The Importance Of Headings For Website Accessibility

Published May 1, 2023

People don’t pay enough attention to headings when designing a website because they don’t think they serve much purpose. But this is incorrect. Headings are essential to website structure and accessibility; they are generally the first things people see and interact with when they access your content. They also help with SEO, as they're one of the primary factors Google uses to determine how relevant a web page is to a specific search term or question.

However, even though headings are useful tools for both accessibility and usability, they're often misused or not used at all. Incorrect usage decreases the accessibility of a website and reduces its effectiveness.

Headings are essential, and this article will discuss how headings increase site access and how you can use them to your benefit and the benefit of your site users.

What are headings?

Headings are tags that divide the information on a page into distinct sections. They also help users find the information they’re searching for on the page and outline the content. This allows readers to skim the page to find the information they need quickly.

Heading structure

Headings are arranged in a hierarchy, starting with H1 down to H6. It might be helpful to think of them as stacking or nesting dolls. H1 is most often the title of the document. H2 is a subsection of the main topic. H3 is the heading that further breaks down the subsection discussed in H2. In this article, for example, “What Are Headings” is H2. This paragraph has an H3 heading named “Heading Structure”; it’s not a whole new topic on its own; it’s a deeper dive into what headings are.

Headings and accessibility

Headings aren’t just a design aesthetic; they are one of the unsung heroes of accessible website navigation and part W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Labeling page structure helps people using assistive technology navigate web pages much more efficiently. 

Without headings, walls of text become incredibly difficult to navigate, and it’s much harder for the user to find the information they’re looking for on any page. Headings are the difference between having a road map with markers and walking through a cornfield taller than you, hoping to reach your destination. Legally speaking, f you don’t include them, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504. So help yourself and your users; prioritize headings.

Headings And Website Users With Disabilities

There are multiple ways in which headings can be helpful to individuals with various types of disabilities. Screen readers use headers to help people with visual impairments navigate webpages by creating an outline of the page. This makes it easier for people who need help seeing the page to understand its structure and flow. Screen readers read all the headings on a page. Then users can scroll down by heading to find the section they are interested in reading. If the headings aren’t organized or used too sparingly, their web experience becomes significantly less pleasant. Imagine trying to find a recipe in a cookbook without a table of contents or structure organizing recipes into categories. 

People with dyslexia, ADHD, or cognitive disabilities, also find headings extremely useful. They make the different sections and subsections easier to read and find. Without them, people who struggle with tracking or focus would spend a lot of time just trying to stay in the right spot on the page. Doing this extra work can make reading comprehension more challenging as well. This oversight can be harmful to the user, and the owner of the website.

Headings And Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Headings aren’t just an accessibility tool; they can benefit the site owner and users. Search engines use headings to help determine the most relevant and important content on page. They also use them to help index the contents of a website. These factors determine how a site is ranked. The higher the ranking, the more likely a site will pop up in the initial response to a search engine query.

Some Do’s And Don’ts For Using Headings

  • Do: Use H1 for the title of your page so people instantly know what content is on that page.

  • Don’t: Use headings out of order because they make the page look nice visually. There are other codes for layout; headings should be for organization and navigation.

  • Do: Label each heading to give a clear idea of the content in that section. If the heading is too vague to provide any preview, it’s not doing its job.

  • Don’t: Use so many headings that they don’t even provide an outline. Quality is more important than quantity. At a certain point, there’s a diminishing return on usefulness if every third sentence is a heading.

  • Do: Make a point to learn how to create headings on whatever platform you use to create your content.

  • Don’t: Just make your headings bold and large because you think that’s good enough. If the heading tags aren’t there, then the heading is useless for screen reader navigation. You’ll just have many bold words that won’t help.

Pay attention to the humble heading. They improve the overall accessibility of your website; they are an important part of web accessibility. They help search engines and screen readers understand your content, improving your SEO and site's usability. If headings have always been an afterthought, it’s time to start using them for the powerhouses they are. Using them, which is helpful for your site, gives disabled users instant reassurance that they’ve entered an accessible space. If you want to increase your site’s visibility and accessibility without hours of effort, headings are a great place to start.


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