Lately I've been seeing a lot of sites where the designers were a bit lazy on the coding of the visual elements. Especially when it comes to creating new styles for the style sheet. In CSS, it's pretty easy to develop a style that allows you to have certain portions of text display exactly how you want. But apparently, coming up with a unique style and name is just. too. difficult. So instead of naming a new style, the developers just style an Hx tag and then plaster it throughout the site.

One site that we've been working with has just come from a fresh re-design. Once we started digging into the code, we've found that the designers have taken some pretty extreme liberties with the Hx tags.

Overusing Heading Tags

Using the H1 for the title is an abuse I've seen many times before. It's easy to slip an image into the H1 tag, so designers do this to display the company logo. But by doing so you've taken a great piece of SEO real estate out of play. Every page now has the exact same H1 tag: an image.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that the Hx tags are near as important as many people think. But I do believe they play an important role in putting the page hierarchy into expression. It's like the outline for a term paper. The way you use Hx tags should outline the importance of various elements on the page. The H1 tag would be the equivalent of the title of the term paper. (For the sake of this conversation, let's leave out the <title> tag.) At the very least you want the H1 tag to be unique on every page. It's the first thing that visitors read, let them know what they'll expect.

Continuing with our example above, you see that the "Quick Search" is wrapped in an H3. Is the search really a part of the outline of the page? Of course not. In fact I'll go so far as to say that nothing in the navigation (top, side bottom or otherwise) should be in an Hx tag. Navigation is really nothing more than the table of contents for the site. OK, it's a bit more than than, but you get my meaning.

Finally, look at the products. Each product, which here includes the product name and number, is wrapped in an H2. Like the Search above, this was done just for the simplicity of styling how the text looks. The problem with using the Hx tag on 10-30 products on each page creates a pretty severe case of Hx-bloat. At this point the Hx tag loses all meaning. This is a case using the <strong> tags would be sufficient at separating the products from the rest of the information without over-using the Hx tags.

This is more closely aligned to how we would lay out the page architecture:

Overusing Heading Tags

You'll see that we have cut down the use of the Hx tags pretty significantly. By using the H2 twice, we're saying from a structural standpoint, that the top portion is just as relevant as the product portion. But an H3 could work well here too.

Like anything, too much of a good thing is bad. Hx tags are not a magic SEO solution and play only a minor role in the overall optimization of a page, but it's valuable enough to take the time to get right. Make sure your web developers are not styling the Hx tags as a shortcut to creating unique style elements.

May 21, 2008

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


The biggest concern is to make sure you shingle the Hx tags. H1, H2, H3, H3, H4, H2, H3, H4, etc. Make it look like a table of contents in a book would look like. Then you should be fine. If you don't shingle though . . . bad things could possibly happen or worse . . . good things won't happen.

Good article!

I've got to take issue with your statement "In fact I'll go so far as to say that nothing in the navigation (top, side bottom or otherwise) should be in an Hx tag."

While I certainly agree that doing this serves no particular purpose for SEO, it does provide a great deal of value for blind and visually disabled users using screen readers.

Screen readers generate an in-page navigation list using the headings in a page: using a header to introduce your key navigation areas can be of great assistance in allowing these users to navigate the page.

I agree with Mr. Dolson, I find it good practice to think of those that are visually disabled just as I try and make my coding visually conforming across multiple browser platforms.

I agree that it's good practice to make your site accessible for all visitors, including those that are visually impaired. In fact, I think that is a must for any business. But I disagree that it is essential to use heading tags in navigation to do that. I'm also not totally against using headings in navigation if it truly makes sense to do so, but I think it should be done properly in a way that is best for users and search engines alike. After all, if you're not doing what's best for search engines then you're cutting out a lot of potential users.

If the navigation as a whole should be called out using a heading then, by all means do so in a logical way and so it works with the hierarchal architecture of the rest of the page.

Great article. I think this reinforces the fact that when sites are built it's so important for SEO to be factored in during the initial design. It makes simple changes easier to implement rather than trying to fix everything later!

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Search Engine Guide > Stoney deGeyter > Please Stop Abusing Your Hx Tags, It Doesn't Help Your SEO Efforts