How to get a WordPress developer all emotional and fanatic: discuss about heading structure.
Here’s my point of view on how headings should be set up in a WordPress theme. And an overview of the pros and cons brought up in discussions.
Semantic, meaningful headings in HTML5
One H1 to rule them all
- One unique H1 per page, post or archive
- Only on the homepage the H1 can contain the logo or the site title
- On pages the H1 is the page title
- On posts the H1 is the post title
- On archives the H1 is the archive title
Use H2 through H6 in the content itself to give meaning to the structure of the content, like the index of a book. H2 for a paragraph, H3 for a sub-paragraph, etc. Don’t skip or mix up headings.
Best practice for the logo or the site title
- On the homepage the logo or site title can be put into an H1. This is not a link, because that will be a link to the page itself.
- The H1 can also be a (hidden) page title above the content, your choice.
- On other pages the logo or site title is a link to the homepage and not an H1 .
Site description or tagline
The site description is no H2 because a heading should be followed by content of any sort (e.g. page content, widgets, navigation).
- Give the sidebar a (hidden) meaningful H2 heading
- Give the widgets inside the sidebar an H3 heading
- Don’t use a H1, H2 or H3 inside a widget
- Give the footer a (hidden) meaningful H2 heading
- Give the footer widgets a H3 heading
- Don’t use a H1, H2 or H3 inside a footer widget
Give a navigation <nav> a meaningful heading, fitting the heading stucture of your theme. Like an H2 containing “Main navigation”.
Give HTML5 sections a meaningful semantic heading. Steve Faulker explains this in The HTML5 Document Outline.
Why is this structure important
People using a screen reader depend on headings to understand the structure of a site. What is the page about (H1), where is the navigation, what is important content and how is the content divided.
They can navigate a site using headings, quickly jump to a heading of interest. A heading “main navigation” or “sub menu” saves them a lot of time.
How can I see what the heading structure is like?
Use for example the Firefox Add-on Accessibility Evaluator. It adds a Accessibility menu to your browser with lots of useful info, one of them is “Headings”.
And this is what the heading structure of wordpress.org looks like:
Homework: take your site and run it through the Accessibility Evaluator, now you can see how a screen reader user understands your web page. Does it tell a story about the structure of your page?
“I only use H1’s, because in HTML5 you can”
When HTML5 came out, using a H1 for every section was a way of dividing your content. Super easy, no thinking needed.
Don’t use only H1’s: screen reader users get lost. What is important? How do I navigate, what is the structure? A sighted person can easily see how a page layout is build, a screen reader user has to listen and often guess. Did I mention Google is blind?
Sidebars and Footers
It’s hard to give a sidebar or footer a meaning full heading. The content may change per page or archive, and a heading like “Primary Sidebar” or “Complementary Content” doesn’t say much about the content. This is the hard part and I am open for suggestions on how to solve this.
One solution could be to give the content manager the option to also add a sidebar title when adding widgets in the Admin.
If your site has to comply with WCAG, a meaningful heading structure is a must. In WCAG 2.0 it is allowed to skip headings, but the headings must be meaningful (descriptive).
The objective is to make section headings within Web content descriptive. Descriptive headings and titles work together to give users an overview of the content and its organization. Descriptive headings identify sections of the content in relation both to the Web page as a whole and to other sections of the same Web page.
More on WCAG 2 and headings:
- Providing descriptive headings
- H42: Using h1-h6 to identify headings
- Organizing a page using headings
- For the Dutch readers: Webrichtlijnen versie 2 – Succescriterium U.1.3 Kopregelhiërarchie
Theme builders want their HTML optimized for Google. Google needs to be told what is important or not.
Now this is a point of much debate. What does Google need? How much weight should I give a widget or a subtitle? In the Genesis Framework all widgets have an H4, telling Google: this content is not very important.
Giving all pages the same first H1 using the site title and then give the site description an H2, as most WordPress themes do, is to my opinion bad practice. Even if you change the title in your SEO options. But I’m no SEO expert, if you are: please give me your opinion.
So: who do you build for? For your sighted users and for the search engines? Be honest now. Do accessibility rules conflict with SEO best practice? And how complicated will your code get if you want to address all people, also the ones that depend on their ears to understand your site.
Manga art in the featured image by Suuzan on deviantART.