Are H1 Tags a Google Ranking Factor? New 2023 Case Study


Yes, H1 tags are a Google ranking factor, but they are not as important as they used to be. In the early days of SEO, people would stuff their H1 tags with keywords to rank higher in search results.

However, Google has since become more sophisticated and can now better understand the content of a page without relying too heavily on H1 tags.

The Influence of H1 Tags on Google Rankings

  • Objective: Determine the correlation between various H1 tag practices and their impact on Google search rankings.
  • Data Source: A dataset comprising five different keyword sets, analyzing the top 40 Google search results for each keyword set.

Key Metrics Analyzed:

  • Presence of a single H1 tag.
  • Presence of multiple H1 tags.
  • Inclusion of the exact keyword phrase in the H1 tag.
  • Inclusion of a partial match of the keyword phrase in the H1 tag.

Here’s what we found:

93.5% of the results have a single H1 tag.

A weak negative correlation (−0.1172) was observed between rank and the presence of a single H1 tag, suggesting that having just one H1 tag is more common among higher-ranking pages (1-10) than lower-ranking ones (31-40).

However, there are a couple of nuances to consider:

  • Correlation vs. Causation: Just because top-ranking pages have H1 tags doesn’t necessarily mean that the H1 tag caused them to rank well. It might be a correlation without direct causation. For instance, well-designed sites might include H1 tags because it’s a best practice, and they might also rank well because they follow other best practices.
  • Threshold Effect: If almost every page (not just the top-ranking ones) across the web uses H1 tags, then its absence might be more of a negative signal than its presence is a positive one. In other words, not having an H1 tag might harm SEO more than having one helps.

If 90% + of top-ranking pages have H1 tags, it’s a strong signal that any site serious about SEO should include them. Even if they’re not a direct ranking factor, they’re part of a collection of best practices that top-ranking sites follow.

12.5% of the results have more than one H1 tag.

A moderate positive correlation (0.3078) was found between rank and pages with more than one H1 tag. This suggests that the likelihood of encountering pages with multiple H1 tags increases as one moves towards higher rankings.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean having multiple H1 tags benefits SEO. It simply indicates a trend in the data.

There are a few ways to interpret this:

  • Coincidence or Other Factors: Multiple H1 tags are a characteristic of specific content types or industries that rank well for other reasons.
  • Content Structure: Some modern web design frameworks and content management systems (see the best CMS for SEO) allow for multiple H1 tags in different sections or components of a page, especially in single-page applications or modular content designs. These might rank well due to other associated modern practices, not necessarily because of the multiple H1 tags.
  • Not Harmful, but Not Necessarily Beneficial: Multiple H1 tags might not harm SEO but might not significantly boost rankings.

Given the correlation value and considering the nuances of SEO, it’s hard to definitively state that there’s no benefit to having more than one H1.

However, the data does suggest that a single H1 tag is more common among top-ranking pages, and multiple H1 tags aren’t necessarily a strong predictor of higher rankings.

13.5% of the results have the exact keyword phrase in the H1 tag.

A weak negative correlation (−0.2670) was identified between rank and the exact keyword phrase’s presence in the H1 tag. This suggests that higher-ranking pages are slightly less likely to have the exact keyword phrase in the H1 tag.

However, it’s essential to keep a few points in mind:

  • SEO Complexity: Rankings are determined by a combination of many factors, and the exact keyword match in the H1 tag is just one of them. While it might not show a strong correlation in this dataset, it could still be a beneficial practice in conjunction with other optimization strategies.
  • Context Matters: An exact keyword match might only be as relevant if the content provides value and aligns with the search intent. Google’s algorithms have evolved to prioritize content quality, relevance, and user experience over keyword stuffing or exact matches.
  • Variability by Keyword: Some keywords or niches benefit more from exact matches than others. The dataset provides an aggregate view across multiple keyword sets, so there might be nuances at the individual keyword level.

Based on this data, using the exact keyword phrase in the H1 isn’t strongly correlated with better SEO performance. Creating high-quality, relevant content that meets users’ needs is essential, rather than just optimizing for exact keyword matches.

