In search engine optimization (SEO), “content is king.” That’s the phrase used to convince people that the way to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) is through well-written, long-form content – usually in the form of blog posts. Write enough content posts that people find valuable, optimized for the right keywords, with plenty of inbound links, and you’re sure to rank.
That much is true. But what a lot of people miss is the fact that “content” refers to more than just the articles on your blog. Content is also about the written details in the “meta”-level HTML structure of the pages of your site.
If you want to rank higher, get more value out of your strategy, and ultimately dominate your competition, you have to pay close attention to the content of your pages’ HTML code.
And it all starts with mastering the H1 (header) tag.
Stick with me on this.
Most websites rely on HTML as a markup language that allows content to be displayed in a web browser. It’s a type of code that’s parsed by browsers to display content properly. It’s also what’s “crawled” by Google bots to form the search engine index.
Within this HTML are various “tags,” or short pieces of code that provide instructions or content.
In HTML, there are actually six different heading tags designed to inform a browser (or a search bot) which headers are most important. Headers, in this case, are mini headlines throughout the page. See the line at the top of this section titled “What Is an H1 Header Tag?” That’s a header.
H1 is the most important header tag. H2 is next most important, and so on, all the way to H6.
It’s so named because of how it looks in the backend HTML code.
Go ahead and see it for yourself. In Google Chrome, you can click View > Developer > View Source to view the source code for this page (or any other).
There, you’ll likely see a H1 header presented as something like this:
<h1> What Is an H1 Header Tag? </h1>
Use CTRL + F to find it.
Okay, so what’s the big deal?
Why are H1 header tags so important?
There are a few effects to consider:
It’s no coincidence that the majority of webpages ranking on the first page of SERPs contain H1 tags. Don’t believe me? Check them out for yourself. I can almost guarantee you the number-one ranking page for any query is going to have some strong H1 tags in place. Why? Because H1 tags are a ranking signal. It’s a sign that the webpage is properly structured.
Now, to be fair, some recent data suggest that H1 tags aren’t a be-all, end-all ranking factor. According to a study by Moz, it’s not strictly necessary to have H1 tags to rank – and in fact, the difference between an H1 tag and an H2 tag is statistically not significant. In other words, you’re not going to be delisted or penalized if you don’t have H1 tags.
Still, H1 tags can be valuable in supporting your rankings.
H1 header tags also provide contextual information to Google. When Google bots attempt to figure out the purpose of your page and what types of keywords apply to it, they look to H1 tags.
Generally speaking, page titles and H1 tags are similar. So hypothetically, you don’t need an H1 tag to describe what your page is about. But they can be a valuable opportunity to throw in a few additional keywords or flesh out the main idea of your piece.
Don’t forget about your readers!
H1 tags aren’t just about appealing to search engine bots. They’re also about providing more information to your readers. A person encountering your page for the first time will often look to headers to discern the content – and the overall structure of the piece. Accordingly, H1 tags can make your content much more engaging.
Here’s the other thing about H1 tags to consider – they’re easy.
An H1 header tag only takes a few minutes to write from scratch, and oftentimes, even less if you know the content of your article. If you have a typical CMS, it should be intuitive and easy to ensure the header is included in the HTML code.
In other words, there’s a significant upside to including H1 tags – and almost no downside. You might as well include them!
So what steps can you take to create effective H1 header tags?
Generally speaking, we want to create H1 header tags that simultaneously increase our ranking potential and appeal to readers.
Here’s how we can do that:
This should be common sense, but only use one H1 tag. It’s possible to include two or more H1 tags in the HTML code of the site, but this is redundant. If you do this, you’ll be feeding Google multiple strings of information and weakening your ranking position. It might also be confusing to people reading your article.
Every page of your site should have one, and only one, H1 header tag. If you want to include more headers in your work, that’s fine – but make use of H2, H3, and other subsequent header tags to include them in your code.
Your H1 header should have a relevant, appropriate description of the content that follows. For the most part, this is intuitive. If you’re writing a section of content about the pros and cons of bicycling as an exercise, a header like “Pros and Cons of Riding a Bike for Exercise” is perfectly acceptable. A header like “Buy Bicycles Now” is not.
