The search engine optimization (SEO) world had an eyebrow-raising moment a few days ago when a Google representative admitted that the search engine’s rules on H1 tags were much more relaxed than they used to be.
While relaxing the rules of online content writing is always a good thing to hear, the insinuations that come with these looser rules tell us that abusing them will not have the same impact they used to have.
But First: What are H1 Tags?
If you’re one of the three people who read our blog every week, you can probably add two and two together to see that we’re talking about headers – written content with a line of HTML code that emphasizes it for search engines:
Headers come in different potencies, which work the same way that a subsection in a nested list works:
And so on.
H1s are like the title of a book. H2s are like the chapters in a book. H3s would be like if one of those chapters had a subchapter. H4s could be like a paragraph in that subchapter.
In online legal blogging and content writing, the H1 header is the title of a page or article. An example of an H1 is the one for this article: “Google Has Loosened H1 Rules, But Legal Blogging Stays the Same.”
An example of an H2 tag is “How Were H1 Tags Used, Before?”
How Were H1 Tags Used, Before?
Search engines have long used headers and H1 tags to “see” and “understand” what the article is about. They decided that the words used in a page’s headers would carry stronger weight than the words used in the rest of the article, in the thought that headers were a better indication of what the piece was about.
Naturally, this led search engine marketers to abuse the system. They’d write entire articles in H1. They’d cram as many keywords in headers. They’d use lines of HTML to “hide” H1s throughout an article in ways that search engines could see them, but not readers.
Search engines had to adapt by penalizing header abuse or only counting a single H1 entry.
More recently, though, online marketers noticed that a lot of previously prohibited H1 conduct was appearing, again. They started asking, “what gives?”
Google: Use All the H1 Tags You Want
During the September 27 edition of the Google Webmaster Central Office Hours, Google’s search engine expert John Mueller was asked about the proper use of H1 tags. He admitted that the game had changed, again:
The topic proved important enough that, on October 3, he covered it again in his series Ask Google Webmasters:
The short of it is that Google’s algorithms had evolved to the point where headers no longer drive the discussion of what a page is really about. Use all the H1s you want, Mueller says, use five or use zero – it won’t affect your ranking.
Think of the Readers When Using H1 Tags
Ironically, the legal blogs that are written by lawyers rather than search engine marketers are going to have the fewest changes to make. Lawyers and other non-marketing professionals were likely unaware of the potential for abuse that H1 tags presented, and probably did nothing to capitalize on it. Instead, they were writing with their human reader in mind, all along. SEO pros, on the other hand, have been using headers to score SEO points for years, now, and may have to alter their writing techniques.
As with many of the changes that Google has been making to its algorithms, this one is meant to push website owners and content writers into catering their content to readers, rather than search engines. By not claiming they don’t care about H1 tags, anymore, Google is suggesting that writers no longer use them with search engines in mind.
If Google is playing it straight with this admission (and not saying it to make marketers think that H1s are irrelevant so they stop abusing them), then the best practice would be to use H1 tags for the title of the piece, only. Doing otherwise could confuse readers about how the subjects in your articles are nested within each other.