I was asked this question by a colleague recently when discussing SEO and modern front-end web development. I think most of us assume that using proper sectioning elements that HTML5 provides us would help with SEO a tiny bit, so I set out to find the answer and you might be surprised.
In HTML5 we have tags that provide semantic meaning like; main, section, aside, figure, article, header, menu and footer (amongst many others). Using these tags in our page makes for better structure, it also means when Google comes along they don’t have to guess what content is what in your page.
But, there is a flaw. Like the good old days of being able to stuff keywords into a page and make them hidden, HTML5 semantic tags can be abused. What is stopping someone from saying a particular section is an article when it’s nothing at all? There is confusion around when to use what tag, do I use section or article, do I nest one inside of another?
What Google wants
When Google visits your site what are they most interested in: the page structure or the content? While I am sure Google does care to an extent how you mark up your pages, they’re not going to reward or penalise you for trying to properly structure your content. When Google visits your site, they’re analysing the content, they’re analysing other metrics like in-bound links, outbound links, keyword density, topic ratio and more.
Analysing top websites
The true test of whether or not HTML5 structure actually gives you an edge is to search for more popular terms and compare the markup of pages.
Some popular terms that I tried out include; music, news, concerts and movies. The results are not all too surprising.
Search term “music”
The total number of sites in the top 6 of Google search results for the term, “music” using HTML5 semantic elements was one. The site using HTML5 sectioning elements in my results set was result #6 Allmusic.com which was using some sectioning elements and possibly other elements elsewhere.
Search term “news”
The total number of sites in the top 6 of Google search results for the term, “news” using HTML5 semantic elements was zero. Not one single site used a HTML5 tag on the landing pages linked from the search results page.
So, what does this conclude or prove? Pretty much nothing. It does however show that having or not having HTML5 tags doesn’t give you any advantage or disadvantage, at least for the moment. This wasn’t an in-depth investigation, but I can say with almost certainty Google does not care if your site is built using DIV’s or article and section tags, it cares about your content and the credibility of it for the most part.