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On Markup Languages: How to Use Heading Styles

This week I’m talking about document formatting through markup, and specifically the difference between applying labeled styles to your document and just using formatting effects. When you do it right, a little bit of work beforehand can make all your writing easier.

If you’ve set up a WordPress blog, you’ve probably seen this in effect. With blogs (or really any well-made webpage), the styles are built in a stylesheet document called “style.css.” If you know how CSS works, you can scroll through a bunch of code that looks like this:

a {color: #d8d97e; }

a.hover {color: #5e5222; }

a.visited {color: #b34a10; }

And you just see blonde, brunette, redhead….

Ahem. Anyway, the stylesheet defines what labels you have available, and what they look like. In addition to letting you design new styles, it lets you customize the standard styles everyone uses. And, really, those should be your main focus.

How Heading Styles Boost Your S. E. O.

Those standard styles are the ones you’ll use the most. Some of them include:

  • <em>
  • <strong>
  • <a>
  • <p>
  • <h1>
  • <h2>
  • <h3>
  • <h4>

Those styles at the end, the ones starting with H, are the heading styles. If you wrap a bit of text in H1, it’s going to show up much larger than your normal type, probably bold and quite likely in a different font. As we discussed yesterday, though, it’s more than just font effects — it’s a label which carries meaning.

Specifically, the Heading styles are hierarchical, allowing you to flag the most important ideas in your document and show how those ideas are related. Eventually, if you do it right, all the headings in your document should easily create an outline, like so

<h1>Unstressed Syllables — Writing Advice for Everybody</h1>

<h2>On Markup Languages: My Crisis of Faith</h2>

<h2>On Markup Languages: Labels vs. Effects</h2>

<h3>Paragraph Styles</h3>

<h3>Markup Languages</h3>

<h2>On Markup Languages: How to Use Heading Styles</h2>

<h3>How Heading Styles Boost Your S. E. O.</h3>

<h3>How Heading Styles Save You Headaches</h3>

<h4>Applying the Labels</h4>

<h4>Picking the Right Labels</h4>

<h3>How Heading Styles Build a Book</h3>

That gives you all the benefits of a good document outline that we discussed last week. More importantly, it gives those benefits to Google.

See, when a search engine browses your page to find out what you’re talking about, it pays special attention to certain HTML elements — things like the title, anchor tags, and the various levels of heading style.

What it doesn’t pay attention to is font effects. Google doesn’t care about bold text or larger print. Even if your line looks like a section heading, search engines will ignore it unless it’s wrapped in the <h3>.

How Heading Styles Save You Headaches

Now, admittedly, until you get used to it, it can seem like a little bit more work to flag a heading as a heading instead of just selecting it and hitting Ctrl-B (or clicking the B button at the top of the screen). And even when you’re ready to commit to that, you’ve still got to know what kind of heading you’re supposed to use.

WordPress (like most modern writing software) actually makes it really easy to handle both problems.

Applying the Labels

Next time you’re writing a post in WordPress, look for that easy B button I mentioned in the toolbar above the editing box. Right beneath it, there should be a dropdown box that says “Paragraph.” If you click the box, you’ll see a list of all the available styles, and clicking on Heading 3 is really not much harder than clicking the B.

Of course, you may not have that toolbar. By default, WordPress only shows one row of buttons, but the last button in the list is a toggle that says “Show/Hide Kitchen Sink” if you hover over it. Click that, and BAM! Just like that, you’ve got the tools you need to get your job done.

Picking the Right Labels

Picking the right labels for your headings is just as easy. Remember the outline I showed you above? Most blogs work according to the basic layout, with the website’s title set up as H1 (and you’re only supposed to have one H1 per page, ever). Then your blog post title (or titles, if you’re looking at an index of multiple posts) will each be H2.

Your theme should take care of all the H1s and H2s for you. That means that by the time you’re writing the content of a post, your highest-level headings should be H3. And, really, that should usually be enough to do the job for you (although I sometimes go to H4, as you can see here, and WordPress easily supports all the way down to H6).

How Heading Styles Build a Book

As I said yesterday, paragraph styles are powerful tools in nearly any writing software, not just the markup languages. I’m out of words for today, but come back next week for the story of BookMaker, and how using heading styles in Google Docs has made me into a publishing company.

8 Responses to “On Markup Languages: How to Use Heading Styles”

  1. See? I always learn something 🙂 I had no idea that Google used the heading tags like that. I rarely (if ever) use them. Not consciously anyway. Thanks Aaron. Yet again you’ve given me something practical I can put to good use 🙂

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Of course, Eleanor! I’m always happy to help.

      For what it’s worth, Google is most concerned with your H1 and H2s, which your site’s theme probably already provides. That’s why everyone is always barking about the importance of good SEO in blog post titles, actually.

      But section headings are rarely a bad idea. They give you that extra shot at SEO, and they also help a lot with (human) readability. That’s something I didn’t even mention here.

      • Blog post titles are the bane of my life! I really understand them a lot more thanks to Dave’s BPE but that doesn’t help me write them. It’s not so hard at GAB but at my place, I’m finding it very difficult to write an SEO friendly title that remains true to the stuff that falls out of my brain.

        This is especially true since I don’t even know who or what I should be targeting with SEO. Or if I should be targeting at all!

        So I’m just building up the content for now, including the basics by way of a nod to SEO and thinking about the rest at a later date.

        • Aaron Pogue says:

          I’ve wrestled with that a lot, too, Eleanor. It’s the old challenge of writing to humans vs. writing to computers.

          What made it so hard for me is that I’ve spent almost twenty years now on creative writing, and I’ve always had a lot of fun with titles. For instance, last week’s “Ariadne’s Thread” was one I really enjoyed.

          It’s totally meaningless SEO, though. The way I’m doing things now, with the three-part series and a series title in my blog post title, kind of lets me get the best of both worlds. It’s a little cluttered-looking, though.

          All of that is to say, I know exactly how you feel, and don’t let it get you down. There will come a day when you find yourself thinking, “It’s a shame nobody can find me on Google just by searching for , since that’s exactly what I write about all the time!”

          And then you’ll know. That’s what SEO is for. Once you’ve got that value, you can start putting some real energy into it. Until then, I’d say just do what comes natural.

          • Funnily enough, I already have my ‘thing’ (or at least, in my head I do. Not sure yet if it translates itself to others) but I just don’t think anyone would ever search on it!

            Thanks for the empathy though. Good to know that just going with it for now isn’t such a bad plan 😉

        • Dave Doolin says:

          I’m working on something here. It will be a couple of weeks, I have a version of BPE I want to get out first.

          But you will like it.


  2. Dave Doolin says:

    Aaron, Google may weight and tags. I have seen claims for from people who know more than I do.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      It took me about ten seconds to figure out what happened to your comment, Dave, and then two or three minutes to stop laughing.

      That’s fascinating info, though. I never would have guessed it.

      I’m sure there’s a really interesting article to be written (and it’s probably already been written thousands of times) about the tug-of-war between Google’s algorithm optimization (which they’re constantly trying to adapt to match the way real people really use the internet), and content creators’ search engine optimization (which they’re constantly trying to adapt to take advantage of Google’s algorithm).

      Seems like that could lead to some pretty corrupted feedback. I almost wish I had the skillset and time to dig in to the details and watch how that unfolds.