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Search Engine Optimized Headers

by Stephen in Best Practices | 16 Comments – Tags: , ,

It’s important as you’re working on a website to take into consideration Search Engine Optimization (frequently referred to as SEO). This is commonly misunderstood as a form of marketing. At its core, however, SEO is nothing more than taking steps to ensure that a search engine can read and -more importantly- understand your website. Here’s a brief walk-through on how to best format your page headers to ensure maximum visibility in search engines!

What HTML Means To Search Engines
One of the ways to ensure that a search engine can understand your website is to have proper HTML usage. There is more to HTML tags than formatting: they define what their content means. To that end, you should make it a habit to use each tag as it was intended to be used. For example, paragraphs should represent paragraphs of text, lists should represent any series of information, headers should be used for page headings, etc.

You can create pretty much any aesthetic with some combination of HTML and CSS. To a visitor your site will appear as you intended, but to a search engine it will look like the image below.

Our Homepage As It Appears To A Search Engine
How www.binaryd.com appears to a search engine

Even though we make extensive use of both text headings and image headings you will notice that the site still makes sense when seen through the eyes of the search engine. I’ll step you through how to do the same on your own homepage.

Getting Started
To start with you should make sure to use not only the classic <h1> tag but also the <h2> through <h6> tags as needed. At the very least, every page should have one and only one <h1> tag. This tells the search engine what is most important on the page. Subsequent headings should use <h2> through <h6> in an order that makes sense. This of course poses the first problem — by default, web browsers apply their own styling to tags which can lead to some strange and inconsistent results.

Example 1 — Default Browser Rendering
Default Browser Rendering

Fixing The Defaults
Obviously we don’t want those default styles getting in the way of our own styles so we’ll need to make use of a CSS Reset. Here’s an example of one that resets just the headers.

/* Example Header Reset */
h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6
	font-size: 12pt;
	font-weight: normal;
	margin: 0;
	padding: 0;

We have set the default size of all header tags to 12pt with a normal weight. We have also removed the default margins and padding to header tags so that they are not spaced any differently. This gives us a much more consistent rendering.

Example 2 — CSS Reset Implemented
CSS Reset Implemented

You can now get fancy with your styling knowing that it is going to be applied consistently. You could skip using a reset altogether and just style the headers themselves but you run a few risks in doing so. First there is the risk of overriding the same properties over and over again making your stylesheet larger than it needs to be. This isn’t a huge deal with modern broadband connections but it still is a needless waste.

/* Repeated Styling */
	font-size: 16pt;
	margin: 0;
	padding: 0;

	font-size: 14pt;
	margin: 0;
	padding: 0;

More importantly there is the chance that you will miss a property when applying your own style. This could lead to headaches during testing as you try to track down the error in your CSS when it is actually the browser applying a default style. Worse, you might not notice the error during development and only learn of it after deployment – when fixing errors is significantly more costly.

Going Further
Basic text styling is all right in some instances but often designs call for much more complex graphical headings. When SEO is a concern, though, these are a bit trickier to implement. Say for example our design made use of a complex font that is not part of the standard web library of fonts. Complex text replacement is possible but the simplest solution is to use graphics instead. Like most things, though, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it – and just sticking in an image inside an <h1> tag is not the right way.

Don’t Do This

	<img src="example.jpg" alt="Out of this world web design!" />

Even though this will render correctly to both the user and our text-browser, semantically it is wrong. Why? Think about what each tag represents. <h1> represents a heading and tells the html interpreter that what’s inside is that heading. This should be text so that it can be indexed, but in this case it is an image which cannot be understood in any meaningful way. Even though the alt text has been set to what we want it will not be understood as such. What we need to do is have the text inside the header but have it appear to the user with the graphical element instead. The way to do this is to use backgrounds and text-indent.

The Right Way

/* Proper Heading Styling */
	background: url("example.jpg") no-repeat;
	height: 46px;
	width: 454px;
	text-indent: -5000px;
<h1>Out of this world web design!</h1>

The background has been set to the graphical element we want our visitors to see. Obviously it would be disconcerting if that background tiled so we specify that it should not repeat. The dimensions of our graphical heading certainly do not match the default dimensions of the header so we set them. The final key is the large negative text-indent. We don’t want the text to not exist inside the heading, since that would violate our SEO goal. However, we don’t want the text to actually appear to our users since we have the graphical heading. The solution is to simply move the text off the screen where no one can see it. The final result is both attractive and a proper SEO graphical heading.

The Final Result
An SEO graphical heading done correctly

Riding A Fine Line
These techniques start to run dangerously close to violating some acceptable practice policies with the major search engines. Hiding text from the user in most cases is a poor practice and has been known to get websites removed from search engines — the exact opposite of what our SEO efforts are striving for! In particular Google’s Webmaster Guidelines make it clear that used inappropriately these techniques will cause more trouble than they’re worth. In this case though we are not hiding content on the site that is not normally visible to the user anyway. We’re skating close to the line but since we’re not crossing it there shouldn’t be any trouble.

In summary, you should make use of all of the tags in the HTML spec as closely as possible in the way that they were intended. When a third party attempts to interpret what you have done, how close you have stuck to that specification is the only clue to what part of your page is the title and which are actual content. Feel free to use graphics in headers so long as you optimize them for SEO! If you have any questions or remarks go ahead and leave us a comment below!


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