The use of headings for better search engine rankings has a long history. This is one of the earliest known Google ranking factors. As search engine algorithms continue to evolve, it is important to understand why headings remain important and how they are used for modern search engines.

This article contains links to research, patents, and statements by Google that show how the H1 element can best be used for SEO ranking purposes.

Original Google algorithm and headings

The original Google algorithm was described in the 1998 research report "Anatomy of a Search Engine". This document formed the basis for search engine optimization (SEO) practices suitable for modern search engines.

Screenshot of the anatomy of a search engine paper

Screenshot of the anatomy of a search engine research paper

The document was widely read by search engine marketers in the early days and some of the insights remain with us to this day.

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This contains statements that make it clear that certain types of on-page elements were actually ranking factors.

For example, it is said that the title element (title tag) was an important ranking factor. This 1998 document can be considered responsible for the SEO practice of adding keywords to certain webpage elements (headings, titles, etc.) for ranking purposes.

Here is an example of how the title tag and PageRank score were enough to accurately rate a webpage:

"For most common topics, a simple text search limited to website titles is admirable when PageRank prioritizes the results."

Other ranking signals are word position within a document (keywords at the top of the page were more important), font size used, and even capitalization.

This article describes the algorithmic "weighting" of the fonts.

This means assigning them a priority for the signal signal. If something has more weight, it means that it has more importance as a ranking factor.

The founders of Google explained how keyword hits (matching query keywords with on-page keywords) were influenced by weighting and then evaluated as a score.

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(IR means information retrieval and the IR score is a measure of how relevant a page is to a search query.)

This is how the original version of the Google ranking process is described:

“Google considers each hit to be one of several different types (title, anchor, URL, large plain text, small plain text, etc.), each of which has its own font weight.

… Google counts the number of hits of each type … Then each count is converted into a count weight.

The counting weights initially increase linearly with the counts, but taper quickly so that more than a certain count does not help. We take the dot product of the vector of counting weights with the vector of type weights to calculate an IR score for the document.

Finally, the IR score is combined with the PageRank to give the document a final rank. "

As you can see, on-page factors were very important, including the size of the fonts. The size of the fonts refers to the HTML size of the fonts, which relates to the headings used and possibly to the font size attribute.

Until 2003, the use of the HTML attribute for font size was not considered a ranking factor. Regarding ranking factors related to font size, only the heading element (H1, H2 etc.) was considered a ranking factor.

Google patents relating to headings

Bill Slawski (@bill_slawski) from GoFishDigital (@gofishdigital), is widely recognized as the leading expert on search engine patents. So I asked him about patents for headings.

Bill responded with two interesting patents.

Screenshot of Bill Slawski in conversation with the Search Engine Journal

Screenshot of a video of Bill Slawski speaking to the Search Engine JournalBill Slawski speaks to the Search Engine Journal

The first patent was applied for in 2004, which he describes as a ranking signal in the article Google Defines Semantic Closeness

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The article explains what the algorithm tries to do:

“Part of the process behind this approach is for a search engine to analyze the HTML structure on a page and look for elements such as titles and headings on a page.

In other words, the search engine tries to find and understand visual structures on a page that may make semantically meaningful, e.g. B. a list of items associated with a heading. "

Bill explains how the algorithm finds out the semantic relationship:

"The patent gives us the following rules for headings and list items when it comes to the spacing between words that appear in them:

If both terms appear in the same list item, the terms are considered close to each other.

If one term appears in a list item and the other term appears in the header, it can be assumed that that pair of terms is roughly equidistant from another pair of terms that appears in the header and another list item.

Pairs of terms that appear in different list items can be viewed as further apart than pairs of terms that fall under 1 and 2. "

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Headings and featured excerpts

Another recent patent concerns the importance of headings in the selection of the presented excerpts. The algorithm uses the headings on a page as part of the selection of passages to use in a featured snippet.

Bill said it's about the algorithm:

"This answer passage patent uses a page title and main headings to adjust the answer passage scores by giving them context."

The article is titled "Customizing Responses to Selected Snippets by Context".

In Bill's article, the words "heading or headings" are used 127 times, demonstrating the importance of headings to this patent.

The article quotes this from the patent, which shows how important headings were to this patent:

"Receiving a query, which is a question that seeks an answer to an answer

Receiving passages of answers for candidates, each passage consisting of text selected from a section of text that is subordinate to a heading on a resource, with a corresponding answer rating

Determine a hierarchy of headings on a page with two or more heading levels arranged hierarchically in parent-child relationships, each heading level having one or more headings, a subheading of a respective heading being a subheading in a parent-child relationship and The respective heading is a parent heading in this respect, and the heading hierarchy contains a root level which corresponds to a root title (for each candidate answer passage).

