Subheadings: 4 Strategies for Scanners and Search Engines

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“We as authors sign a pact with our readers; they’ll go on reading because they trust us to play fair with them and deliver what we’ve promised.” ― Pamela Glass Kelly,

Subheadings: A Strategy for Scanners

While I’m trying to play fair and deliver, I realize I have 15 seconds to get you to read this. Talk about pressure. Counting down, I imagine you scrolling, already, because you’re like the rest of us; we scroll to see if there is anything we can use, information we want, need or are interested in today. In order to get you to stay longer, I have to make sure that you’re interested as you’re scanning.

How can I do that? Subheadings

The Four Best Reasons to Use Subheadings

  1. We’re up there with goldfish when it comes to attention spans – about 8 seconds. Therefore, if we are not stimulating our readers with subheadings, we will lose them.

These are the alerts that let our readers know that the content that follows the subheading is about an aspect of the title, further definition of some component, or other new information that they might find helpful.

  1. Breaking up long text is essential for easier reading, as well as interesting those who are scanning a post to determine if it meets their needs.

Besides sub-headings, using lists to break up your content into manageable portions give readers shorter texts to digest, and it serves the same visual prompt as a subheading.

Your readers can quickly gauge if there are facts that they need or want by the way you write your subheading. Think of them as a kind of tour guide with the subheadings highlighting important places.

  1. What’s the point of your post? Sure, you’ve probably defined it in the title, but are you reinforcing it throughout your post? Subheadings do just that by emphasizing your message.
  1. Moving our readers from the first word to the last is the ultimate goal of any writer. When we give them a reason to keep reading, they will make it to the conclusion, and we can use subheadings to motivate them to reach the end of the post.

But don’t save your killer sentence and put it in the last paragraph. Make sure that you’ve added value, interest, and information in each section to get your readers to the conclusion.

SEO and Search Engines Like Subheadings, Too

Subheadings are also what search engines use to determine content. Rather than “keyword stuffing,” subheadings provide eye-relief as well as relevance to your readers. If these also notify a search engine of your topic and content, then your job is done without belaboring the point like too many do for SEO purposes.

preformatted-headingsIf you’re using a WordPress site, you have the option of using headings 1-6 in your content. However, Heading 1’s should only be used for your title. There are also some visual considerations when using the formatted heading sizes.

I don’t like the obvious size difference in fonts when using Heading 2, so I tend to use Heading 3 and sometimes Heading 4 for my posts. Typically, Heading 3 is formatted to be a lighter shade of gray, and again, I don’t care for the aesthetics of that, so I have to change the font color to black. However, these are personal preferences. Some writers want the distinction, so leave the lighter color.

You can also define categories and subcategories using the formatted headings in WordPress:

State: Georgia – Heading 2

Capital:  Atlanta – Heading 3

Suburbs – Heading 4

Cities – Heading 5
Alpharetta 
Duluth
Roswell
Tucker

However you use subheadings, make sure they are consistent in formatting and color, so your post has a uniform look for your readers.

A Few Questions for our Readers

community-small

Two Drops of Ink is becoming the community of experts that we hoped it would be, and as such, I learn from readers, staff and guest contributors’ posts and comments. So, I’d like to know:

  1. How do you use subheadings?
  2. Do you have a preference in style, font or color for your subheadings?
  3. Do you need to update your older post and use better subheadings?
  4.  Are you ready to join an informative, engaged community of writers?

When you’re ready to contribute, please consider submitting.

 

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

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Marilyn L. Davis

She is the Assistant Editor at Two Drops of Ink, encouraging other writers to share their creativity and talents. She believes in the power of words and knows that how something is said is just as important as what is said. She is a charter member of the Cult of the Paper, which just means that she's been reading for a long time. Also, she is not embarrassed to profess her love of words, wit, and wonder. Her writing at Two Drops of Ink tends to be encouraging, full of alliterations, humor and as one fan put it, "Generous advice and common sense." She is also the author of Therapeutic Integrated Educational Recovery System (TIERS). She is the recipient of the Liberty Bell Award, given to non-attorneys and judges for their work within the Criminal Justice Systems and in 2008, Brenau University created the Marilyn Davis Community Service Learning Award, given to advocates in wellness, mental health and recovery.

