Headings and Hierarchy: is More Than One H1 a Crowd?

A recent commenter mentioned that they didn’t ever use more than one H1 tag per page. This is something that I’ve typically done as well, but as I thought about why that was I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.

One H1 to Rule Them All?

So, is there the rule of one when it comes to using H1 in your content or doesn’t it matter how often you use it on a page?

I tend to use H1 for the main heading on the page, which typically equates to the page title. I wouldn’t use it for subsequent headings within the content of that page.

However, although the W3C is rather vague on this issue it does say that

Some people consider skipping heading levels to be bad practice. They accept H1 H2 H1 while they do not accept H1 H3 H1 since the heading level H2 is skipped.

Clearly this implies that you could use H1 more than once in an article. Unfortunately, I don’t really follow how you would implement this in a way that makes sense semantically — perhaps someone can advise me?

Interestingly, in the above quote the W3C seems to be impartial regarding the practice of skipping heading levels. I always thought it was a no-no. I guess it’s up to the individual.

Of Sidebars and H1s

When it comes to sidebars — for example, the lists of links in my right-hand sidebar — does it matter what level heading you start these with?

If you use an lower-level heading — say, an H2 — does it imply from a structural standpoint that this content is related to and subordinate to your main content?

Andy Budd seems to think so and I’m inclined to agree with him from a semantic standpoint. This is despite the fact that I haven’t followed this through in practice as my sidebar link lists start with H2s.

On the other hand, from an SEO perspective, do you want to use H1 for headings that are essentially unimportant.

Taking the SEO view, I should really be using H1 more in my content in order to apply more importance to certain headings (which I could then -stuff with keywords- optimize for search).

Of course, this raises the question of how many H1s you could have on a page before the Googlebot starts to think “hang on a minute…”?

H1 and Site Names

Many people (myself included for this site) use H1 for their site name. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that, but I would certainly disagree with the notion that this means you can’t use H1 in your content thereafter.

Using H1 solely for your site name seems like a waste of this important tag, both from a structural standpoint and an SEO one.

Further Reading About Coding Headings

The proper use of headings — and H1 in particular — was a big topic a couple of years ago, (frankly, it started to seem a little like navel gazing), but nothing has been written about it more recently.

Here are a few articles to dig deeper into this topic:

14 thoughts to “Headings and Hierarchy: is More Than One H1 a Crowd?”

  1. I always use h4,h5,h6 for sidebars, and leave h1,h2,h3 for content. For the site header I usually use an h1, but really I could go either way on that.
    I don’t think it’s worth bending oneself into a pretzel over the semantics of headings. h2 is less important than h1… that’s all you’re gonna get. You can construct elaborate theories and proselytize all you want, but HTML is a very basic language, and there’s a severe limit on how much semantic load you can squeeze into it. That’s why when developers need semantics they turn to XML or an RDBMS.
    SEO and user agent features are the primary value of the semantic payload, so focus on that. Things like semantic class names are nice for maintenance purposes, but their practical value outside your editor is practically nil.

  2. When it comes to site names, I use a h1 on the home page and then change it to a paragraph or div on internal pages because the page title then becomes the h1 and because I don’t want to break the hierarchy of headings.

  3. Since the specs state “A heading element briefly describes the topic of the section it introduces”, I actually interpret this to mean that using H1 for site titles is WRONG. H1 should not be used for anything “higher level” than the title of the current page, since the site title doesn’t describe a section.

  4. I only ever use one H1 on a page, I then stick with H2 & H3’s for many of the sub headers… Depending on the size of the page, I will go to h5 or even 6 but its rare I have to say.

  5. I use headings only in my page content, and then only when needed. If the sidebar contains actual text content that is related to and relevant to the main content then I’ll use an appropriate heading there, but if it’s just fluff (like ads for example), then I won’t waste them.
    One of the best ways to look at the use of headings is to compare them to a newspaper article. The article title would be the H1 heading (page title), while the major talking points of the article would be the H2 elements (main content section headings), with H3-H6 pulling up the rear, providing additional semantic meaning and structure as necessary.
    I also do not like to skip headings (such as H1, H3, H2 or H1, H2, H4, H2), preferring to retain a logical structure and order whenever possible. Another thing I won’t do is use less than two headings of any given type, save for the H1, which (as I said before) I use as the page title (for those who are wondering, I use an image element for the site title)
    But then again, I build sites differently than most people anyway (header, menu, content, sidebar/s, footer – in that order – styled with floats and negative margins to position them where I want), so what do I know? ;P

  6. I’ve been flirting with the idea of using multiple H1s for the home page of a blog, giving one to each post title. Having multiple posts on a page doesn’t make the individual titles suddenly more subordinate to the site, if that makes sense. Perhaps it would make more sense to bump them down to h2 if you put them below an h1 like “Recent Posts.” I’m not going to start using all h1s on my homepage even if it does make sense, because I just don’t know how google would react.

  7. I use H1 for my blog title, yet only on the frontpage, on subpages, i made it an h3. I would use multiple h1’s on a page, but only when they’re related to the same topic. Using h1’s or h2’s in your sidebar is utter waste in my opinion…
    I have to confess to being an SEO though 🙂

  8. That’s a tough question and one i been asking too. I have seen a few blogs saying you should only use the h1 tag once.
    I agree with you regarding the structure but i do think over use of the h1 tag make cause problems but i could be wrong.

  9. Personally, I use H1 for the site-name, but it seems so useless, because this has already been put in the title-tag.
    Maybe it’s best as John wrote before, to use the H1 only on the homepage and then make it a normal paragraph. This makes sense from both a SEO and a semantics point of view. Just not from an accessibility standpoint when you consider screen-readers.

  10. Thanks for all the feedback. It’s interesting (and not surprising) to see a variety of approaches being employed, all of which have merit.
    I doubt if there’s ever going to be a ‘right’ way of using headings, except to not use <div class=”heading”></div>!

  11. Reading on from your post, is it true H2 tags are not read? I mean if that is truth do we follow the cause of action “H1, H3” like you said W3C is not to the point on this subject but i think that a site like them should come forward and layout the standards so we don’t have to guess.
    I myself use the H1 tag only once but i use the H2 for my next subline. I use the other H tags for my titles of sections of text.

  12. I am in agreement with other commenters that avoiding high-level header tags in the sidebar is probably a bad idea, but I doubt skipping levels would hurt SEO at all. I think safest practice would suggest h1 for page title, h2 for article headers, h3 for article subheaders, and h4-6 for non-content related stuff like sidebar headers.

  13. This is a great discussion that I hadn’t put that much thought into before. Thanks for the careful consideration of all angles. I tend to use H1 one time only but I probably tend to overuse H2s.

Comments are closed.