Use of headings in your website theme

If you’re using a CMS then the layout of your pages will be controlled by the skin or “theme” that is installed as part of your site.

Embedded in this theme will be headings. In HTML (the code that tells your web browser what your web page should look like) headings have a particular set of “tags” associated with them, running hierarchically from Heading 1 (H1) down to Heading 6 (H6).

A page should therefore be structured as follows:

  • Main Title = Heading 1
    • First Sub-Headings = Heading 2
    • Next Sub-Headings = Heading 2
      • First Sub-Sub-Heading = Heading 3

and so on and so forth. Headings should be nested logically and should describe the structure of your document.

When a search engine looks at a page and doesn’t find headings, we are leaving it without a map to understand the content on the page. Equally, where it finds a confusing or inconsistent use of headings, this can also be a problem.

There’s a big difference between

  • H1
    • H2
    • H2
      • H3
      • H3
        • H4
      • H3
    • H2


  • H1
  • H3
  • H2
  • H4
  • H4
  • H4
  • H2

Even for a human being, the first structure is far easier to understand and work with than the second.

Sadly, there are a lot of themes out there that misuse headings not to convey the structure of the document but as a shortcut to controlling formatting. Heading 1 (H1) is normally big and bold, H2 is a little smaller, etc. etc. By using headings incorrectly, theme developers are passing search engines incorrect information about the structure of data and content on the page.

A well-written theme will not use heading tags to control style, but will use them to explain the structure of the information on the page.

Here are some things you can check by looking at the HTML for your web pages:

  1. Look at the HTML for your pages (find out how in the “How To” section).
  2. Press Ctrl+F to search your HTML.
  3. Check how many times <h1> or <H1> exists.
  4. Check for <h2>, <H2>, <h3>, <H3> etc. the same way, note where they are used and whether these are genuine “headings” or not.

If you do find that there’s a problem with the way headings are being used on your web pages, you’ll need to speak to your website developer to have them fixed.

Should I use my keywords in my headings?

Absolutely, of course you should – as long as they belong there.

If your page is genuinely about the “Size 5 Widget” then you should naturally put “Size 5 Widget” in at least one heading – preferably H1, near the top of the page. 

You don’t need to stuff headings with keywords – search engines understand that these pieces of text are important and weight the text contained within them accordingly.

Can I have more than one H1?

In the examples above I’ve only used a single H1 (Heading 1) tag.

For quite some time, the rule has been to only ever have one H1 tag on a page. With the advent of HTML5, an update to the HTML standard, we have seen the introduction of “semantic” tags – tags that do not affect the layout of the page but help web browsers and search engine spiders to understand what different pieces of a webpage do.

There are tags, for example, that are wrapped around the site navigation/menus and the site footer, isolating these from the main body of the content. The content, equally, can be divided into articles and sections.

If you are using HTML5 and have properly broken up your page into these semantic elements, each element can have its own independent H1 tag.

If “Semantic Elements” means as much to you as “Satanic Elephants” then keep it simple and insist on one H1 tag per page.

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