Do we need to use heading tags in our web pages?

Those of you who know your HTML code will recognise the ‘heading tags’ of H1, H2, etc. which form an important part of a web page. In the original HTML specifications from the early 1990s, the heading tags were defined as identifying sections of a document, such that an H1 tag would surround the title of each main section, an H2 tag would surround the title of each subsection beneath these, and so on. For the past 25 years, it’s been commonly assumed that search engines paid a lot of attention to these tags when indexing a web page, and so they’ve been very important in search engine optimisation.

Most people use content management systems nowadays, and don’t even see the HTML code behind their web pages. But when you specify a heading in your system, what it’s probably doing is surrounding the text with ‘heading tags’ of H1, H2, etc. The headline at the top of this article looks the way it does because of the H1 tag around it.

Recommendations

SEO articles making recommendations about the use of heading tags usually suggest using them as they were intended. I’ve specified a style called ‘Heading 2’ for the subheading above this paragraph, and WordPress has translated that into ‘H2’ to make it look like it does. While I wouldn’t use more than one H1 tag on a page, it would make logical sense if I had multiple ‘H2’ subheadings (and indeed, there’s another one coming up below). Abusing the feature, such as by having loads of ‘H1’ headings on a page, is generally agreed to be frowned on by search engines and therefore counterproductive. An article called How To Use H1-H6 HTML Elements Properly on the excellent Hobo blog will tell you everything you need to know about using heading tags efficiently.

Is all this necessary?

However, do we still need to follow these rules slavishly in 2020? After all, nowadays the search engines seem to want to rank pages based on user experience, rather than beautiful coding. If a page has great content, with clear headings and subheadings throughout, will it be penalised if those headings aren’t indicated behind the scenes by the official tags? An experiment described in Do Headings Really Impact Rankings? on the Neil Patel blog attempted to find out. Its verdict? It doesn’t look like traditional headings have a big impact on rankings. But “from what the data shows, Google does care about usability”, and “having different font sizes on a page helps tell the reader which elements are more important than others. It also makes the page easier to read.”

In other words, Google likes what heading tags do, but it probably doesn’t matter if your website design achieves the effect another way. Making certain elements of a page stand out is just good practice.