The following series is pulled from a presentation I gave to a group of beauty bloggers hosted by L'Oreal in New York. Most of the presentation is geared toward how to make a blog more search engine and user-friendly, however I will expand many of the concepts here to include tips and strategies for sites selling products or services across all industries.

Heading Tags

Heading Tags

Heading tags are certainly no magic solution to building keyword relevance. They are merely one more baby step to creating a well-rounded optimization of a page. Adding heading tags using your keywords may or may not make a difference in your keyword rankings, but nonetheless, balanced against the rest of the page, using a heading tag properly, with keywords, is going to benefit your visitors, if not the search engines.

On the search engine front, at the very least, the Heading tags (H1, H2,... H6) can be used to tell the search engines the hierarchical structure of your page's content.

When developing content, it's pretty easy for visitors to see how the page breaks down, but search engines need a bit of help. The heading tags are that help.

Think of headings as you would an outline of an important paper. At the top is the Title, in this case the H1 tag. Next would be the Main points; In an outline they would be I, II, and III. In HTML you would use the H2 for all of them. Next we have our sub-points A, B and C, or the H3, and following that sub-sub-points of 1., 2., 3., or the H4. You get the point from there.

An alternate strategy would be to use your H1 for the title as noted above and the H2 for a sub-title. Then you'd start with the H3 for your main points I, II and III, and go down form there. You can go all the way down to the H6, but its rare that you have a page with so much content that this is warranted.

One of the problems I often see with heading tags is that they are used by developers for the site's navigation. In a way it makes sense, you want to segment different areas of the navigation with headers of their own. The only problem with this is that you end up using valuable hx tags in an invaluable area and you're diluting the effectiveness of the heading tags in your content where they would otherwise be most effective.

If your developers are intent on using hx tags in the navigation elements then make sure they stick to the lower level H5 and H6 so you can use the higher level tags in the content where they'll make the most impact. Make certain that they don't use the H1 tag for the logo, that's a complete throwaway and prevents you from gaining any effectiveness with an H1 tag in your copy.

All of the tags can be used repeatedly on the page, depending on where they fall in the total hierarchy, except for the H1 tag (or H2 if you are using it as a sub-headline.) Be sure to use it only once on the page.

Alt Attributes

Alt Attributes

Alt attributes, commonly referred to as "alt tags" allow you to add descriptive text to your images. The visitors generally won't see the alt text unless, in Firefox they mouse over the image or they have images turned off.

The alt text is meant to be a replacement for the image should the image not show. Make sure your alt text reads properly and adds something for the reader who doesn't see the image. The text itself should describe the content or visuals of the image for the visitor. This text also provides much needed information to the search engine, especially if the image contains text. That text should be included in the image.

Using Alt Attributes in your image tags can help you in a number of ways. 1) it provides a greater context for the text on the page which can be factored into your search engine rankings. 2) It can help your images come up in image searches, which can drive additional traffic and conversions to your site.

Text-only browsers, or browsing with images turned off still happens, probably more frequently than we know. People on slow connections will often turn their images off in order to speed up their browsing experience. Without alt text, an important element of your pages won't be available to them.

There are also a good number of visually impaired web surfers that use screen readers to deliver the content of web pages. The screen reader will read the image alt text, which means if the image is important to the visitor's experience on the site, not having an alt attribute can be detrimental.

Finally, many people browse the web on mobile phones. These phones are almost always slower than the typical internet connection and either the phone's browsers won't display images or users will turn the images off so they can browse faster. This is generally not the case with smart phones, but there are still a lot of non-smart phone users out there.

The most important area to use alt tags is in your navigation. Whether it be your header, footer or side-bar navigation, any place images are used be sure to supplement them with alt text. Failure to do so could make your sit unnavigable to any visitor that isn't seeing images.

Missed a part of this series?
Part 1: Everything You Need To Know About SEO
Part 2: Everything You Need To Know About Title Tags
Part 3: Everything You Need To Know About Meta Description and Keyword Tags
Part 4: Everything You Need To Know About Heading Tags and Alt Attributes
Part 5: Everything You Need To Know About Domain Names
Part 6: Everything You Need To Know About Search Engine Friendly URLs & Broken Links
Part 7: Everything You Need To Know About Site Architecture and Internal Linking
Part 8: Everything You Need To Know About Keywords
Part 9: Everything You Need To Know About Keyword Core Terms
Part 10: Everything You Need To Know About Keyword Qualifiers
Part 11: Everything You Need To Know About SEO Copywriting
Part 12: Everything You Need To Know About Page Content
Part 13: Everything You Need To Know About Links
Part 14: Everything You Need To Know About Link Anatomy
Part 15: Everything You Need To Know About Linking

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.


