Primer: Write Great Subheads for Better Online Performance

You’ve spent hours crafting just the right headline for your blog article and you’re getting lots of hits. Congratulations! But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. First ask: Are readers staying on the page or bouncing off? Are the converting? If not, ask if you know how to write great subheads that increase webpage performance.

I mention this because studies about attention spans and scanning give clues about how important subheads are to fight low attention span:

  • Low attention spans: Viewers typically leave a website after only 10 to 20 seconds.
  • Scanning: Eye-tracking research by the Nielsen Norman Group found that “79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.” 

Write great subheads to fight low attention spans and online scanning.

We have to accept that scanning is a natural way to digest online content. At the same time, we don’t have to roll over and do nothing to combat it. Knowing how to write effective subheads is a critical skill every content creator needs to fully engage a time-strapped audience that is drowning in a sea of content. Read this primer and learn: (1) why subheads matter, (2) how to craft them, and (3) the right way to implement them for better results.

Learn to Improve Content by Understanding Scanning Patterns

Move Beyond the Main Title with Powerful Subheads.

Image of top portion of computer with main title outlined. "This is the H1 TAG. Usually it has the same value as the PAGE TITLE.
The Main On-Page Title has an HTML Heading Dode of <h1>

You can’t deny the power of the article’s main title (h1 in HTML code). They play the central role in driving website traffic and are the first thing a user sees when they land on the page.

However, the ideal title is roughly 60 characters and takes just a few seconds to read. On its own, even the best title won’t compel visitors to go further than the first few sentences. This is even truer if your article is text-heavy, without much in the way of breaks and formatting.

Find out more: Winning Headings for Blog Posts: 7 Killer Tips!

With so little time to capture a visitor’s attention, what’s your next step?

Subheads to the rescue!

Great subheads improve user experience, page results, and SEO.

What is an h1 tag? An h1 tag is for your title. An h2 tage is a secondary header that you can ue to: (1) Emphasize secondary keywords, (2) Break up content to make it scanabble and easy to read, (3) Hilight important pieces of information, (4) Saturate content with keywords.
h2 Tag: useful for emphasis, scannabiliy, highlighting, and keywordsl

We have to accept that people naturally scan online content, no matter how well we write. Unfortunately, when visitors rely on scanning, they miss large amounts of valuable content. Our job, then, is to reduce scanning “shortcuts.” This is where subheads do the heavy lifting. When successful, they capture a reader’s attention, stop them at key places, and encourage them to consume content—rather than instantly leaving or skimming mindlessly through a page.

Takeaway: Effective use of subheads increases page duration, comprehension, and user experience. The combined effect will improve page performance and, indirectly, SEO.

In broad terms, your subheads perform several tasks:

  1. Quick Overview: Subheads form a “table of contents, allowing readers to view subtopics “at-a-glance.”
  2. Organization: Logically ordered subheads put sections into context and keeps readers moving forward.
  3. Guide Posts: Natural, visible stopping points help readers quickly find the information they are looking for.
  4. Comprehension: By breaking copy into discrete sections, subheads make content easier to read and absorb.
  5. Calming: Subheads and short sections give the eyes a rest before moving forward.
  6. Appeal: Subheads and sections of various lengths are visually more interesting (and less overwhelming).
  7. SEO: While H2 headings are no longer direct ranking factors, they indirectly affect page ranking:  
  • Clear subheads help search engines better understand what the article is about for better indexing.
  • Google may shift page rank if a subhead explicitly matches a particular user search.
  • If subheads improve user experience, signaled by metrics including high conversion, longer duration, and lower bounce rates, Google will reward you.
  1. Social Sharing: Even non-readers might share your content if they scan through it and think it will interest others.

Proven Subhead Tips for Overcoming 13 Common Scanning Problems.

Image: Problem / Solution

Scanning results in people not reading your content carefully (or at all). I’ve come up with 13 common scanning problems and paired each one with a subhead tip.

Section I:  focuses on how to write and formatting strong subheads that call attention to relevant content.

Section II:  discusses how to use subheads that improve flow and navigation.

Start using the tips below and you’ll reduce scanning and increase how much content users digest. You’ll keep readers on your page longer, comprehend more content, and persuade them to engage.

Section I. Write and Organize Subheads that Get the User’s Attention.

Problem #1. Overly Burdened Subhead Sections:
Sometimes a section holds too much disparate or irrelevant info. This problem can take many forms, but a common cause is a writer who becomes unfocused and unknowingly strays from the main idea. This can cause sections to be disjointed, redundant with other sections, confusing, and hard for Google to index.

  • Subhead Tip: Each subhead should point to one discrete idea, with the following paragraphs keeping a narrow focus. Also, check that each section’s content is directly related to the subhead and is not redundant with other sections. This keeps the content clearly organized and helps users find the information they need.

Problems #2. Lengthy subheads: Long subheads cause several problems. First, they are hard to read and comprehend. Second, they impede page flow. Third, they can make a page look unbalanced—especially if some subheads are much longer than others.

