Are H1 Tags a Google Ranking Factor?

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Can you improve your Google search rankings by using the right keywords in your H1 tags?

And how many H1 tags should you be using on each webpage, anyway?

There has been a lot of debate and misunderstanding over the years about how Google views H1 content.

Are H1 Tags Really a Google Ranking Factor? Let’s see.

The claim: H1 tags as a ranking factor

Many “best practices” and recommendations regarding H1 tags have been circulated over the years. Among them:

  • You need to use lots of keyword loaded H1 tags to rank higher for specific keywords.
  • You should only have one H1 tag per web page or Google will punish you. (With algorithmic downgrading? A manual penalty? Fifty lashes with a wet noodle in the village square?).
  • You should use your primary keyword at the start of your H1 tag and your secondary keywords in H2 tags and so on to tell Google which terms you want to rank for.
  • You should only use one H1 tag and it should be the first text element on the page.

If you are confused about the conflicting information on this topic, I don’t blame you.

After all, this is the snippet featured for [how to use H1 tags] at the time of writing:

Screenshot by author, June 2021

As you will learn below, this contradicts everything Google has been telling us about H1 tags for many, many years.

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Let’s see what is happening on both sides of this debate.

Proof of H1 tags as a ranking factor

For this timeline, we’ll be relying heavily on Roger Montti’s research on how Google’s perception and weighting of H1 tags has changed over the years. Among his main discoveries:

1998

The page title was a heavily weighted ranking factor, as evidenced by this passage from the research paper by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, The Anatomy of a Large Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine:

“For the most popular topics, a simple text match search limited to web page titles works admirably when PageRank prioritizes results. “

2003-2004

Font size, initially a measure of a word’s importance, has given way to HTML structure as a ranking algorithm.

We got a first look at how Google used HTML markup to inform the understanding of the semantic structure algorithm in the patent, Ranking of Google patent documents based on the semantic distance between terms in a document.

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Bill slawski analyzed this patent in 2010 and explained:

“Part of the process behind this approach involves a search engine parsing the HTML structures on a page, looking for things like titles and headers on a page… In other words, the search engine tries to locate and understand visual structures on a page that could be semantically significant, such as a list of items associated with a title.

Read Montti’s H1 Headlines For SEO – Why They Are Important to learn more about each of the above milestones.

2005-2011

H1 tags were widely seen as a factor in Google ranking – and their optimization as a key SEO tactic – through the glory days of article marketing. I know this because at the time I used to get a small share of the revenue and even ghostwriting contracts for articles on Suite101, WikiHow, HubPages and other sites like them.

Optimized H1 and H2 tags, keyword density and stereotypical content dominated the day. Since these articles were used to build links and generate traffic for revenue sharing, volume mattered much more to content creators than the quality or usefulness of the content produced.

And I can confirm that using these tactics allowed me to rank # 1 for topics and keywords that I really didn’t have any business rankings for (Mesothelioma, anyone?).

Legitimate publishers objected to this, and that’s how Google Panda happened in 2011. These tactics no longer worked and could, in fact, undermine your entire site’s ranking.

Just ask Demand Media.

For sites erased by the Panda algorithm, Google revealed 23 questions that help the search engine determine the authority of a piece of content.

User experience was prioritized very high – and my content farm revenue sharing payments ultimately failed.

Let’s move quickly to …

2019

More recently, John Mueller explained in a Google Webmaster Hangout 2019 that Google uses HTML tags to better understand what the web page and its content are. It doesn’t matter how many H1 tags you use, he said, stating that:

“Your site will rank perfectly well without H1 tags or with five H1 tags.

… H1 elements are a great way to give a page more structure so that users and search engines can understand what parts of a page are sort of under different headings.

… Especially with HTML5, having several H1 elements on a page is quite normal and rather expected.

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Note: If you want to figure out how many H1 tags to use on a webpage, check out this dismantling the myth that Google prefers just one H1 per page here.

2020

Mueller answered a question about H1 tags in a Google Webmaster Central video in August 2020. He clearly referred to titles as a ranking factor and said:

“The titles of a page help us better understand the content of the page. Page headers aren’t the only ranking factor we have – we also look at content on its own.

But sometimes having a clear title on the page gives us a bit more information about the topic of that section.

He explained that titles can be particularly useful in helping Google understand the content and context of an image.

2021

In August, there was a lot of talk about rewriting Google’s title tags for a limited number of pages in search results. Often times, the H1 tag text was used as the new title on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

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Evidence Against H1 Tags As A Ranking Factor

Even in 2009, Google was well aware of the spam tactics surrounding H1 tags. For example, Matt Cutts, then head of Google’s Webspam team, warned in this video for the Google search center:

“Don’t do all of the H1 and then use CSS to make it look like regular text, because we’re seeing competitors complaining about this. If users turn CSS off or CSS won’t load, it looks really bad.

At the time, he said it was okay to use “a little H1 here and a little H1 there”, but it should be used as intended: for headlines.

He added:

“… if you try to throw H1 all over a page, people have tried to abuse it, so our algorithms try to take that into account.” So it doesn’t really do you any good.

Like so many good things, SEO pros have beaten this lame horse by using it to play with the system.

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H1 tags as a ranking factor: our verdict

Are H1 Tags a Google Ranking Factor?

In the early days of SEO, the text elements on the page were heavily weighted factors in the Google search algorithm.

The specific words used, where they appeared on the page, and the font size they appeared in told Google how important those words were. This is how Google determined the relevance of a web page to a given query.

This is what Google used in the late 90s and early 2000s because it didn’t have much else to do.

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And like so many old ranking factors, H1 factors were quickly used as an easy way to manipulate rankings. Over-optimizing the H1s put them on the spam team’s radar, resulting in their devaluation.

Today, H1 tags and other structural HTML elements still help Google understand how the content of a given web page appears to users. They always help Google to determine the relevance and semantic structure of a web page.

They inform the algorithm’s understanding of what the page is about, who it is for, and why it is / is not the best answer for a given query.

Mueller confirmed that headlines are a factor in Google ranking.

That said, he doesn’t count much on his own. Trying to use H1 to get your way to the top of the SERPs by using a whole bunch of them, stuffing them with keywords, or trying to hide an entire page of H1 using CSS won’t just does not work.

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Not anymore.

When it comes to page optimization, your primary focus should always be user experience.

That’s what’s most important to Google, and that goes for your H1 tags, as well as your content quality, image optimization, and more.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita


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