What is a Subheading? (And How to Write Ones at Scale that Don’t Suck)

March 3, 2021
Brad Smith

You already know what a subheading is…

It’s the secondary headings that create the structure of an article. They’re like the backbone. The anatomy. The things that provide your overall content piece or blog post or whatever with the substance that informs, entertains, persuades (and hopefully, all three at the same time).

Knowing what a subheading is, though, and actually creating good ones, are two entirely different problems.

Especially when you add the problem of scale.

One amazing writer can churn out subheadings for a few of their own articles no problem. They’ve done it a million times so it’s internalized.

But what if you’re publishing dozens (if not hundreds) of content pieces each month, across dozens of writers and even multiple writing teams?

That’s where article structure, and your content subheadings, can often fall apart.

So here’s how to write purposeful subheadings, at scale, that your readers can’t help but adore.

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What is the purpose of a subheading? (And how do you write ones that actually get read?)

You have your page title or headline. It’s the top-most heading level that summarizes the main point of the entire piece.

And then one heading level down, you have multiple subheadings or literally “section headings” that bring structure to each individual paragraph that makes up your full essay.

They might be subheads on blog posts or chapters in a novel.

But either way, the goal is usually the same:

As the old copywriting cliche goes… the purpose of a subheading is “to get your reader to read the next line!”

But seriously, that IS the ultimate purpose of a subheading. Especially online, where people are multitasking and scanning and looking everywhere BUT your long-ass article(s).

Should you care about APA headings or style? I dunno… maybe if you’re writing an academic term paper.

Here, though, we’re focusing specifically on blog posts and online articles. And I’d argue that APA style in this context are actually counterproductive because they’re often a snooze-fest.

That’s why you want to write subheadings as headlines. To stop people dead in their tracks.

To pique their interest. To grab their eyeballs and force them to stop. Slow down. And continue reading what’s in each section.

Instead, I’d recommend looking no further than Headline Hacks from the brilliant Jon Morrow, then.

Seriously. This is the single-most-indispensable headline writing resource I’ve come across in about a decade of doing this. Your writers should write, and rewrite, and train on these headline angle templates over and over and over and over and over again.

I even made a little Google Sheets cheat sheet to reference on an ongoing basis:

headline hacks cheatsheet

So the first step to writing subheadings, specifically for distracted readers online, is to start by writing them as headlines which:

  •  promise a simple solution,
  • evoke curiosity,
  • piggyback on a broader trend, or
  • capitalize on fear and anxiety

BuzzFeed might be the single-greatest dumpster-fire of online content, but headlines they can do.

Of course, there’s more to writing subheadings, though.

Writing them as headlines will definitely help. It’ll inject some copywriting flair into otherwise personality-less content.

BUT…

It’s not the only consideration at stake.

Writing subheadings online also requires a secondary element: Search.

Anyone, anywhere who types a single word for the ‘Net has to write for search engines second – whether they like it or not. That’s because they’re almost always the largest single source of traffic to any website.

So it don’t matter what you’re writing, or why you’re writing it. If you’re trying to get eyeballs to entertain family and friends, inform people about your latest family updates or hobbies, or writing content to bring in potential would-be customers, then writing for search engines becomes an unnecessary evil.

And there’s another art to that…

How to write subheadings for search engines

Big Daddy G’ has one and only one purpose in mind:

To provide people with an answer to their query.

Years ago, it was more literal. No issues occurred when people searched for simple words or phrases. Yet, when people typed in misspellings or random phrasing, search engines would struggle to provide good results.

Today, it’s a different story. Search engines can infer intent; they can predict what people actually mean or want to see and provide the right results.

They do this through a lot of 1s and 0s and complex algorithms. (Ahrefs guide to Search Intent provides more into the nerdy stuff if you have the interest.)

But the end product that you need to worry about is that Google (and their lesser search engine brethren) know what people want to see when they search and provide results that tend to follow similar patterns.

In other words, if your content is too unique or your subheadings are too different from what searchers actually want to read, you won’t rank well. Simple as that.

That’s why content planning and optimization for search actually starts before every tapping a single keystroke.

Google will actually tell you exactly what people want to read when they search for something specific. And those are the things that you should compile to write out an effective main heading, along with the supporting subheadings to organize your paragraph text.

Let’s see a concrete example so you can understand what the hell I’m talking about here.

Search for something random, like “call center phone system” and look for these three specific things:

1. Real-time suggestions

Type in your query but before hitting “enter” to bring up the results, look at the real-time related searches that Google is recommending:

real-time suggestions sample

These are often semantically related ideas or searches people conduct around this same topic.

2. People also ask questions

Look right around the first organic (“free”) paid listing after the ads on the page and you’ll often see a section called “People also ask,” that often contains a few drop downs with examples for each question:

sample questions under People also ask

3. Related searches

Last but not least, scroll down to the very bottom of the Search Engine Result Page (SERP) and look at the “related searches” section for further ideas:

sample related searches

Easy, right? Still with me so far?

Now, there are more advanced ways of doing this. There are some nerdy SEO tricks and resources we’ll get into below.

But this is the basic starting point for writing subheadings for search: figure out what search intent is, first, and then figure out a compelling way to create an article structure that answers these things.

A really good example is this article from Nextiva on VoIP. Compare the People also ask questions for “what is a VoIP phone” with the article subheadings under the table of contents and you’ll notice that they’re almost a mirror image:

sample article by nextiva showing related questions

The point:

Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Tip #1. Write your subheadings as headlines online to entice readers to actually read each section.

Tip #2. Figure out what people want to find when they search for your topic and then try hard to model the actual content subheadings to provide those answers.