88.5% of the results partially match the keyword phrase in the H1 tag.

A negligible correlation (−0.0282) was found between rank and a partial keyword match in the H1 tag, indicating that this factor doesn’t significantly influence rankings based on the dataset.

However, considering the practical perspective:

  • Common Practice: It’s common practice in SEO to have the primary keyword or a variation in the H1 tag. Even if this dataset doesn’t show a strong correlation, it’s a fundamental tactic most SEOs employ because the H1 tag typically represents a page’s main topic or focus.
  • Relevance: Including a variation of the primary keyword can ensure that both users and search engines understand the primary topic of the page, which can contribute to better relevance scores.
  • High Proportions in Top Ranks: The raw values or proportions are worth noting, even if the correlation is weak. If a significant majority of the top-ranking pages (e.g., 80% or 90%) have a partial or exact keyword match in their H1 tag, it strongly indicates that this is a characteristic of well-ranking pages, even if it’s not the sole reason they rank well.

While the correlation in the dataset for having a partial keyword match in the H1 tag is weak, it’s still widely considered a best practice in SEO. Including the primary keyword or its variation in the H1 tag can enhance relevance and user experience, even if it’s not a dominant factor in this dataset’s rankings.

KEY TAKEAWAY

  • These observations show that while H1 tags might influence rankings, the correlations observed are not strong enough to conclude that H1 tags are a significant Google ranking factor.

Practical Implications for SEO Professionals

  • Include an H1 Tag: Most top-ranking pages have an H1 tag. While its direct impact on ranking is debatable, it’s a fundamental practice that can enhance page structure and user experience.
  • Exact Match Isn’t Crucial: Having the exact keyword phrase in the H1 tag is unnecessary. Focus on creating a relevant and contextually appropriate H1 that caters to user intent.
  • Balance is Key with Multiple H1 Tags: While there’s a positive correlation with multiple H1 tags, ensuring they are used contextually and don’t confuse users or search engines is essential.
  • Quality Over Keywords: While including a variation of the primary keyword in the H1 can be beneficial, content quality, relevance, and user experience are paramount. Google’s algorithms prioritize high-quality, relevant content over mere keyword matches.

Google’s Stance on H1 Tags

Over the years, Google representatives have shed light on how the search engine perceives H1 tags:

H1 Headings Flexibility

John Mueller’s statement from 2019 suggests that Google’s systems are flexible regarding H1 headings. Whether a page has one H1, multiple H1s, or just styled text without semantic HTML, Google tries to work with it.

Our data showed that 93.5% of results have a single H1 tag, and 12.5% have more than one H1 tag. This aligns with Google’s approach as described by Mueller; Google doesn’t appear to be penalizing pages with multiple H1 tags.

Highlighting Important Parts

Mueller’s tweet emphasizes that when webmasters highlight certain parts of the content as “important” using headings, Google can use that information relative to the rest of the content.

Our data revealed that 88.5% of results have a partial match of the keyword phrase in the H1 tag. This suggests that most top-ranking pages highlight or emphasize the primary topic or keyword in their content in the H1 tag.

Headings as a Ranking Factor

In 2020, John Mueller mentioned that headings help Google understand the content and are a ranking factor. However, they’re not the only factor. The content itself is crucial.

Our analysis indicated weak correlations between the presence of exact or partial keyword matches in H1 tags and rankings. This suggests that while H1 tags play a role, other factors, especially content quality and relevance, might have a more substantial impact.

Conclusion

The insights provided by Google representatives align with the data findings. H1 tags and headings help search engines understand the context and structure of the content.

They can be beneficial, but their presence or specific structure isn’t the sole determinant of rankings.

Other factors, especially content quality, relevance, and user experience, are pivotal in determining search rankings.

It’s also evident that while Google’s algorithms are sophisticated enough to understand and work with various H1 structures, best practices in SEO should prioritize genuine user value over tactics solely aimed at manipulating rankings.





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