Do H1 Tags Still Help SEO?

Posted by on Jun 29, 2012 in SEO Research, Technical SEO | 25 comments

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Heading Tags & SEO

It is commonly thought that using keyword targeted headings on a web page is good SEO and can help boost ranking in search engines. Recently there has been some debate as to whether it is strictly necessary to use H1 tags or if using a large, bold font is enough. Rand Fishkin suggests that it is no longer important whilst Matt Cutts seems to indicate H1′s still carry some weight. The impact of this is fairly significant as making changes takes time out of clients budgets.

I decided to test whether H1′s had an impact on a web pages ranking in Google.

Methodology

10 nonsense keywords (NKW) were selected and checked for existing results in Google. For each of these NKWs 4 files were created with the following HTML:

  1. <h1 style=”font-size: 20pt; font-family: arial;”>[NKW]</h1>
  2. <p style=”font-size: 20pt; font-family: arial;”>[NKW]</p>
  3. <h1>[NKW]</h1>
  4. <p>[NKW]</p>

In the first two examples the headings appear the same visually on the page, with the same amount of code. The only difference is the tag.

Number three is to determine whether the amount of code on the page has an impact on ranking. Number four is a control, which we should expect to rank lowest in all examples.

These files were then placed in directories named “h1styled”, “hnostyl”, “pstyles” and “pnostyl”. The logic for this naming schema was to make reporting easier and the possibility that the length of the URL may influence results (even if it doesn’t it’s easy enough to take into account).

Once uploaded to a directory on the test server named “tagtests” links were placed on the home page of cbutterworth.com pointing to the tagtest directory index page.

Results

Two sets of results were taken. The first about 2 weeks after the initial set up. The second three months later. NB: The lower the number the higher it’s rank in Google.

Set 1

  • Styled H1 Tags – Average Rank: 1.4
  • Unstyled H1 Tags – Average Rank: 1.6
  • Styled P Tags – Average Rank: 2.7
  • Unstyled P Tags – Average Rank: 3.3
Heading Tags Impact On SEO

Average Rank Of NKW: Set 1

Set 2

The second list of results was less clear cut:

  • Styled H1 Tags – Average Rank: 2
  • Unstyled H1 Tags – Average Rank: 1.8
  • Styled P Tags – Average Rank: 4
  • Unstyled P Tags – Average Rank: 2.2
Heading Tags Ranking Graph

Average Rank Of NKW: Set 1


The first set of results would seem to indicate without a doubt that H1 tags have a significant impact on rankings, whilst the use of styled P tags has limited effect. The second set of results still show H1 tags as having a greater impact on ranking than styled P tags, however there is an unusual outcome in the results with styled P tags having a lower average rank than un-styled P tags.

Conclusion

There were a number of potentially confounding variables in this experiment.

  • The link structure of the directories may have impacted up the flow of link value to various pages.
  • The structure of the directories changed during the experiment, though in a uniform way which should not have impacted on individual results.
  • The use of in-line styles rather than CSS placed in the head or an external stylesheet could have impacted on load times, another potential ranking factor.

Whilst this experiment was far from perfect it does seem to indicate that there is some benefit to using h1 tags for SEO. However this may be in small measure.

What Does This Mean For The Humble H1 & SEO?

Where possible using H1 tags is still a good idea. However if it takes longer than an hour to implement H1 Tags on all pages and they already have some large descriptive text on the page then it is probably not worth the time required.

Feedback

You can provide feedback in the comments below or on my Google Plus Page

 

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Chris Butterworth

Chris isn't big in Japan, but you can catch him over on Google Plus

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  • Middleton

    these small tricks make strong link building and SEO.
    It is really helpful.

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      Not sure it helps with link building. But yes, “Good For Making Strong”

  • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

    Will it?

  • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

    Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doug.kirby.16 Doug Kirby

    Brilliant! I love it when people actually test and measure in place of just having an opinion. Well done!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/doug.kirby.16 Doug Kirby

    What do you think about the following based on your findings?

