Google's John Mueller answered a question about H1 headings. He followed his answer with a strong affirmation of the importance of heading tags for ranking.
Which heading tag you use doesn't matter that much
On a Webmaster Central hangout, someone asked if it mattered if a page uses an H2 heading tag instead of an H1.
"Will a page without an H1 title still rank for keywords that are in the H2 title?"
Google's John Mueller said the page could be ranked regardless of the heading element used.
… will it still be? I don't know if it will still be like this, but it can. It absolutely can. "
Mueller explains how headings help page rank
What's interesting about his follow-up statement is that not only does he explain how heading tags help a website rank, but he also calls them ranking factors.
The interesting thing about this statement about headings as ranking factors is that websites can rank well in Google without heading tags. Anyone who has done competitive research has seen this.
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This gives the impression that heading tags may not be a ranking factor or may no longer be that important.
John Mueller has downplayed the importance of H1 headings in the past by saying that they are not critical.
H1 headings used to be critical. However, they are no longer absolutely necessary for the ranking.
According to John Mueller in this video, heading tags can play an important role in improving a website's ranking.
This is what Müller said:
“So headings on a page help us understand the content of the page better.
Headings on the page aren't the only ranking factor we have.
We also look at the content alone.
But sometimes a clear heading on a page gives us a bit more information about what that section is about. "
That is an interesting point that needs comment. Properly used heading tags provide information about what a section of content is about.
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Mueller goes on to say how important heading tags can be for image SEO too.
"Especially with images, headings and the context of this image help us a lot to understand where we should display this image when searching.
… Images are not text. We don't automatically know what to show it for.
And this combination of image and landing page depends heavily on the text on the page. "
Google confirms that headlines are a strong signal
John Mueller goes on to answer by making it clear that headlines are a powerful signal.
“And when it comes to text on a page, a heading is a really strong signal that that part of the page is dealing with that topic.
… whether you put that in an H1 tag or an H2 tag or H5 or whatever, it doesn't matter that much.
But more of a kind of that general signal that you're giving us saying … this part of the page is on that subject. And that other part of the page may be about a different topic.
So that is generally what I would be thinking about there. "
We'd like to think of heading elements as a hierarchical structure in which you can nest multiple subtopics within a larger topic. For example, a section of a web page about art materials may include a section about colored pencils (H2), with subsections devoted to professional artist pens (H3) and Crayola branded colored pencils (h3).
According to Müller, however, you can also designate all three as H2. This is enough to signal to Google what each section is about.
Using Headings for SEO
Headlines are an important ranking factor for SEO. Which headings are used (H1, H2) is apparently less important than using it to send a signal to Google what a section of content is about. This way, Google can better understand and better rate the content.