Updated: 23 March 2016 and 15 April 2016.

Some say there are two sorts of people. Those who code, and those who don’t.

If you’re going to be successful at SEO copywriting you’ll have to dip into HTML a little, as we saw in Make Title Tags Work for You, but you don’t need to be a fully fledged geek.

Six header tags. But only two for you to worry about

In days of yore, when I learned how to be a sub editor, we used to mark up hard copy so that the typesetter would know what we wanted the copy to look like on the page.

The typed manuscript would look something like this:

Headline:

Small disaster. Not many killed*

Copy:

Last night, as dusk drew in over the sleepy seaside town of Walmington-on-Sea, Mrs Ethel Brown (84) ran into a traffic bollard on her mobility scooter, scattering joggers and dog walkers alike, and crushing four unfortunate crustaceans…

Subhead:

Damage estimated at £47 by Borough Surveyor

Copy:

Borough Surveyor, Mr Brian Bloggs, peering over his clipboard, sucked air through his nicotine-stained teeth and passed wind audibly…

HTML markup is very similar (HTML stands for hyper text markup language). Instead of ‘Headline’ and ‘Subhead’, we have <h1>, </h2>, <h3>, <h4>, <h5> and <h6> tags, in descending order of importance. There’s a matching closing tag – </h1>, </h2> etc – which indicates where the heading finishes.

Search engines are just like people

Google and the other search engines put a greater importance on words that appear between the <h2> and </h2> tags than between <h3> tags and lower. Words that appear between <h1> and </h1> are the most important of all.

Just like traditional headlines and subheads.

I’ve never used more than the three largest header tags, and then I’ve only used <h3> in only one project. Keep it simple. If I only need two of the header tags, I’m fairly sure they will be enough for you, too.

Put your SEO key phrases where they have most effect

Build your headlines and subheads around the key phrases you want to target. In this post, I’m interested in ‘SEO Copy’, ‘header tags’ and ‘key phrases’.

Heading tags

You can see how I’ve put the most important key phrase to Writing For SEO in the <h1> tags, while the others are in the <h2> tags. On this site, the <h1> copy is the large headline before the main image at the top of the page, while the <h2> copy is the headings that appear in the main copy.

The above piece of code looks pretty frightening, but if like most people, you’re using something like WordPress, your software looks after the coding for you. There’s more about marking up your copy a bit later on.

How many header tags?

This is very important.

You should only have one set of <h1> tags on each page, while you can have as many <h2> tags as you like – or as many as the copy’s structure, logic and readability can stand. Just look at the page and read the copy. Does it seem right to you as a reader? If it does, chances are, you won’t need

You can also have as many <h3> to <h6> tags as you wish. But don’t go overboard.

But, you say, I’ve read that with HTML 5, I can use as many <h1> tags as I like, but you’re saying to only use one. I cover this point in detail in this article.

My view is that having more than one <h1> tag on a normal page – not an aggregate page of blog posts, say – will make the user experience worse, by making it a more complicated read. A worse UX and you’re probably failing in your SEO as Google gets more interested in this.

Inserting the tags

For the blog post pages, the copy put in WordPress’ ‘Enter title here’ field normally appears in <h1> tags. In the past, I had to use the ‘text’ tab to insert <h2> tags in place manually. That’s the only piece of code I had to touch.

H2 tagging in WordPress

These days, it’s even easier. Just highlight the text you want as a subheading and pull down the formatting list:

Formatting subheads in WordPress

Just to make sure your CMS is putting the h-tags in correctly, have a look at the code used for some of your pages. After you’ve saved the page from inside the CMS, by going into your browser’s View menu and choosing an option that says “Source Code’ or something very similar. If you’re using Google Chrome, you’ll need to go one more level down – it’s under ‘Developer’ in the View menu. You can then use Find to check how many <h1> and other tags you have.

Or use Markdown when you’re writing

This last formatting option is the one I actually use when I’m writing a blog post.

Markdown at work

You’ll need to use a text editor or a markdown editor, like the wonderful iA Writer that I have on my Macs – or write directly in WordPress, of course. Plus, you’ll need to set up WordPress to understand Markdown. You’ll find what you need in Jetpack, under settings.

Activating Markdown in Jetpack

Altogether it’s easier than it sounds

It may look as if there’s a lot to digest here, but it boils down to just three points:

  1. Use <h1> and <h2> tags for targeting your preferred key phrases
  2. Use just one <h1> headline per page, but as many <h2>s as good writing allows
  3. Check that your Blogging or CMS platform publishes pages that follow rule 2

But please leave a comment if something isn’t clear.

*When I was trained in journalism and editing, this wonderful example of a bad headline was cited as being real and appearing in The Times, many years ago. Disappointingly, I could find no reference to it when Googling today. Maybe you know something about this story.

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