Using the Document Outline View Feature in Google Docs to Improve Readability, Accessibility, and SEO

Photo by Rajeshwar Bachu on Unsplash

Viewing your headlines in a separate pane gives you a high altitude look at your article as whole

Note: I understand that most writing software has some variation on this functionality and these tips apply to them also. But I will say that the implementation in Word, for example, is clunky beyond belief.

I write in Google Docs, regardless of where the piece will ultimately appear. I like its basic interface (like MS Word about two decades ago, before feature creep made it unbearably counter-intuitive), and its collaboration capabilities. The ability to access my work from virtually any device is pretty handy too. But one basic capability has become a serious tool for helping me organize articles and ensure that they are both accessible and optimized for search (SEO): the Document Outline View function.

To access this view, which shows up as an additional column or pane to the left of your doc on a desktop (on mobile it slides in and out), go to the main menu and select View>Show Document Outline View. If you haven’t assigned any formatting to your heads and subheads they won’t appear. But once you do assign them an H1, H2, H3, etc. tag, they will appear in the view.

I don’t recommend using the Google Title or Subtitle formats as I’m not sure what tags they assign to the content. And only use H1 once in any doc that you are posting online. It should only be used for the title. H1 tells Google that this is the title and its content should clearly reflect what the article is about. Subheads should be hierarchical: H3 content is a sub-subject of an H2.

Readers scan subheads when they first encounter an article

Eye tracking studies show that online readers read headlines first, then subheads, than picture caption, if you have them, and finally, body text. You can assume search crawlers do the same. Because of this, you should be able to following the general concept and direction of the article by scanning the heads. In Document Outline View they are always there next to your work. It is super useful to look at them in context when you are writing your next section and subhead so you can tweak the subhead to make sure it fits into the overall context of the piece. I also find that it shows me structural irregularities where a section may be out of order or missing.

Accessibility text readers can follow and read H tagged content out loud

Subheads used this way make your content much more accessible to visually impaired readers who use the text reader function of their browser. Being accessible is not only considerate and a best practice, it is also something that helps with your ranking on search.

For long form documents Outline View offers easy navigation within the doc

When I’m doing longer form writing, including fiction, I set H2s within the doc even if I’ll be removing them later. In the Outline View the Heads are anchor links which take you to that section within the main doc with one click, eliminating scrolling. In my novels I always place a head that says End Point at the bottom of the doc and keep it there. Then when I open the doc to write I can click it and be taken directly to where I left off. When you’re dealing with hundreds of pages this will keep you sane.

When you’re doing edits or rewrites on those long docs, using this placeholder function allows you to quickly find and jump to sections you are working on, another big time-saver. You can also embed the content in the Outline View (go to Insert>table of contents>) into the document itself, creating a table of contents (TOC) with live anchor links, giving readers the same navigation capabilities regardless of the media they are reading on. Unfortunately, the links go back to the original Google Doc so this is only helpful when sharing the Doc with others. Because of the scanning preference people have with articles, embedding a TOC at the top makes that scanning even easier. For a code idiot like me, this linking capability makes life a lot easier.

Please note that changes you make to your heads after inserting the TOC into your Doc are not made automatically to the inserted content. You have to either edit the embedded TOC content or delete it and insert the revised TOC.

Stepping back for the bigger picture

Writers often can’t find the forest for the trees. You get deep into something and you can get lost or lose perspective. Outline View helps you pull back and view the work as a whole. It also helps you avoid content organization errors that can do a number on search rankings

For some more sophisticated readers it may feel like I’m stating the obvious in this article, but after writing for over twenty years, using a tool like this has been a big labor saver. Before Google Docs, I wanted a lightweight authoring environment with real portability and collaboration that did not involve attachments and other copy/paste ways of sharing. These inevitably lead to version control issues. But none were the right combination of simple to use and highly functional, a real UI/UX balancing act.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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