Oftentimes, novice search optimizers will attempt to game the system by stuffing an H1 header tag full of keywords or directing buyer intent. For the most part, it’s better to stick to a description that’s relevant.
Think about the title of your article (or page). The H1 header tag should be at least somewhat relevant to this title. Otherwise, it may trigger red flags with search engine crawlers and human readers alike.
Your header tag should be at least 20 characters; any less than this and you won’t get the full value of the tag. Additionally, search crawlers won’t look at more than the first 70 characters of your header tag – so writing any more than this will be a waste. Your header tag should be somewhere between 20 and 70 characters.
That said, this isn’t a hard rule, and deviating from it won’t devastate your chances of ranking. If you have a particularly long header tag because the article calls for it, that’s okay – just make sure the most relevant information is included early in the tag.
Your header tags should be interesting and compelling – in other words, high quality.
Imagine this; most of the readers who encounter your content will immediately do a quick scan to see what’s in store for them. They’ll look at the headers throughout the piece and speculate about the content that’s coming up next.
The right header tag can set reader expectations proactively and encourage them to read further. A “bad” header tag might cause them to sigh, or lead them to believe this content isn’t worth reviewing.
Obviously, this is a bit subjective. What one reader finds “interesting and compelling,” another might find dull or routine. Consider experimenting with a variety of different H1 header tag options and keeping the one that seems to fit the best.
On the backend of your site, there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to including an H1 header tag. The HTML tag is always the same, and search bots won’t care about any superficial changes.
But when it comes to human readers, presentation matters. It’s important to make sure your first-line headers stand out and are especially visible. Many brands accomplish this by bolding the font or making it bigger. However, you could also italicize the text or make it stand out in other ways. As long as it’s both unique and readable, you’ll be in a good spot.
Let’s talk about keywords. Your target keywords and phrases will play a massive role in your bottom-line SEO success. So obviously, they should be included somehow in your header tags.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to include one strong keyword or long-tail keyword phrase in your H1 header tag. This is a great opportunity to emphasize a keyword that’s in your page title; it could also be a chance to target a secondary, related keyword.
However, you need to do this cautiously. It’s an effective strategy to include keywords in H1 header tags, but you want to avoid keyword stuffing at all costs. As long as your header is sensible, readable, and relevant to your core content, you’ll be fine.
Finally, consider using your H1 header tags to satisfy user search intent. How are people discovering this content in search engines? What are they searching for? Will your H1 tag address their query?
For example, if users are finding this content when searching for a specific question, it’s often valuable to use your H1 header to answer that question directly.
So what about H2, H3, and other header tags that are designed as secondary tags?
Put simply, they work the way you think. Each header tag is significant to Google (and readers) in some way, but H1 tags are still the dominant tag.
H2 and subsequent tags should never take priority over your H1 tags. But oftentimes, they’re worth including. Along similar lines, it’s not necessary to include secondary header tags if you have an H1 tag in place.
If you’re interested in optimizing your site for search engines and climbing the SERPs, you have to conduct an H1 tag audit.
In other words, you have to analyze where your current site stands in terms of offering H1 header tags.
Generally, you’ll want to address two main questions:
Every page of your site should have an H1 header tag. If a page is missing these tags, it only takes a few minutes to write one. This change isn’t going to take you from rank 1,000 to rank 1, but it is a valuable improvement to your strategy – and can result in a significant boost in your ranking potential.
You’ll also want to inspect your current H1 header tags. Are they conforming to the tenets of your current strategy? In other words, do they contain the right keywords and phrases to help you rank for your targeted terms?
You can check all your pages manually by inspecting the HTML code and evaluating the presence or absence of H1 header tags. But it’s usually much faster and more reliable to use a dedicated SEO analysis tool or use a title tag checker tool.
One of the best options here is Screaming Frog, an SEO spider tool designed to make onsite technical audits easier. With it, you can scan your entire site and detect a multitude of issues – including missing or weak H1 header tags.
Do you need help getting your H1 header tags in order?
Are you just confused about finding the right approach for your SEO strategy?
We’re here to help. Contact us today for a free analysis of your current website, or a free consultation to learn how we can get you the results you need!