Multiple H1 Tags Trigger Automated Google Penalty

February 28, 2011 // Search Engines, seo

I watched another Google video on YouTube recently where Matt Cutt’s discusses when Google penalties are lifted. During the video there are certain parts of what he said which really made me think more in depth about how Google deals with the sheer number potential penalties. Matt mentions (0:30) that there are automatic methods of detection and processing, which include content spam and keyword stuffing etc.

Hearing this made me think of one of my affiliate websites I had setup a few months ago and a problem I had encountered. The website has 100% unique content, affiliate products from TradeDoubler and a premium CSS template to make it look a little fancy with minimal effort. Now the website in question is an exact match domain and I was specifically targeting a keyword group with around1-2k monthly visitors, using just unique content and a few directory links I’ve found this method to work extremely well in the past.

The Problem

I’d used this particular premium CSS template 2/3 times before for other very similar products but had customised ever so slightly (i.e. different colurs + logo). The problem however was that although my other affiliate sites ranked in the top 3 continually for the target keywords this particular site was not. In fact it was bouncing in and out from position 4 to position 93 – bit strange..

I’d not bought any links for the site in question so I knew that things were all “white” externally so thought there must be something within the site causing one of these automatic penalties. Looking at the code I noticed 2 H1 tags, one being highlighted below as an image:

The other H1 was just highlighted in a standard way – this was the only element I could think Google would pick up on as potentially “Stuffing” or something similarly nagitive. I proceeded to remove the text in the code and waited, anticipating a return to index in a high position.

As predicted a few days after I’d removed the second H1 tag the site moved from position 90+ into the top 5 . Bear in mind I’d changed absolutely nothing else at this point and just to proove it was the H1 tag causing a problem I added it back, then removed (see second arrow). As well as rankings increasing to a position I thought it should be at the traffic also duplicated the rankings:

Although this is only one site and I’d like to test more it seems quite certain that either having 2 H1 tags triggers an automatic Google penalty or the method of using <h1 id=”logo”><span></span></h1> is not liked by Google.

Some might argue that it’s just common good SEO practice to have only 1 H1 tag but if this test is anything to go by it culd be more costly than you first think!

If anyone else has any more data on this I’d be interested to hear?

Matt Ridout

About the author

My name is Matt Ridout, I've been working in digital marketing for 9 years; worked for agencies and currently Head of SEO at fashion startup called Farfetch. Try to test my own theories.


  1. We’ve definitely come across similar issues with multiple h1 tags in the past, although I dont have the same data to back up what you have said here.

    I’ve discussed with others about having multiple h1 tags, and have been told if there is a sufficient volume of content on a page to support multiple h1’s, then you can get away with it – but for the majority of pages on the web, more than 1 h1 tag is just going to appear potentially manipulative

  2. This is really interesting, was the H tag behind the image keyword rich and did this correlate with the keyword being penalised? also did all keywords suffer or just the one in the H tag?

    H tags behind header images are very common, its not something ive ever seen penalised so heavily if at all if im being honest.

    I looked at a website this morning that had almost the same setup with H tags but it still ranked first page for all terms, in this situation the h tag did not contain any keywords the website was aiming for.

  3. Good article. I’ve seen this happen before in some really crap CMS software. H1’s are a really authoritative page feature and having multiples must causes Google some proper headaches about what the SERP result should say.

    Saw an interesting article on Wired just there where they interviewed Cutts and Singahl, [ ].
    It seems that there are a number of new metrics with a basis in human perception too, like number of advert spots.
    It sounds like they are feeding these, combined with the old favourites, like multiple H1’s :), into some kind of kNN Hyperspace classifier to work out a site’s quality profile.

  4. Clear evidence of an algorithmic penalty. As Pete says, it might be a ‘tipping point’ in combination with other unknown factors (hmm what was the blanked out text? ;), but definitely a nice spot. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Many thanks! I was starting to thing google ignores my H1 and treats H2 better 🙂 but I noticed my master page had H1 so I always had H1 twice!

  6. Ive actually been thinking about this over the weekend.

    I think the bigger issue maybe that you have a hidden H1 on the page rather than having multiple H1’s on the page? have you tried just making the hidden H1 visible?

  7. Hi Gary – you could be right here, you don’t tend to see a lot of visible duplicate H1 tags these days so perhaps it goes hand in hand with it being hidden.

    I’ll re-test

  8. Does anyone know the analytic software that is being used with the picture of the google rank h1 points?

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  10. It would make sense to only allow one H1 tag, but I didn’t think it would make such a dramatic difference! Thanks for pointing it out!

  11. This is an interesting topic and one I hadn’t thought about before. I don’t have any experience of this with H1 tags but it reminded me of a a client I worked with a few years back.

    I made one simple change to their meta title but removing a second mention of a particular keyword – no other changes were made to the site and it jumped from page 8 in the SERPs to page 2 within a week or so.

  12. Have you watched Matt Cutt’s video where he says that actually multiple H1 are acceptable?

    What’s your take on this?

  13. Hi Traian – thanks for the comment – I would say that it probably depends on certain other aspects i.e. page authority, age, content, size. Also Matt Cutt’s doesn’t always tell the whole truth on those videos 😉

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  15. Matt may not even know the whole truth. Anyways, here’s what I think about H1 and SEO

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  19. I have been looking at this a lot due to a number of problems where I also spotted that I had a H1 on a master page. The panda release hit me quite hard as my site is fundamentally a directory for bikers and so people tend to copy their own content into the advert element but have tried to keep clean with the H1. My site currently is offline and has been for 3 days, am curious how much hurt that will give me from Google and how quickly they start removing pages, I have already had an email to say an ad I had pointing to my site in invalid as the site is down….

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