I'm not sure that the H tags are as effective as they once was. Mostly because CSS can pretty much be used to change a lot of things. I did read a patent explanation from Bill Slawski (SEO by the Sea) pointing out that search engines could soon be reading page and giving certain areas preference. Basically your design and display - as seen by real people may have an impact on rankings.

I think we're still a way from there however.

While I'm not stuck on use of H tag, the general theme of creating a good structured hierarchy will remain beneficial for conveying the overall theme while targeting related longer tail keywords on a page.

Robert, I'm not sure there will every be a need for the search engines NOT to give hx tags special consideration. Sure they can do all that you have suggested but the hx tags leave out the guesswork. How does a search engine know if one section of the content holds higher value than another? The hx will give the page that hierarchy. Heck, if the search engines simply want to be left to guess at everything, then let's do away with the Title tag. The engine can pull whatever text from the page they feel is the headline content. I don't think anybody is ready for that. You may be right that headings aren't given great weight in the algorithms, but I'd be hard pressed to think that they are weighed on an equal platform as standard body copy.

I don't know if they'll ever not give them special consideration, or even if they do ;)

But I'm pretty sure that the search engines know that a three word phrase associated to a block of related text must be the heading even if not clearly defined through a tag as such.

I'll certainly agree that there's no harm in defining it though the use of a Hx tag, it's easy enough to style and that is what it's there for. But I'd still argue any substantial weighting to the tag. Then again every little bit does count.

From a usability perspective, I think one big plus of Hx tags is that the enforce consistency. I suppose you could say that about CSS as well, but well-used headers help create a natural order and flow of content, and make sure that emphasis always looks the same throughout a site. There's nothing worse for a visitor than having a heading in giant green text on one page and small flashing red all-caps on the next one.

"The visitors generally won't see the alt text unless, in Firefox they mouse over the image..."

Surely they'll see the title in FF and not the alt? And if there's not alt then doesn't FF need a plugin to use the alt as hover over text? Might be wrong and it'll use it if there's no title, but can't be bothered checking just now :)

Actually, the CSS I use overrides what appears in my alt tags in FF when I hover over images. I have a title on my container and sections, and that's what shows up--the alt tags on images must be relegated to the lowest priority? Not so in IE, though.

I have a question concerning the h1 tag. I have a "masthead" section that my CSS defines to a certain px, etc., and then I have a different sort of h1 tag for my main content section. Stylistically, it's a positional thing for the masthead. I guess I never considered the spiders would see anything different than just know it's an h1 tag. Is the fact that I have more than one h1 a problem?

By using the h1 twice you're giving a mixed message to the engines. You're telling them that there are two most important "blocks" on the page. You can do what you want with the masthead without making it an Hx.

Oh dear! That is a problem, isn't it?? Guess I've got some work to do--I appreciate this, Stoney.

The thing I mentioned about the alt tags for images being the low man on totem pole with the title tags for the sections showing up in a hover--is the search engine prioritizing those?

Oh dear! I guess I better get to fixing this, eh? Thanks for this valuable info, Stoney.

What I mentioned about the alt tags for images being the low man on the totem pole (next to the title tags for divs) on the FF hover--do the search engines give that a hierarchy as well?

There are some schools of thought that believe alt text and image titles have some relevance. If they do it's not much. But in SEO, all the little things add up.

Stoney - Kudos to a great continuation on your SEO 101 series! I always enjoy reading through these to see others' opinions and to refresh my memory from time to time.

Although, I would recommend pointing out that there is no such thing as an "Alt tag". I realize many refer to it that way but it really is the "Alternate Text attribute of the image tag" as you pointed out. The term "Alt tag" references a tag that doesn't exist. I really like the fact that you use the Alternate Text Attribute term correctly when referencing this important SEO element. Maybe this is a good time to start using the term ATA (Alternate Text Attribute) as a replacement for "Alt Tag"? Perhaps the correct term use will catch on at last? Oh, can hope! :)

Keep up the great work!

I've recently been researching into alt attributes and found there is a school of thought that encourages that most of them are left blank!

The reason is that the primary real use for alt attributes is to help the visually impaired who use screen readers to read the content out aloud. Only images that are a critical part of the pages experience should have alt information (like navigational images). All others should be blank.

Having screen readers read out all these image descriptions just gets in the way of a visually impaired persons experience.

Maybe the title attribute should be used to explain pictures (shows up in tool tips) and the alt attribute reserved for the visually impaired, and left blank unless important?

@Brian - It's referred to as the alt tag because 'alt' is the term used in the code it appears in. . For a new name to 'catch on', HTML would have to change.

@Stoney - great series! It's now a must-read for all future SEOs I train :)

Comments closed after 30 days to combat spam.

Search Engine Guide > Stoney deGeyter > SEO 101 - Part 4: Everything You Need to Know About Headings and Alt Attributes