While using a list is an effective way to add scannability to any blog post, sometimes you won’t have or need a numbered list. Short paragraphs of text, with one key idea in each, are helpful for scannability, but there is truly no substitute for a good subhead that is properly formatted so it stands out on the page providing a guidepost for readers.
What does a properly formatted subhead look like?
Like the subhead above and the ones below. Properly formatted means it’s bigger than the regular text, it’s bold and it’s formatted in html using H2. (This is good for SEO too as I explain below.)
While one or two short and snappy one-sentence paragraphs can work well to create some visual breathing room and also to emphasize the text, too many will chop your post up and that is not visually appealing either. Part of what makes a subhead a key tool for scanning is that it’s bigger and bolder. It’s meant to catch the eye.
How many subheads should be in one post?
I recommend at least one subhead for every two- to three paragraphs of text for long posts. If you have longish paragraphs, you might want one per paragraph. You can certainly also add images and quote call outs, but again, subheads are a key formatting technique for leading your readers through your post.
Here are five benefits of using subheads, especially for non-listicle blog posts. Subheads will:
1. Break up the text on the screen
Scannable text is “chunky” and more visually appealing at a glance. Long blocks of text are daunting, even when you really want the information. Subheads are important for mobile readers engaging on a small screen too. That blank space, or white space, above, below, around the subheading – makes for easier reading.
2. Act as “signposts” in the text
Most of us do read online — eventually or in chunks, but we do a lot of scanning first. Research from usability experts has long confirmed our scanning behavior when reading online. Yes, it would be awesome if everyone read every word of your post or article, but they don’t. Before people read, they scan, and meaningful subheads facilitate this.
Because the subhead is a signpost, it should be easy to digest — so avoid overly clever subheads that don’t convey concrete information.
3. Work as a visual when you don’t otherwise have a good visual
While you usually want at least two images, especially in a longer post that is over six paragraphs, subheads work too to create visual appeal. Using a uniform accent color for your subheads formatted in H2 and bold also adds a nice visual branding touch.
4. Create accessibility
Screen-reader users can better navigate a web page when headings/subheadings are used to indicate hierarchical levels of information. Using headings/subheadings and making them visually apparent by formatting them in H2 or H3 (larger and bolder text) can be helpful for users with cognitive disabilities too. For more guidance on creating accessible web pages, see this W3C Web Accessibility Initiative article on Writing for Web Accessibility.
5. Boost SEO efforts
There is quite a bit of misunderstanding, and even mystery, about the role of keywords in subheads for Google’s search algorithm. This 2020 article from SEM Rush which explains what Google’s John Mueller, who is basically their search guru, says about headings and SEO: “We do use headings when it comes to search. But we use them to better understand the content on the pages.” Neil Patel also did his own extensive experiment and came to the conclusion that “From what the data shows, it doesn’t look like headings have a big impact on rankings.”
What about capitalization?
I follow AP style for capitalization of blog post titles. You can capitalize your subheads, but you don’t have to. You can simply cap the first word and any proper nouns as I did above. I would be also consistent across posts on how you handle subheads both in terms of capitalization and colors.
I hope this post is helpful and inspires you to add subheads to your posts (and you can always add them to older posts and you update. It’s never too late to create subhead scannability!
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