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The HTML headline tag, and why not to abuse it

A very basic component of HTML, the language of all your web pages, is the headline (or ‘H’) tag. The original concept behind HTML was that every page should have a main headline, then successive layers of sub-headings if necessary. The main headline would be indicated by surrounding it with “H1” tags, and the relative importance of the other levels indicated by “H2”, “H3”, “H4” tags and so on.

HTML tags, however, can be (re-)defined as whatever we want them to be. Over the years, many website designers have taken liberties with these tags, and used them rather ignorantly. Unfortunately, this can be bad news when it comes to SEO, even with today’s far more sophisticated search engines.

If you look at the code behind your web pages, you’ll get an idea of how the HTML tags work. I showed you how to see the code in your browser here. Let’s go to a typical web page on your website and look at the ‘H’ tags, which should, ideally, give the page its most elementary structure.

For example, if you have a product page about a blue widget, with sub-headings for ‘Description’ and ‘Specifications’, I’d expect to see the following lines somewhere in the HTML version of the page:

This tells computer systems that the main subject of the page (the primary headline) is the ‘Blue Widget’, and there are subsections for ‘Description’ and ‘Specifications’.

Take a look. To make things easier, depending on your browser, there’ll probably be a menu command to search the document (e.g. ‘Edit’ > ‘Find’ in Chrome).

How many occurrences of the H1 tag can you see? Is it more than one? That’s not ideal – a document should only have one subject. Is the H1 tag surrounding the main headline? Or has it been hijacked by the designer for another use? If so, that’s very sloppy.

What about H2 and maybe H3? Do they exist? Are they surrounding the next level of headings on the page?

Today’s search engines are very sophisticated. They can understand what a page is about without it strictly conforming to best practice. But is your design at least trying to make it easy for them?