Title Tags vs. H1 Headers. What's the Diff?

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In SEO, we often talk about title tags. I’d like to propose that title tags and headers serve exactly the same purpose. Before getting all up in arms, here’s my reasoning.

What does a page’s title tag do? What’s its purpose? It describes the page. What about the H1? What it its purpose? To describe the page…  Since they serve the same purpose, why are they so unevenly weighted in SEO? Let’s explore it.

Title Tag Awesomeness

Title tags are awesome for SEO. They are the single most important on-site element in which to place keywords. They are the first things you look at for SEO, and they provide some of the largest benefit.

Aside from simply describing the page, what do title tags provide? Three awesome benefits:

  • They provide a concise description of the page (65 characters) for both users and robots
  • Boiling a thought down to its essence provides keyword-rich content, which is great for search engines to classify content
  • They provide a convenient headline to describe the page when it comes up on a search result page

H1’s Not as Awesomeness

Now compare title tags to the H1 – what is the purpose of an H1? Since there is only one H1 per page, it’s to describe the page of content. Didn’t the title tag do the same thing? Yeah, it does.

H1s are traditionally the largest text on a page. My guess is somewhere around 95% of visitors will read the H1. With that understanding, how much SEO value do you get from putting keywords in H1s? Surprisingly, not much at all. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s for two reasons:

  1. Since H1s serve the same purpose as the title tag, but the title tag does more, search engines have shifted the weight that the H1 would have gotten to the title tag.
  2. Search engines don’t want to incentivize keyword stuffing in H1s. H1s introduce your content to the reader, and they want to make the web a better place to be.

How to Maximize the Use of H1s

I look at H1s much the same way as I look at meta descriptions – don’t think too much about search engines when writing them. Instead, think of what is going to draw in your reader and lead them towards the desired action. I would not simply repeat the title tag in the H1 simply because they serve the same purpose.

People and search engines expect keyword usage in title tags, but they don’t expect it in headers. Use your H1 as an opportunity to use a keyword variation, and make a visitor want to read your content. If the largest words on a page are written for a search engine, it will turn off a lot of readers, and hurt user experience the web over.

Comments


Zippers

It’s pretty common knowledge that more than one H1 on a page is okay, certainly when it fits the page’s hierarchy. There is no universal one H1 per page rule, and I think it’s these little things that turn SEO into snake oil. I’d amend this post if I were you. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIn5qJKU8VM

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AJ Wilcox

@Zippers – sure Matt Cutts said that it doesn’t hurt, but the fact of the matter is that the header architecture was designed to be an outline, and wasn’t designed by Google. Google will work with it and won’t penalize you, but it doesn’t mean that it’s correct or following convention. I should also add that this post is more about following convention than it is about ranking better – no snake oil sold here.

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Zippers

Unfortunately, you’ve got it the wrong way around. Allowing multiple H1s is the convention and has been for some time. The idea that you could have only one H1 per page was created by “SEO” salesmen, deliberately or not, to show some kind of expertise. “Header architecture” was intended to be visual, not structural. Headings H2-H6 represented headings of smaller size, not less important content blocks, and thus they were used in different orders, in duplication, or not at all.

A recent article in A List Apart showcasing new HTML5 elements uses an example with multiple H1s on a single page and allows for either usage. These folks practically invented web standards in the late 90s and continue to do so now. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/previewofhtml5

When experienced web developers get these kind of SEO recommendations handed down to us, we think they’re hooey.

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AJ Wilcox

@Zippers – Since headers were meant to be an outline, most would argue that if you use multiple H1 tags on a page (the most important text visually on a page), your page likely has multiple foci and that means you’ve got organizational issues. When you have two topics that are equally important on one page, it’s likely that it should be two pages. The W3C makes no call on which is most proper, however.

Through our experience with thousands of clients, we haven’t found a significant difference in ranking between the usage of multiple H1 elements on a page, but we have found a significant difference in rankings between pages with poor organizational practices and good ones.

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Fireman's Carry

Zippers, I’m not sure where you found that the header architecture was intended to be visual and not structural. As an experienced web developer myself, I like to retain as much structure as possible with my H1-H6 usage.

AJ, Please explain the logic for me…

A. Sites with multiple H1s have organizational issues
B. Sites with multiple H1s do not rank better or worse than those with just one
C. Sites with organizational issues do rank worse than those without

How can C=A, B=A, but they have conflicting results?

I also want to point out that most people DO NOT look at the source code when reading a website. If the engines don’t care, try building your website so humans can actually read it.

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Fireman's Carry

Also, I forgot to mention that you have one h1 in this post and three h2′s:

Title Tags vs. H1 Headers. What’s the Diff?
Title Tag Awesomeness
H1’s Not as Awesomeness
How to Maximize the Use of H1s

They all have same font-family and font-size CSS attributes. So is your post suffering from the “multiple-foci” problem?

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AJ Wilcox

@Firemanscarry -
A. Site with multiple H1s likely have organizational issues because of the split focus.
B. Search engines don’t care a whole bunch about the differences between H1s and H2s. Having keywords in them doesn’t mean a whole lot for rankings.
C. Sites with organizational issues (not bad header architecture, but rather the site displays poor organization) tend to rank lower.

These three points are not mutually exclusive and therefore, A==B==C.

I agree with you that people don’t look at source code. Definitely making headings work more for friendliness to the user is a solid strategy.

And yes, had I designed our stylesheet, I would have visually separated H1s from H2s :)

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M. Carson

Thank you for this article. I have three websites; the first two showed up on the 1st page of my Google search results in 24 hours; the 3rd http://www.howtosubsituteteach.com I just published this week and even when I type in those exact words in the search bar, I can’t find my site. I am wondering if I did something wrong with my title tags or H1 tags? Is it wrong to make the title on the homepage the same as the website title? I am a really at a loss as to what I did wrong on this site. The key words were all deemed as low competition words too per Google. I guess I still have a lot to learn about SEO.

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