Can changing your header tags hurt your SEO? It’s a simple question with a simple answer, but I want to go into more detail, so you know why things happen.
The simplest possible answer is, as you might expect, “yes.” Changing your header – H1, H2, whatever – tags can hurt your SEO, just like changing anything else about your site can hurt your SEO. At the same time, changing your H1 tags can help your SEO just as much.
H-tags, or header tags, are tags in HTML used for organization. When we talk about SEO, we generally talk about H1 and H2, sometimes H3. In fact, in supported HTML code, there are actually H-tags all the way up to H6. Most webmasters, however, simply never use anything above H2 or H3.
If you think about an outline structure of nested content, you get an idea of how to use H-tags. In a book, H1 might be your book title, H2 would be each individual act, and H3 would be each chapter within each act. If you have sub-sections within each chapter, those would be in H4. To be clear, this is the titles of each, not the entire section.
To use a more geographic analogy, you might put the entire planet in H1, the country in H2, the state in H3, the county in H4, the city in H5, and the city district in H6.
Generally, you only want one H1 tag on your webpage, but can have as many of the others as makes sense. The most common use case is to make your blog title in H1, and then any subheadings – like the “what are h-tags” above – in H2. Rarely will the organizational structure of a blog post lead you to using H3 or H4 tags, though you might find it in a deeper reference guide. A huge guide to SEO might have “The Best Guide to SEO Ever” in H1, then sections like “onsite SEO” and “offsite SEO” in H2. Within “onsite SEO” you could find individual subjects, like internal linking, keyword research, and so forth as H3 tags.
Again, though, that’s generally better for large references and guides, not simple blog posts. You probably won’t find an H3 tag on this site, since the majority of the content we post is simple in terms of structure.
So the question is, why use H-tags? Well, there are two reasons.
The first reason is because H-tags allow you to maintain a consistent formatting on your site. You can add specific CSS attributes to your H-tags by class, and keep the formatting on an external CSS document. This makes it incredibly easy to change the formatting of every single H-tag on your site, just by editing a couple lines of CSS in your external document. It’s easier than going through every page on your site and editing tags and formatting manually, by far.
The second reason is that Google loves structure. They love structure so much they took part in a global initiative to bring more structure to the internet. You may have heard of it: Schema.org. Schema markup is meant to add structure where there wasn’t any. With H-tags, you add structure to your blog posts where little other structure is necessary.
Since Google loves structure, they give extra weight to it. They pay careful attention to any H1, H2, and H3 tags on your site. They also pay attention to H4, H5, and H6, but not nearly as much.
H1 is almost always used in the blog title, so that’s what Google expects it to be. They use that to guide what the post is going to be about, and match the rest of the content to the title. H2 guides sections in much the same way.
In both instances, using H-tags gives extra weight to the content within those tags. When you use a sentence with a keyword in it as an H1 title, Google knows that the post is likely to involve that keyword, and give it extra relevance. Assuming, of course, that it actually does match. You can’t use a keyword in an H1 tag that’s unrelated to the rest of the blog post and expect it to rank.
Now, there is some evidence to suggest that it’s not the H1 itself, but rather the prominent positioning and the formatting that makes the content of the H1 valuable. You can read some studies linked in this relevant Search Engine Journal post. Either way, the result is the same; the content you put in your H-tags is more valuable than the same content without formatting.
Google released an update a while back called Hummingbird, which aimed to improve Google’s semantic understanding of text. They don’t just look for keywords and blindly rank content for those keywords anymore. Instead, they have a comprehensive understanding of language and of how keywords work, as well as synonyms and varying definitions of the words in a keyword phrase.
What this means is that you’re not limited by what keywords are in a headline, but you’re also not getting specific keyword value out of your headlines. You can write a blog post about “The Typical Symptoms of Pollen Allergies” and you’ll show up for queries relating to pollen allergies, allergies to X type of pollen, allergy symptoms, summer allergies, and a bunch of other related searches. Google knows that you’re aiming for that kind of value, you’re providing that kind of information, and you should rank for those kinds of searches.
This means your content can hit a wider base with each post, and helps reduce near-duplicate content. It means sites have no incentive to write the typical symptoms of tree pollen, the typical symptoms of grass pollen, the typical symptoms of wildflower pollen, and on and on as separate articles.