Determining a heading vector that describes a path in the hierarchy of headings from the root heading to the respective heading to which the candidate's answer passage is subordinate, determining a context rating that is at least partially based on the heading vector, adjusting the answer rating of the candidate at least partially answering on the context score to form a customized answer score. "

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What Google says about H1 and headings in general

Google's John Mueller asked a lot of questions about headings. The reason for the great interest is that headlines are still perceived by the SEO community as a weighted and more influential ranking factor.

Algorithms evolve

While the heading element may have had a greater weight than the ranking factor in the past, this influence may have evolved.

Bill Slawski's example of how headings can be used when selecting the selected snippets is an example of how the influence of heading elements has evolved.

In the featured Snippets patent, the heading elements are used to understand context. They are not used to rank a passage of content any more.

In other words, instead of influencing a ranking, the headings are used to influence how an algorithm understands what a content passage is about.

Testimony from Google's John Mueller about H1 headings

This patent is in line with recent statements by Google's John Mueller about H1 headings and headings in general.

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Screenshot by John Mueller explaining how Google uses H1 headings to search

Screenshot by John Mueller about H1 headings and SEO

John Mueller explains how to use headings

The Search Engine Journal published an article called John Mueller on the use of headings. The article includes Mueller's answer on using headings for SEO.

John confirmed that Google continues to use headings for searches. He said that Google uses them to understand content.

“We use headings when it comes to searching. But we use them to better understand the content of the pages. "

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H1 headings and order of headings

In what may be shocking to some in the SEO industry, Müller claimed that the order of the headings doesn't matter to Google.

According to Müller, the importance of the heading elements is to communicate what the following text passage or image is about.

As Müller explained heading elements:

"So … this question of … how should I order my H1, H2, H3, headings and what should the content be, that is not really that relevant in my opinion.

However, we're more likely to use these headings for that big block of text or that big picture, and there's a heading above that. Therefore, this heading may apply to this passage of text or to this picture.

So it's not so much that these headings have five keywords. Hence, this page is ranked for these keywords, but here is more information about this text or image on this page.

And that helps us to better understand how to … frame this text, how to frame the pictures you have in these blocks. And with that, it's much easier to find the right questions that lead us to these pages.

So it's not so much that your page suddenly ranks higher because you have those keywords there.

But suddenly it's better, Google understands my content a little better and can therefore send users who are explicitly looking for my content a little more to my site. "

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Google and using multiple H1 items

John Mueller discussed the use of several H1 elements. In the past it was understood that the H1 element sent a stronger signal than an H2 element.

Some in the SEO industry may argue that using H1 elements through a webpage can send a stronger keyword signal if the H1 element is stronger than an H2 or H3 element. But that's wrong, that's not how the ranking works.

As can be seen from Mueller's comment above, and even from the Google patent that Bill Slawski wrote about, this is no longer the case.

John Mueller recently dispelled all doubts on this point when he debunked the strategy of using multiple H1 elements for ranking purposes.

This point about using multiple H1 items was documented in an article titled John Mueller on Multiple Use of H1 Headings.

Müller explained:

“You can use H1 tags as many times as you want on a page. There is no limit, no upper or lower limit.

Your website will rank just fine with no H1 tags or five H1 tags. "

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Heading elements give structure to a page

Next, Müller emphasized the importance of heading elements in order to give structure to a website.

“H1 elements are a great way to add structure to a page so users and search engines can understand which parts of a page are under different headings.

So I would use them properly on one side. And especially with HTML5 with several H1 elements on one page, this is completely normal and is expected.

Some SEO tools flag this as a problem and say, "Oh, you don't have an H1 tag or you have two H1 tags. In our view, this is not a critical problem."

Heading tags are still important

In the answer documented above, Mueller said that a web page can rank without the use of headings. This is true.

However, this does not diminish the importance of using headings on a web page. Headings are still a useful way to get across what a web page is about.

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The importance of heading tags was documented in the article titled Heading Tags Are A Strong Signal

Google Mueller explained why headings matter:

“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. "

Image SEO headings

Mueller also discussed how the textual context of headings helps Google understand what images are about.

"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. "

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Headlines are a powerful signal

Next, Müller reiterated that headlines are a strong 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. "

Headings convey semantic meaning

The original research paper on the Google algorithm from 1998 shows without question that text reproduced in larger fonts was interpreted as important for ranking purposes. More recently, they are discussed in patents mentioning heading elements as a means of understanding context rather than generating a ranking score.

Another clue to the evolution of the use of headings is statements from Google's John Mueller that suggests that the way headline tags are used may have changed since 1998.

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Heading tags are still important. As the Google algorithm has changed over the past 22 years, it can be helpful to pay close attention to what Google's patents and googlers say about headings and update your search strategy accordingly.

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