  • Subhead Tip: A good subheading should be succinct and take just a few seconds to read. Opinions vary, but most experts recommend that subheads should range between 10 and 30 words for higher readability, comprehension, and visual appeal. Shorter subheads may be preferable for mobile.

Problem #3. Boring subheads: Unless the reader has very high interest or motivation, boring subheads don’t draw in a reader who is lukewarm about the topic—even if it might be of value to them. 

  • Subhead Tip: You want the reader to stop and pay attention. Use action verbs, questions, facts, a “teaser,” or other interesting details. While a headline doesn’t have to be without some wit and fun, an author should never use cleverness at the expense of clarity.

Problem #4. Too much hype: You can include impressive facts in your headline, but don’t go overboard.

  • Subhead Tip: Be honest and don’t exaggerate the section’s takeaway. The main consideration is explaining what’s important in the section and what the takeaway is.

Problem #5. Unclear subheads: Each subhead acts as an intro to a section. When strung together, these subheads should loosely resemble a table of contents. Similarly, efficiency-minded users like to scan through the subheads to see if any of the content is worthwhile. Even if there’s a highly relevant section, if the heading is unclear they will miss it.

  • Subhead Tip: Your subheads should be descriptive and frequent—helping the reader navigate through the article and easily spot what’s important to them.

Section II. Organize Your Subheads for Better Flow and Navigation.

Problem #6. Text-heavy content: Dense blocks of unformatted copy are overwhelming. Such pages are hard to read and comprehend, they are visually unappealing, and relevant sections are hard to find. Most people don’t want to bother with this type of page.

  • Subhead Tip: A good rule of thumb is placing a subhead every one to three paragraphs; each paragraph being one to three easy-to-read sentences (occasionally more).

More Great Tips on Readabily: The 5 Most Important Rules for Readability

Problem #7. Badly ordered subheads: This problem is related to the problem of unclear subheads because it causes particular problems for readers who most value efficiency. Again, this reader will scan the headlines first, looking for the “storyline.” Subheads without a logical order can confuse readers and prevent them from moving forward.

  • Subhead Tip: Place subheads in a sensible order that puts each section into context. This will allow the reader to understand the flow of the story and quickly find the areas they are most interested in. Flow can also be improved by giving subheads a parallel grammatical structure. For example, they could be all phrases, questions, or start with the same form of a verb.

Problem #8: Invisible Headlines: Sometimes, because of typographical issues, headlines are simply hard to find.

  • Subhead Tip: Make sure you use typography that stands out. This is usually accomplished by using a larger font, but you can also make use of color, white space, or an alternate font.

Problem #9. Skimming at the top: When readers first land on a page, they first read the top portion—the headline, a subhead if one immediately follows, and the first line or two of text. If the reader isn’t quite sold after the top section, they often leave, but some may still stick around to check out the following subheads.

  • Subhead Tip: Don’t skimp on subheads. Even if the top portion of the page didn’t sell them, they may be on the fence. If you provide them with a sequence of interesting or relevant subheads you may win them back.

Problem #10. Left-hand scanning: If the top portion of a page interests a reader, they may start to skim vertically down the left side of the page, reading just the first few words to see if it’s relevant. A subhead will stop their vertical scanning, and they’ll read it to the end. If interested, they’ll read some of all of the section. After that, they’ll continue scanning vertical on the left as before—until the next subhead. Note that the further down they go, the fewer lines they’ll skim and they may stop reading subheads mid-sentence.

  • Subhead Tip: Strong subheads can stop the vertical scanning long enough to read the subhead and determine the section’s relevance. Put your most attractive words at the beginning of the subhead—and also at the beginning of paragraphs.

Problem 11. No concluding headline: People like to have a visual cue about where an article ends. In effect, it rounds out the piece and should provide the key takeaway. Also, some readers like to skip ahead to the conclusion as a test of relevance—the way some people skip to the end of a book to judge if it will be satisfying.

  • Subhead Tip: Place a subhead right before your conclusion to give a sense of finality and provide a valuable takeaway. This conclusion should lead the reader naturally into the CTA

Problem #12. Not enough subhead formatting:  In addition to the primary H2 headings we’ve discussed, the hierarchy moves down to H6 (but in reality, most people don’t go past H3).

  • Subhead Tip: Use these lower-level subheads to flesh out content under H2.  They might be used to introduce bullet points, short examples, or graphical visualizations of data. You can play with these and see how they look on your articles—and see if you get any type of response from your readers.

Write Great Subheads and Boost your Digital Content Results.

Maximize the value of your H2 subheads on all your digital content—webpages, blog articles, emails, and more. Use the writing and organization pointers above for a better user experience, better webpage performance, and a boost in SEO. When choosing a copywriter, make sure they know how to write great subheads and how to leverage them for successful digital content.  

For high-quality content that improves website results, choose Boston-based Westebbe Marketing specializing in high-performing original content. Contact us online, call us at (617) 699-4462, or email us.

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