    Target Keyword as the way the site is coded, I am not able to insert the h1s directly in the style tag.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doug.kirby.16 Doug Kirby

    The last post was correct, as it didn’t post the code, but used it to modify the ‘Target Keyword’ text style. Basically, I had to put the h1 tags outside the style tag as separate tags. Do you think that will work?

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      Using H1 around style tags should be fine.

      Looking further into this it makes sense that heading tags provide a kind of topical hierarchy for search engines (similar to the way Schema.org supports semantic understanding of content). Large styled font is probably roughly effective, but heading tags give you keywords a greater emphasis.

  • Mike D

    If the h1 tag is defined in an external .css file do you think it is recognized by search engines?

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      Google can crawl CSS files too and they can obviously understand page layout. For example the Panda penalty can be triggered by excessive ad space. There can also be penalties for hidden content using CSS, though I’m not sure if there’s some level of manual action involved in that.

      They only need to look at the CSS file once per visit to understand how the page should appear, so it’s not like it’s resource intensive.

  • Nigel

    Hi Chris, this is a great article. Ive just started sorting my webpage out. Making sure I have h1 tags and making sure the h tags are in the correct order. Before I thought ‘one’ could put h tags where you wanted… so thats a no no I take it? Anyway thay are now in order.

    Quick question off subject… Re outbound links. Obviously it is good practice to have 1 outbound link per page? Well I am trying to keep my outbound links relevant which makes it slightly harder for me choice wise. Am I ok to keep using the same outbound link page after page? Its a good link and its relevant to the qualifications I hold. My page is westbeams[dot]co[dot]uk look got the NTCP (if you have time ;) ) link it is on almost every page.
    Also have you ever put links to the the test i.e outbound links etc?
    Thanks for your time.

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      Thanks Nigel, glad you found it useful.

      Regarding outbound links, I don’t think there is a specific benefit to rankings in using outbound links on every page. Obviously if it helps users then you should include them, but from that angle, perhaps including the same link on every page isn’t a good idea, as it’s not likely to be relevant.

      It would be interesting to test.

  • honestjack

    Thanks for the article. Found this very useful after an hour long discussion with my co-woker why we should keep having the routine with h1 tags when possible. Kudos.

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      Glad I could help. Just to be clear is one of those things that’s just worth doing if it isn’t going to take long to implement. But it’s usually a 5 minute job, so still worth it.

  • http://villasdiani.com/ Villas Diani

    Thank you for this. I am very new to seo, wordpress and all connected with it. Some of the seo tools pointed out I am missing h1tag on the home page and categories. I was advised to ad it ti main index template. How this could be done? Would not be easier to just change one of the h3 tags on the home page into h1? i

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      It really depends on the template you’re using.

  • http://fotopano.net/ Panoramy i Wirtualne Wycieczki

    Does the font size affect somehow ?

  • dhanesh mane

    some how I also feel that H1 has no value at all. I also did some experiment and I found site not using h1 ranking first in Google and other similar sites targeting same keyword ranking lower :)

  • http://www.forward.ph/ Ryan Magallanes

    enlightened by this article. thanks. is it ok to use 2 to 3 h1 tags in one page?

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      I wouldn’t recommend it.

  • http://sundstedt.co.uk/ Anders Sundstedt

    Great article Chris. I got H1 on all pages, I don’t use any H2 or H3, only a H6 that I use for a certain styling only, but not for reasons of SEO. Do you think H1 is enough or is it important to have H2 also?

    • http://cbutterworth.com/ Chris Butterworth

      I wouldn’t necessarily worry about it being a H2 but having strong, relevant, useful sub headings with target and related keywords will likely help.

      • http://sundstedt.se/ Anders Sundstedt

        Thanks Chris, how could these sub headings be defined then? In a page.

  • http://sundstedt.se/ Anders Sundstedt

    Thanks Chris again, I got a new question. I have now started using and , no because the H3 is the one formatted right for the purpose. Does it matter that I don’t use a H2? I don’t want to have to change the CSS + all the subtitles H3 to H2 etc.

    See example here: http://sundstedt.se (further down the page you can see the H3 paragraph titles).

  • http://www.bahadirefeoglu.com/ Bahadir Efeoglu

    Loved your article, I like it when people come with proof rather than solely personal opinion.