14 comments

  1. I have to confess: I much enjoyed this post! You don’t have to convince ME of the value of subheadings. I always use them, and I write them with great care. I recognize two forms: a) topic-defining noun phrases (easiest to write), and b) declarative or interrogative sentences. I PREFER the second, but sometimes they are difficult to arrive at.

    Psychologist comment here: You are asserting something about the behavior both of people and search engines, but offer no source citations. If you are not a expert on either, from whence comes your credibility? I know I’m being picky here, but this is the standard I set for my own writing, and this standard has serious support (here comes MY credibility): http://credibility.stanford.edu/guidelines/index.html

    If you are not familiar with the material on that page, and indeed the website of which it’s a part, AND you are writing on the web, you well may be serious trouble, I think!

    I’ll be interested to read your comments to all this (if any).

    Like

    • Hi, Tom. I’m slightly confused. You state that I don’t have to sell you on the idea of subheadings being a way to keep people on a site and engaged. Then you question my credibility.

      Number one for your credibility reference is: http://credibility.stanford.edu/guidelines/index.html

      “Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site.
      You can build web site credibility by providing third-party support (citations, references, source material) for information you present, especially if you link to this evidence. Even if people don’t follow these links, you’ve shown confidence in your material.”

      My post does contain out-bound links if people care to read further about my statements.

      When writing this, I wondered, “Do subheadings help people who scan, rather than read a post,stay on the page longer? The question linked to about 7,880,000 posts.

      I also questioned attention span as it relates to scanning. Taking my cue from the human attention span versus goldfish, the study was conducted by Microsoft Corp and again, linked to 397,000 posts.

      Specific to search engines and subheadings, again, there is technical information out there. I have simplified it and given people a visual of H1-H6, which are all used to compile a Google rank.

      Given that AP, MLA, Chicago, and APA, all have various means of citations, the easiest format for most bloggers is to link back to the source. Bloggers do exactly what I did with that sentence – gave the reader the opportunity to read further, without interrupting their reading. They have the link and can choose to use it or not, but I have given them exposure to the source.

      Your comment about trouble, did you mean I could be in trouble? Frankly, after a year on my other blog and over 60,000 views and Two Drops of Ink selected as one of the top 100 sites for writers, I think if I was doing something so egregious, someone would have notified me, or Scott.

      Like

      • Oh dear. I seem not to communicating well. I think I likely also wrote too quickly. My error.

        First, I ENJOYED your post! I’m a big fan of headings, and it was nice to see someone advocate for them so well. I always enjoy your writing, because of its clear organization and lean expression. Every time I read something of yours, I notice the ease-of-reading and clear narrative flow. This tells me quickly that I’m in the hands of a skilled writer, and I much appreciate that. It’s not a common experience.

        What I was trying to say was with ME, your credibility on this topic is secure. I personally see no reason to doubt you. (I have just one disagreement, which I’ll mention below). I already see the value of what you urge. Thus I am NOT questioning your credibility to me. Reading you, I find myself just saying…”yes”…”of course”…”absolutely”.

        Now, to what appears to be the issue…

        I wrote: “Psychologist comment here: You are asserting something about the behavior both of people and search engines, but offer no source citations. If you are not a expert on either, from whence comes your credibility? I know I’m being picky here, but this is the standard I set for my own writing, and this standard has serious support…”

        At this point I’m speaking as a formal student of human behavior (a psychologist). I speak of your “asserting”. That is technical term from philosophy, relevant both to logic* and to epistemology*. An “assertion” is a serious claim, as opposed, say, to mere banter*. Again, as I’ve said…” I know I’m being picky here, but…” Saying that, I’m trying to inform that I know I may come across as being excessive in my “demands”, and apparently I did. I’m sorry. I was only interested in taking up a topic of perennial concern to me when I myself write: credibility. I’m not troubled if this topic is of less concern to you. That fine!

        My general concern is that the Internet is full of writing, containing and all sorts of claims. I observe people too often accept these claims for specious reasons: they like the writing; the author’s picture looks nice; it “just makes sense”;…and so on. What my own discipline has taught me is that claims about human behavior, or anything in the natural world, in truth, attains actually credibility, as opposed to the appearance of credibility, to the extent they directly reference data or someone who is reporting on data they themselves have access to.

