It has long been considered best practice to use only one top-level heading (H1) on a web page. However, during a recent episode of #AskGoogleWebmasters, Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller explained that the use of multiple H1 tags won't hurt your SEO.
According to Mueller, many websites don't use structured headings, but the information on those sites could be just as relevant and critical as those that do. Therefore, it makes no difference to Google whether you use no H1 tags or 100. He also stated that headings are useful for understanding the context of the page.
Mueller concluded the episode by emphasizing the same message that Google often preaches – consider the user and what would make sense to them. Optimize the page for user experience rather than SEO.
In terms of tags, Google suggested that you "imagine you're writing an outline… put some thought into what the main points and sub-points of the content on the page will be and decide where to use heading tags appropriately."
So, how many top-level headings should you use?
There are a few questions to ask yourself about the everyday users of your site. Would the use of multiple top-level headings confuse them? Does it make sense to have more than one top-level heading on the page?
Most pages are designed to cover only one topic, providing in-depth information on a single subject without overloading the reader with too much information. Jumping between topics or having multiple main topics on one page can be overwhelming.
If you need more than one H1 on a page (say you're writing a pillar page or something quite in depth), be sure that your H1s represent the most critical information for that page, and that you follow the proper hierarchical order with other tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.).
Each top-level heading must signify a new section to the page. Maintaining proper hierarchy makes it easier to scan and identify the different parts of the page.
However, we don't recommend it.
Using multiple headings with screen readers
Assistive technologies, such as screen readers, use headings to identify the structure of the page. Whether you decide it's better to use no H1s or several, consider if it will have an impact on someone who uses a screen reader for accessibility.
According to a survey conducted by WebAIM, the majority of those who use screen readers find information by navigating headings. The same survey found that 60-percent of people who use screen readers prefer only one H1 that contains the document title, and a third prefer two H1s: one with the site name and one with the document title.
However, these results display preference, not a necessity. Keyboard shortcuts permit users to jump straight to the first top-level heading to begin reading the main content of the page. In the past, the only way to access this information was via the H1 tag. However, modern skip navigation means screen readers should be able to identify the page's main content, even if multiple H1s are present.
How should marketers proceed?
After Google's announcement, we now know that we can use multiple H1s, but we don't know whether we should.
If your page is currently using multiple H1 tags, it won't hurt your Google ranking (regardless of what automated SEO audit tools tell you). For clarity and user experience, however, be sure that they follow the proper heading hierarchy.
If it makes sense to use more than one H1 on your page, Google won't dock your site for it.
Although most screen reader users surveyed stated that they prefer only one H1 on a page, it shouldn't disrupt accessibility too much (if at all).
Mueller's announcement stirred some controversy regarding the best practices for H1 tags on your site. Although multiple top-level headings won't hurt your Google rankings, it may be preferable to stick to maintaining only one H1 per page until more information is available on the topic.