Scaling subheads: How to standardize heading styles to instantly improve blog posts and articles

Producing content online, at scale, is difficult for a number of reasons:

  • All writers naturally write differently,
  • Expert writers might naturally create effective subheads, while novices (read: cheaper, less experienced writers) often struggle,
  • As a result, consistency across all your content becomes an issue,
  • And keeping quality high is equally challenging.

My agency, Codeless, does 300+/mo with dozens of writers, so we know these lessons (and pain) first hand.

The trick is to standardize (ugh, I know) your content subheadings as much as possible, based on different types of content. For example, long-form opinion pieces might follow one structure, while shorter fact-based pieces follow another.

Then, each of these content “types” or “templates” has a content brief compiled prior to writing.

The goal is to (a) spoon-feed writers with exactly  or (b) prep all of this information for yourself so that you don’t need to get distracted with research while writing. Then, you can just focus on the hard part – putting pen to paper or keyboard keys to Google Docs.

Talk of “standardization” and “process” is usually anathema to writers. Look, I get it.

But they’re another necessarily evil worth dictating in style guidelines. Even if you want to different voices and tones across your content types, there still needs to be some consistency at the end of the day. And as mentioned, if we’re going to the trouble of investing any time or money into writing anything online, you need to consider search intent.

So let’s walk through a more detailed example so you can see how standardizing your content subheadings and headline styles can actually improve a writer’s life at the same time.

Investopedia is a HUGE site. We’re talkin’ massive. Thousands (or tens of thousands) of content pieces?

As a result, they have no choice but to standardize each section heading to help churn out thousands of articles (without breaking the bank on only working with really expense, expert-level writers).

The easiest way to spot this in the wild is to look for the now-ubiquitous Table of Contents you’ll see on longer article.

For instance, compare these two Investopedia article Table of Contents below:

compound interest vs promissory note

You’ll notice that there’s A LOT of similarity between these two article structures. That’s no accident. You’re looking at two articles that share the same “template” for defining certain financial terms.

The subheadings themselves are slightly different, but largely follow the same overall structure:

  • What is [Keyword A]
  • How does [keyword A] work?
  • How to find [Keyword A]
  • [Keyword A] vs. [Keyword B]
  • Examples of [Keyword A]
  • Types of [Keyword A]

Formatting headings like this make it easy for the reader’s attention and comprehension, to understand your content’s info.

BUT it ALSO makes it super easy for writers to know what to write! You’re simplifying their life, limiting the amount of information they need to research or the amount of ground they need to cover so they can produce something better in less time and with less mental fatigue.

Subhead templates can also help your team plan:

  • How long each content section should be,
  • Where to find the research or sources to accurately answer each section,
  • The variety and style of images or videos to incorporate, and
  • Even the actual sub-topics or semantic keywords to include throughout

You can use the Google tricks above to start your subhead research process.

However, we can also get a little nerdy with it, too.

More specialized content optimization tools like MarketMuse can help you reverse engineer what your competitors are doing. Pull up the Compete app, drop in your article topic, and zero-in on the articles already ranking to see which ones score the best:

MarketMuse compete app

In this example, the top scoring pieces include:

  1. https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2015/05/21/how-much-does-adwords-cost
  2. https://www.webfx.com/blog/marketing/much-cost-advertise-google-adwords/
  3. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-ads-cost

Next, go through those top pieces and make notes on the sections, questions, and major terms/keywords that are included:

screenshot of top scoring piece

For example, when we zoom out and look at this piece as a whole, you can notice how the terms and concepts are being grouped. You have the major questions as H2s (second headings), and then a lot of the terms/concepts grouped under each one:

sample article and how the terms and concepts are grouped

If you’re also doing extensive keyword research, you should notice a lot of overlap again between things being searched for, and the actual ranking content subheads being used in practice.

extensive keyword research

You don’t need to stick to these questions and sections verbatim. You shouldn’t.

But you should blend them together to survey everything readers potentially want to see, and then figure out a logic structure that brings them together across a standardized template that would easily apply to ALL topics or keywords like this one you’re researching.

Here’s a simple example, then, of how your article subheadings in a “how to” content template could look:

sample of a “how to” content template

This structure should make it really easy for writers to flesh out a detailed outline — again, faster, easier, and more accurately — that at the same time will make your editors’ lives significantly easier (because they’re learning how to edit one article template and better understanding where writers can or can’t deviate from the script).

Conclusion: Good subheadings result in good content.

Subheadings are the backbone of your content.

They help create a structure that makes it easy for readers to understand what your actual content is about.

In other words, good subheadings accomplish multiple goals at the same time:

  • Help increase reading comprehension
  • Captivating reader’s attention by enticing them to read more, longer
  • The potential to rank higher in search engines
  • More consistency across all the content you’re producing
  • Spoon-feeding writers with exactly what they need to write about
  • Making it easier for editors to properly edit (across consistent guidelines)
  • Increasing the quality of content you’re getting from less experienced or less expensive writers

So they might feel like an afterthought. They might seem pretty simple on the surface.

But good subheadings can literally be the make-or-break component of whether your content gets found, read, acted upon, and produces an ROI on your money or time.

Or whether it gets buried in the vast blackhole of the Internet with all the other ineffective content out there.

Brad Smith
Brad is the CEO of Wordable. His content has been highlighted by The New York Times, Business Insider, The Next Web, and thousands more.

About the Author

Brad Smith
Brad is the CEO of Wordable. His content has been highlighted by The New York Times, Business Insider, The Next Web, and thousands more.