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Back in the days of text-on-paper publishing, using different headings to create content hierarchies was fairly common. But when we started moving to the web, people seemed to forget about it. As a result, you'll find a lot of websites only use two levels of content, h1 headings, and a lot of paragraphs. And if they need a subheading, they just use a paragraph with bold text or a large size. For multilevel content, this is not the correct way to display the hierarchy, and it's also really confusing for people who visit the site. HTML comes stocked with six levels of headings and by using them properly, you give readers as well as search engines a better understanding of your content, and how it stacks up.
The general principle of using headings in your site is to create content hierarchies. The idea is if you have a main heading and then subheadings underneath, you use the heading levels h1 through h6 to indicate which headings belong under which other headings. This is standard stuff if you ever did text editing, but it's surprisingly uncommon when you go on the web. The Accessibility benefit of using the heading hierarchies is that it makes it easier to understand the content of the page, not only for people who use text-to-speech browsers, but also for people who just visit the site.
By using headings properly, you make the page easier to navigate and digest, especially if people do things like print out your page. In addition, people who use text-to- speech browsers tend to activate a function that only reads out the headings of the page. That means if you're not using headings on your page or if you're only using, for instance, the h1 heading, you are not actually communicating the content hierarchies on the page to anyone except the ones that can see the visual output. The SEO benefit of using headings is a bit surprising. Those search engines mainly index the title and description tags of pages.
They also read the rest of the page and index all that content, so that when people search for something specific, they can find something specific in a specific page. When they index this, they use the headings to create the hierarchies in the index, so they understand that something under heading 3 is subsidiary to what's under heading 2, which again, is subsidiary to what's under heading 1. Meaning if you create these hierarchies properly, the search engines will have an easier time parsing and understanding the content of your page and an easier time serving it up to the people looking for the information you have written about.
So what does this look like in real life? In the sample project I've given you, I've done something wrong on purpose so you can see what happens when you do it the wrong way, and we are going to fix that. But let's first take a look at it when it's done wrong. If you open the index page in your browser, you see everything looks normal. It looks like we have a heading at the top here, we scroll down, we have a Heading 2 a Heading 3. But, if we turn Styles off, something weird happens. You see, without Styles activated on this page, it now looks like the only heading on the page is the section heading for the Main Menu.
There is no other heading here. The rest of it is all paragraphs. You'll find the heading down here-- it's this In the Coppice down here. And further down we will find Heading 2 and Heading 3, but these appear as paragraphs. That is because if we turn Styles back on again and select any one of them--so I will right-click on it and select Inspect Element-- You will see that what appears as my Heading 1 is in fact just a paragraph with some extra styling on it. Same goes for Heading 2 and Heading 3. If I select Heading 2, you will see it's just a paragraph with some extra font styling.
What I want to do is go into this file and change these so that they are actually using the proper content hierarchy. So I will open index.html in my Notepad and scroll down until I find the sections and change them. First, I will find what's going to be Heading 1. It's here, In the Coppice, so I will take p class article-title out and I'll change it to h1 class article-title. I will scroll down and then find Heading 2, which is down here, and I will change this to Heading 2, h2, and I'll find Heading 3 and change that.
Just looking at my markup now, this is already easier to read, because now I can see that h1, the main heading, is on line 42, whereas h2, the subheading, is on line 65, without having to read any of the style code. When I save it and I reload my page, you will see that although nothing really changed visually because I'm hooking into the same styles, if I activate SenSEO, you see we now have a hierarchy of headings, Level 1 Headline, In the Coppice, 2nd Level Headline, Heading 2, and 3rd Level Headline, Heading 3, and if I turn Styles off, you see that In the Coppice is displayed as a Headline 1, Heading 2 is displayed as Heading 2 and Heading 3 is displayed as Heading 3.
This may very well seem like obvious information to a lot of you, but in my meanderings through the web, I've discovered that even people who do this all the time like me, and I have to admit, I do forget this all the time, tend to forget to use content hierarchies when they write articles. So if you just keep it in mind, if you're writing a subsection of a main section you always use Heading 2 or Heading 3 all the way down to a Heading 6, you will create a better content hierarchy and things will make more sense. By using the heading tags the way they were intended, you can create an easy-to-understand content hierarchy, both for people and for search engines.
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