Five Things You Should Know about Headings

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If you’ve been in my Conductor class, you’ve heard me rant about headings. I encourage the ample use of headings and bulleted lists, but here’s a little background on why and how best to use them.

1. Heading order is important.

Headings can help visitors to your site quickly scan your page to see if what they want is covered. You have very little time to persuade them to stay on your site, and headings can tell visitors whether it’s worth staying.

Headings help visitors understand your organization.

  • Headings work like a map for your visitors. Visitors can quickly scan the page to find their general location, then follow the road signs to the specific information they want. They intuitively understand that larger, more prominent headings are major topics of the page; smaller, less prominent ones are the parts that go into further detail.
  • If you use heading styles based on color or size or font, tossing them about in an illogical manner, your visitors (especially those using screen readers) will have difficulty following your train of thought and logic.

2. Heading styles should be used solely for headings.

I understand; I really do. Sometimes, it’s nice to highlight some text for emphasis. However, the use of heading styles for this purpose is not a good idea.

Think of it this way. Imagine you don’t see well (or at all) and use a screen reader to read a web page. You would probably scan the page by having the screen reader read out links and headings, just to get an idea of whether you wanted to spend time on that page. If the page has a section of text incorrectly identified as a heading, you’d be confused as to what the author was trying to get across and why that text was a heading. It just wouldn’t fit with the rest of the headings on the page.

3. Headings should be unique.

Headings should describe the content that follows. By repeating headings on the page, your visitor may not realize that the content following the repetition is actually important and different from the first instance. Thus, you lose a chance to have your content read.

4. Headings should describe the content that follows.

Since search engines and visitors to your site, alike, will be looking at headings for clues as to the content, use your headings to succinctly summarize the content to follow. Using keywords (words that relate to the content and that might be used by folks searching for said content) will help search engines direct visitors to your site. Those keywords will also help your visitors and the search engines prioritize your content. (Keep in mind, however, that keyword stuffing is never a good idea.)

5. Headings grab your visitor’s attention; subheadings can keep it.

The large headings can help your visitor find out what’s on your page. The use of subheadings can help him realize the depth of information and specifics that you’ll be providing. These subheadings can lead him to the information he is seeking—a win-win situation.


So you’re convinced that you need to address the use of headings on your site. How do you go about it? Take a look at your page and then take a look at the questions below to see how your page stacks up.

  • Do your headings make sense in the order used? Think of the headings as the outline of your page. Is the usage of major points and subpoints logical? Do the headings lead a visitor through the page?
  • Are you using heading styles for non-heading text? If so, reformat any text that is not intended as a heading but that uses a heading style. You can user boldface or italics, or both.
  • Are your headings unique? Do they relate to the text that follows?
  • Looking at the page as if you were a first-time visitor, do your headings and subheadings make you want to read the text that follows?

If you’re putting together a new page, consider writing out an outline and then turning the outline points into headings. It’s just like your teachers told you years ago: By creating that outline (headings), you have half your page written before you even start!

Top Considerations for Choosing URLS

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Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame
Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame

Boy, we’re lucky to be at Notre Dame!

No, seriously. Besides the fact that we work at a premier university, if we’re wanting to make sure our websites have a fighting chance in the bit world of the Internet, just having the “nd.edu” brand adds to the value of any Web address we can think of for our various departments and programs.

But that aside, how do we pick out the best URLs for our new sites?

Well, the answer I give today is different from what others would have said two, five, or 10 years ago, and will be different from what I might say in another year or two. Search engines are adapting to the “new world” of SEO and how Webbies try to get their sites noticed, and the rules will change as the Web evolves.

But right now, here is what the experts are saying we should consider when picking a URL:

  • Keep it short. Longer is more SEO friendly and more descriptive, but harder to type without errors and harder to remember. Also, current (2008) research[1] showed that long URLs tend to be ignored, with users clicking on shorter URLs more than twice as often.
  • Keep it simple. Easy to remember is a key.
  • Make it descriptive. If the URL doesn’t describe or somehow obviously relate to your site, chances are that your users will not remember it very long. (Will users remember that ace stands for Alliance for Catholic Education?  Or tas stands for Teachers as Scholars? Maybe so. Know your audience and how they think.)
  • Make it memorable. It’s easier to remember impact than Economic Impact Report (impact.nd.edu).
  • Make it easy to spell (versus easy to misspell). Otherwise, reserve likely misspellings of the URL for redirects. (When deciding on a URL for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, we “argued” about whether users would misread or misspell the one chosen: advanceddiagnostics.nd.edu. Two d’s or one?
  • Make sure it’s not ambiguous. (Gee, do I spell out department-of-french? Or was it dept-of-french? Or was it just French?)
  • Make sure there are no “words within words.” Beware of accidentally running together words that could be taken apart in different combinations—For instance, Peterson’s Experts would not want to use petersonsexperts.com.
  • Use keywords when possible. Would your users be looking for you under department or French?
  • If you must use hyphens or underscores, which some argue helps search engines find the keywords easier, use hyphens. Although underscores are gaining in acceptance, hyphens still rule. Better yet, though, would be to leave out the hyphens since users tend to forget them and thus make errors when trying to type in your URL.
  • Use lowercase. For most of us, the use of capital letters in URLs will not make much different; most servers these days use Microsoft operating systems that don’t care whether you use upper- or lower-case lettering. Also, search bots “learn” to tell the difference and route traffic to the site in spite of any capitalization issues. However, some experts feel that with the growth of open source software, the problems with different cases will increase. Thus, at Notre Dame, we avoid the case issues by defaulting (through Conductor) to all lower-cased urls, including subpage names.
  • Make sure it’s not spammy. If you think your URL might be considered spammy, check it out at http://www.seomoz.org/labs_tools/spam-detection/ before requesting it.

Consider the following URLs in use by Notre Dame. A lot of thought and discussion went into choosing these URLs, and the final choice was often a compromise. Choosing the correct URLS is not always as easy as one would think.

What would you have chosen as a URL, based solely on the criteria above?


Department/Program

Current URL
Alternative SEO-Friendly URL
(much longer)
Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics advanceddiagnostics.nd.edu advanceddiagnosticsandthereapeutics.nd.edu
Alliance for Catholic Education ace.nd.edu allianceforcatholiceducation.nd.edu
Department of Applied and   Computational Mathematics and Statistics acms.nd.edu appliedandcomputationalmath.nd.edu
Applied Investment Management aim.nd.edu appliedinvestmentmanagment.nd.edu
Notre Dame Magazine magazine.nd.edu notredamemagazine.nd.edu
Robinson Center rclc.nd.edu robinsoncommunitylearningcenter.nd.edu
Strategic Research Investment sri.nd.edu strategicresearchinvestment.nd.edu

What’s your least favorite URL? Most memorable? Have you experienced choosing the wrong one? If so, how did you work around that? Let us know!


[1] 2008 MarketingSherpa eyetracking heatmaps show short URLs are clicked 2.5x more often than long URLS (http://searchengineland.com/supercharge-your-urls-for-maximum-seo-impact-14006)