If you’re doing some research on on-site SEO techniques, you’ll probably find many articles claiming that putting keywords in bold (by using <B> and strong <STRONG> HTML tags) and italic (<I> and <EM> tags) has a positive impact on web pages’ rankings.
But is that true? Will you improve your Google rankings by simply bolding targeted keywords?
Keep reading to know the answer of these questions.
Definition of BOLD / STRONG and ITALIC/em tags?
There are 4 very common HTML elements, that people use to style in bold or italic text within HTML documents:
- <b> and <strong> – display the content in bold and
- <i> and <em> – usually display it in italic.
It’s very easy to apply any of those. The text you want to change goes between the two tags:
<b> your text here </b>
<strong> your text here </strong>
In these two example, the browser will display the text in the same way – in bold.
That’s why many webmasters, who are not HTML savvy, use these elements as substitutes (<b> instead of <strong> or <strong> instead of <b>).
Difference between <b> / <strong> and <i> / <em> tags
Although they have the same effect, the HTML elements <b> and <strong> and <i> and <em> are not exactly the same.
- <b> and <i> are used to define bold and italic text, without any extra importance.
Basically they are telling the browser what the text should look like, without emphasizing its content.
- <strong> and <em> are used to define indicate a semantic emphasis.
- <strong> defines bold text, with added semantic “strong” importance.
- <em> defines emphasized text, with added semantic importance.
In other words these HTML elements are telling that the text is important.
- <b> and <i> will tell the browser what the text should look like while
- <strong> and <em> indicate a semantic emphasis, which can be conveyed by screen readers for people with accessibility issues.
How Google treats the BOLD, STRONG and Italic tags?
Google treats the <b> <strong> tags and <em> and <i> tags in the same way in terms of ranking and how pages are indexed.
In a video from 2006, Matt Cutts said that there was no difference in how Google treats the <strong> and the <b> tag when it came to ranking, scoring or other search factors.
In a more recent video, from the end of 2013, he came back to the same question, saying that “Things might have changed since 2006, but I really kind of doubt it”. He added the same is true for or the <em> and <i> tags.
Are BOLD, STRONG and Italic tags important for SEO?
There’s no an official confirmation that Google use these tags as ranking factors.
Therefore there’s been a lot of speculations on this subject: some SEOs will advise you to use bold, others will tell you not to bother with it.
The truth is that we could only GUESS if bold and italic have any effect on page rankings or not.
In their most recent study on the search engine rankings factors, MOZ.com asked 120 leading search marketers to rate how important they think that the use of bold and italic on keywords was. Their answer was 2.8 out of 10 (1 meaning “No importance” to 10 meaning “Very Important).
Therefore, the “keyword present in bold, italic, em tag” didn’t even make it to the final list of the search engine rankings factors for 2013.
This suggests that the correlation between the presence of bolded keywords on a web page and its rankings is even lower than 0.02.
According to the same study, even important on-site SEO elements, such as the usage of keywords in the Title Tags and Meta Descriptions have a positive correlation of only 0.10 – 0.13.
And Search Metrics’ annual ranking factors study doesn’t even analyze the usage of bold and italic.
For some reason, however, SEOmoz’ On-Page Grader is looking at the presence B and STRONG tags when grading how well a web page is optimized:
The same stands for Yoorank and many more web applications which analyze on-site SEO elements.
Why you should still use bold and italic on your website
In my opinion, even IF the use of bold and italic within pages has any impact on rankings, it is so minute, that it’s better to spend your time on other things.
But this doesn’t mean that you should completely neglect the usage of these HTML elements.
Think of your users and about the way they consume your content. Normally visitors “scan” your content. So you should use bold and italic tags to style your content in order to make it easier to read and consume by your users. This improve their user experience and they will easily engage with your content.
Best practices for the usage of bold and italic tags
If I’m asked if there’s an official best practice for the use of bold and italic, I would refer to official HTML standards.
According to the official HTML 5 specification:
- headings should be denoted with the <h1> to <h6> tags,
- emphasized text should be denoted with the <em> tag,
- important text should be denoted with the <strong> tag, and
- marked/highlighted text should use the <mark> tag.
The HTML 5 specification states that:
- The <b> and <i> tag should be used as a LAST resort when no other tag is more appropriate.
- The <i> tag can be used to indicate a technical term, a phrase from another language, a thought, or a ship name, etc.
- The <b> tag can be used to bold text on the page, but it’s recommended to use the CSS “font-weight” property to set bold text.
People tend to scan webpages instead of reading every word. Bolding keywords and key phrases may not have an impact on your page rankings but it will definitely help the readability and consumption of your content. By styling the most relevant phrases and keywords with bold and italic tags, your are helping the user to understand your content faster, which will provide a better user experience and even reduce page bounce rate.