        If I support my assertions merely by referencing someone whose opinion (blog, op/ed piece, etc.) is congruent with mine, I merely have the appearance of credibility. Browsing to that link, the reader merely finds another opinion, nothing more. This a problem with much journalism, and it appears that one way it is addressed is to interview experts for an article and then quote them. Absent a protest from the interviewee, the article may reasonably be assumed to have “gotten it right”.

        That you source your material by having links is commendable. I wish more people did that. When they do, the next issue is the quality of the material linked to.

        * Your source for the assertion that you have 15 seconds to “hook me” is solid. The author runs a company whose product is analyses of human behavior in relation to webpages. I found his article fascinating and set it aside for later reference. We do have to assume he is not fudging his data; most likely he is not – one of his customers is the magazine he’s publishing in!
        * Your source for the 8 second span seems reasonable – a mass media article directly referencing a study which I presume a) may be easily found, and b) was correctly summarized by the TIME author.
        * Your source for the behavior of Google’s search engine does not work for me. It’s just another opinion. This topic – the logic of the Google indexing software – is endlessly written about by people who produce webpages. I myself do this, and I read their material almost daily. Most of them cite someone in Google the spoke with, or hear speak, or a Google company blog. I think those are credible citation.

        So, at this point I think I have caught myself in a moment of blindness. In reading your piece, I failed to adjust my evaluative context AWAY from what I use. Most of my writing is technical, for general consumption, and about the content of my profession – I treat psychological trauma disorders. My impact relies on my manifest credibility, and I MUST have an impact, else what’s the point? I fear that I may get a bit obsessive. I KNOW that I’ve read far too many articles crowing about the wonders of using dolphins, dogs, fly fishing, hiking, prayer,…(why not bubblebaths, I always wonder?) to treat PTSD. None are actual treatments, for none are shown anywhere to resolve PTSD. But people accept the assertions anyway, and editors print the articles. It’s all a sham, has no credibility, and people in need deserve better.

        But for Pete’s sake…you’re just writing about headings. And nicely, too. I’ll give a bit of attention to my need to adjust my evaluative context, going forward. I have at times given signs of being trainable. It just might work!

        Oh…can’t let you get away without asking: where DO you think I should put my killer sentence (if I ever come up with one). By implication, you would seem to be saying to put it in a heading BEFORE the end. Is that what you advise?

        Like

  2. I use subheading 1, 2 and 3. I use Garramond Black and in some cases bold font. The grey is not good for subheadings to me but I have considered after reading this post the second time maybe using colors. I totally forgot that the subheadings should search engine optimized (SEO). Marilyn, you actually brought that back to my memory. This blog is the best site for writers and authors to learn, improve and share.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Lydia. I’ll have to look at Garramond. Scott has talked about that font before. When something is mentioned twice, I try to pay attention. I’ll do my next post in it and try to remember my advice and use the subheadings wisely. I forget things, too. She smiles.

      Like

  3. Thank you for this Marilyn. I love using subheadings for my work, I think they give the reader a chance to pause and take stock of what has been said, think for a moment of two before continuing. On a blog post I normally limit use to “Heading 2”, but in a larger document where there is a lot to say there can be many levels of header and they provide a great opportunity to break down the document into logical steps.

    Like

    • Hi, Peter. I didn’t think about the pause factor, but that’s a good point, too. I completely agree about breaking down the document. Thanks as always for commenting and adding to the information. I appreciate that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, Chuck. As an accountant, I’m sure bullets come in handy. I like lists and am finally, I think learning more about subheadings, thus the post. We’re all works in progress here and appreciate the following!

    Like

  5. Marilyn, content is always at its highest here. I learn so much from everyone. You could say I am a work in progress learning word press and other things. Interest is still there. Writing projects are backing up, but following up on them will result in completion at some point. I hope to attain a level of contribution to the writing craft as time goes on. A little every day adds up.

    I noticed the Google + icon missing to log in for comment, so I used Facebook instead. Are you discontinuing the use of it or was it just missed?
    As always, I thank everyone here for their good work. John.

    Like

    • Thanks as always for your continued kind words, John. I have no idea about the Google + icon, but you show using the Facebook.

      Look forward to reading your next post!

      Like

  6. Marilyn,
    I watch for your post and always learn something new. The accountant in me has always used bulleted list for emphasis and to support the accompanying issue. I never gave it thought that using heading to give attention for SEOs. Thanks.

    Like

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