The Proper Way to Use The Header Tag for SEO

The header tag, more properly known as the heading elements, are a series of html elements that denote the importance of the content between them.  For years, the only heading tags relevant to SEO have been H1 and, to a lesser extent, H2.  There are a few rules and a few best practices, both for using the tags in general and for using them for SEO.

All About the Headers

There are six header tags, ranging from H1 to H6.  Each denotes decreasing importance.  H1 is the most important, and should only be used once per page, typically for the title/headline of the post.  Each successive heading element should be used as a subcategory of the one above.  Essentially, it will look like this:

• H1: Headline of the Blog Post Here
• Text enclosed in the <p> tag for paragraphs
• H2: Subheading for First Major Section
• Text enclosed in the <p> tag for paragraphs
• H3: Sub-subheading for the First Major Section, If applicable
• Text enclosed in the <p> tag for paragraphs
• H2: Subheading for Second Major Section

And so forth.  You can think of it like an outline format.  The H1 is the title.  The H2 is any subtitles.  The H3 would be for any sub-subtitles, which rarely come up in web writing.  Anything beyond H3, all the way out to H6, is highly unlikely to be used.  Just take a look at this image on Lisa Stewart’s blog.  Each heading, as you can see, diminishes in size and important.  Further, the deeper you go with sub-sub-subheadings, the more cluttered and disorganized your content is.  Only the longest, most carefully organized and balanced posts should dig into deeper subheadings.

Best Practices

Only use one H1 tag per post.  When people talk about optimizing your blog title or your headline, the text in the H1 tag is what they mean.  The H1 tag is an important indicator to search engines.  It’s one of the primary indicators of the topic of the post.  If your H1 tag includes keywords that don’t appear in your post, you’re missing out on a chance for ranking for those keywords.


H1 is also an opportunity with the Google Hummingbird and advances in semantic search.  Hummingbird is an attempt by Google to begin to parse the meaning and intention behind a sentence, rather than playing literal with just the keywords it sees.  If you can properly interpret the meaning behind the queries you want to bring in, you can appeal to that meaning through the headline.  Rather than shoving a keyword in the headline, you can use a longer semantic “keyphrase” to align your interests with Google’s algorithm.

The subtitles in your post, any that are of equal importance one step beneath that of the H1 title tag, should be in H2 tags.  Never skip a tier and go to H3 for your subtitles.  This causes bots and web renderers to look for an H2 that isn’t there.  Think of the H levels as indications of importance.  If your subtitles are in H3, you’re saying they aren’t as important as they might be.

Typically, you don’t need to use H3 tags, H4 tags or any other lesser heading in your posts.  The only reasons to do so are when you have deep, detailed content that you want to format in a more organized fashion.  In some cases, you may be better off finding a way to reorganize your content to eliminate the clunky smaller headings.

Use CSS to customize the look of your heading tags.  One reason some fledgling webmasters want to use H3 or H4 in place of H2 is because they are naturally smaller, and smaller may fit the formatting of your site better.  Thankfully, instead of using the wrong tag, you can use CSS to alter the existing tags in appearance.  It’s not a difficult process, and it has one great benefit; you don’t need to adjust the heading tag itself if you change the appearance of your site in the future.  All you’ll need to do is change the CSS file to apply the changes throughout your site.

Properly Using Heading Tags

Make sure the content inside heading tags is relevant, particularly your H1 tags.  Web crawlers, including the Googlebot, put extra weight on the contents of your heading tags.

Make sure the keywords and formatting you use throughout your headings are consistent.  It’s generally a good idea, psychologically, to establish patterns and themes.  Doing this within your tags is also a good idea; even robots like patterns.

Always have your title in an H1 tag.  Never start with H2, skip a level or ignore headings entirely.  Think of them as shortcuts to appropriate formatting, with an SEO boost added on.

Use subtitles frequently.  When you use H2 tags every few paragraphs, or to divide major sections, it makes your content easier for users to skim.  In place of using H3 or H4 levels, you may consider bolding your points or using bulleted lists instead.

Warnings for Heading Use


Never keyword stuff your headings.  If a robot can pull out all of your H2s, lay them side by side and see the same keyword jammed into every one, you’re going to be hard pressed to convince Google that you’re not keyword stuffing.  Users already know the general topic and keywords of your piece; you don’t need to shove it in their face.

If you really must use more than one H1 tag, consider paginating your post.  More than one H1 tag in the same page is bad; making H1 tags the starts of new pages is acceptable, if not ideal.

Never use H1 tags in hidden text.  H1 has SEO potency, particularly with keyword optimization, so using an H1 tag in a hidden segment makes it look as though you’re trying to shove more important keywords into a piece without value.

Change up your H1 and Meta Title tags.  If they match, there’s no reason to use the meta title tag.  The meta title tag is specifically there to display a different title from the H1 tag in your title bar and Google search snippet.


  1. Great post. Question – Do you think writing all your posts in h4 would negatively affect your SEO score in any way? My paragraph font size is too small so I’ve been using the h4 (trying to learn CSS to change the paragraph font size, but so far not having much luck). Thanks

    1. Rob, it is tempting to choose a heading level based on how big the text appears – but don’t. Headings convey more than a ‘bold’ style they convey importance to the story. H1 = Title, H2 = section (like chapter), H3 = subsection (i.e. chapters topic), H4 = point or idea (i.e. topic point). By styling not structuring you are devaluing the text within the heading. If you are devaluing it – why should google treat it as special or important? So, time to cut your teeth and get into CSS. Plenty of good sites

    2. Yes writing your post in h4 will negatively impact your website. Format your paragraph text using HTML.

  2. Hi, James Though it was a great post but in the post you said to use single h1 tag as a post title per page. But when I figured out your page I found that there isn’t any h1 tag used. Despite using h1 tag, the title is in h2. I am really confused that whether it really matters for the search engines or not. Logically thing it may matter but still confused.

    1. I too Have this confusion. Is it ok to use H2 tag without H1 in a page ? @James Parson @disqus_lWLHMccEiA:disqus @Rob

  3. Most people are getting confused with the use of heading tags. A lot do not know when to use H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6. To simply put the confusion in order, just think of H1 being the most important and H6 being the least important among heading tags. To use these tags, think of order and importance. Using the website name or inner pages’ most important keyword or phrases in the H1 tag is a good practice. H2 down to H6 are used inside the content body. Making content readable not only to search engines but to human as well will greatly bring effect to your SEO efforts. Remember to never repeat H1.

  4. Headings play a major role in SEO, but most people do not use heading tags properly. Your post helps the confused blogger 🙂

  5. Every page should have an H1 and H2 tag. H1 is like the headline and H2 is like the sub head (which should include supporting synonyms, etc).

  6. If H1 is nowhere to be found on a page, does Google consider H2 in its place, and so on?

  7. […] Proper use of header tags can help break up your content into sections that are easier to read and utilize. […]

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