The best result of this and other subsequent updates is that you can essentially write what you want without having to worry about specific keywords. I have said for a few years now that keyword mechanics are basically dead. You need to do enough keyword research to guide your topics, but the specific phrasing and density of keywords are no longer relevant.
Using H-tags is pretty simple, and a lot of blog platforms do it automatically. If you find you need to implement them manually, though, here’s what you do.
H1: For the H1 tag, use one and only one per blog post. Using more than one throws confusion into the ranks and can hurt your SEO. It’s not going to break your site entirely – Matt Cutts mentions that Google can parse just about anything – but they’ll give you a demerit for a poorly formed code.
Generally, the H1 should be around your title at the top of your blog post, and nowhere else. It’s the largest and most emphasized text on a given web page. It’s possible to use it lower in the post, but it’s a waste of potential value and emphasis. Reserve the H1 tag for the title.
Don’t worry about specific keywords in your title or H1 tag. Your title should be aimed at providing information and value to your readers first and foremost. As long as the title explains what is going on in the post, or hooks the reader in some way, it’s fine. Remember; broad titles like “What I Did to Lose $10,000” can still rank very well, even if the title doesn’t reference the specific content of the post, i.e. the way you lost the money with marketing or what have you.
That said, you can use a keyword if you want and if it fits in a human readable way. Don’t shoehorn in a long tail geographically targeted keyword where it doesn’t fit, though. That can be construed as keyword stuffing and is just as bad for your site, if not worse.
H2: When you’re writing your blog post, use subheadings frequently to break up the content. I recommend one about every 300-500 words, depending on the value of the content. If the sub-topic takes more to cover, you can either break that sub-topic up into two topics, or you can cover it in a longer section. Either one works, and you won’t be penalized for doing it one way or another.
Subheadings should generally be wrapped in H2 tags. There is a common misconception that the number of the H-tag is the number of the heading, and that H1 should be the title, H2 for the first subtitle, H3 for the second subtitle, and so forth. This is not proper practice and can earn you a minor penalty for malformed code. You probably won’t notice it in terms of SEO, but if you have such implementation across your entire site and you fix it, you might notice the improvement.
Subheadings are a little more available for keyword usage, so long as they are, again, human-readable. No one wants to see janky keywords in subheadings, particularly if the same keyword is present in every subheading. For example, if you were a pest control company and you wrote a general post with subheads like Ant Prevention is Peoria Illinois, Termite Control in Peoria Illinois, and Bedbug Removal in Peoria Illinois, you can bet that you’ll earn a minor keyword stuffing penalty. Instead, remove the geographic location part of the keyword. You can make it clear that you’re regional in other ways.
H3: Generally, you won’t find H3 tags in basic blog content. If you’re writing an exceptionally long guide, with sub-sections of each major section, you can flag those sub-sections with H3 tags for their titles. In these cases, keywords are almost mandatory simply because of the nature of the headings; they’ll be descriptive of the section as it is, so they will become keywords on their own. However, again, avoid overly long-tail keywords or goofy geographic keywords for those uses.
H4+: Any tag from H4 to H6 is generally not used in modern web design. If you’re doing an extremely in-depth guide to something and need sub-sub-sub-sections, you can use them for organizational purposes, but they’re virtually identical to standard text with a simple bold or italic formatting for emphasis. It won’t hurt you to use them, as long as you use them properly within the outline cascade format, but they won’t really bring you much benefit.
So, back to the original question posed in the title of this post. Can editing your H1 or H2 tags hurt your SEO? Yes, of course it can. If you have a good solid title and you change it, the new title might not be as attractive or might not use as good a keyword, which will hurt your SEO presence.
On the other hand, if you’re using a generic title that doesn’t seem to attract much attention, you can edit the H1 and come out ahead by adding something more attractive. It goes both ways; any change you make to an element of SEO can help, or it can hurt, and there’s no way to predict which will happen unless you’re moving to or away from an obviously bad technique.
Don’t keyword stuff your H-tags, don’t worry about optimizing them down to the character, and just let your content speak for itself. H-tags are a factor in modern SEO, but they are a relatively minor factor, so you shouldn’t worry too much about them.