other sites. This is a massive no-no from an SEO standpoint.

We advise that you don’t make your text in H1 tags too long; something between 30 and 60 characters is ideal. If the heading is too long, the page won’t look aesthetically pleasing, and it may even confuse your readers.

It’s crucial that you include other tags as well. The more specific you are with your tags, the easier it will be for search engine crawlers and your readers to quickly surmise the contents of the page. That way, any crucial information will be easily obtainable right away.

Lastly, we should point out that header tags have a direct impact on your featured snippets, particularly when it comes to lower-level subheadings. These days, SEO experts have to optimize for keywords that are longer than ever before, spanning complete sentences.

The reason for this is that voice searching is becoming more impactful than ever before. And when people use Google Home or Alexa to pose their queries on the Internet, they don’t speak the same as they would type in front of a computer or on a mobile device. Instead, they practically talk to the devices, offering them long-tail keywords.

You can use subheadings to optimize for these keywords by including an entire phrase as the title of the subheading. You can then use the standard paragraph text below to answer the query that you’ve posed in the title.

Just remember that the positioning of your keywords across headings and subheadings might be important as well. Most SEO experts claim that the level of the subheading in which you place keywords doesn’t matter, but some think that a keyword you place in an H2 tag won’t be viewed as the main keyword. However, the proof for this is slim, but still something to think about.

Headings Impact Rankings

Experiments With Headings

Many SEO experts like Neil Patel have conducted tests to see if headings really impact rankings. This was usually done with a modified version of an A/B test and website pages were divided into four groups.

The first would be the control group where the pages are left intact in their original form. Such a group contained both pages with and without headings, something like a baseline group that would serve to differentiate the impact of headings from the impact of myriad other factors.

Besides that group, there would be a headings group, another one without any headings, and a fourth one that didn’t contain heading tags — but did contain fonts of various sizes for emphasis.

In most tests, the headings group showed similar results as the control group. However, the other two groups actually produced interesting results. When it comes to the groups without any headings or different text sizes, one thing is noteworthy. After headings were removed from websites that previously had them, traffic decreased by almost 4% in the following two months. On the other hand, the final group that had no heading tags but did have different text sizes recorded traffic performance in line with that of the first two groups. So, what does this mean for the impact of headings on SEO rankings?

The lack of headings results in a drop in traffic. That much is clear, and the following question is — does this reduction in traffic come from the lack of H1 tags or the consequent lower readability and usability? In other words — did Google itself punish the website, or did the user base vote with their feet?

In the end, the results of the final group point towards the latter. The fact that pages that had no H1 tags but had the text with equivalent font sizes shows us that the readability that stems from headings is the crucial factor here.

There’s no doubt that pages without headings and varying text sizes are less readable. This test also showed that the retention rates on pages that only had paragraph text dropped significantly. The time that the average visitor spent on these pages was reduced by more than 10 percent!

Conclusion

So, what can we conclude from our in-depth look at the relationship between SEO rankings and headings on a website? The headings themselves aren’t among the most critical SEO factors out there. However, we know for a fact that usability is, and headings have a massive impact on how presentable and usable a page is.

Using larger fonts in specific places can help break up text that’s overly long or badly constructed, since both users and search engines can see what the page is all about with less effort. You can also utilize these headings to perform keyword optimizations and other on-page SEO techniques.

In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you emphasize parts of the page via headings or just bigger font sizes, at least not to Google.

However, you should remember that Google is not the only search engine out there; for instance, other competitors with a much smaller, but still substantial chunk of the market share (such as Bing) might put more stock into the H1 tags themselves. Also, other programs like accessibility software might have standards that place more value on tags.

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