List Items and SEO – UL and LI Tags


HTML lists are semantic structures by definition and they can play an important role when a web document is analyzed for its relevancy against a search query. Since relevancy – along with page popularity (backlinks) and social signals – is strongly related to search engine rankings, it is important to understand how search engines analyze their content.

Lists can contain unordered information (UL), ordered information (OL) and definitions (DL, DD, DT tags). In HTML code this is how an ordered list might look like:


<li>Unordered information

<li>Ordered information



There have always been discussions if lists can actually influence the semantics of a web page and therefore rankings. Yes, they actually do.

Before exemplifying how a good optimized list items would look like, I have to mention about one of the existing Google patents, which relates to HTML lists. The patent, called Document Ranking Based On Semantic Distance Between Terms In A Document specifically refers to HTML lists when describing how the distance between words can influence rankings.

This image is used in the patent documentation. As you can see there’s a list and a list head (Saturn Facts)

image from a Google patent depicting a heading and several list items

Saturn Facts is considered a heading because of larger text formatting

The patent gives us the following rules about headings and list items, when it comes to the distance between words appearing within them:

– If both terms appear in the same list item, the terms are considered close to one another;

– If one term appears in a list item and the other term appears in header, this pair of terms may be considered to be approximately equally distant to another pair of terms that appear in header and in another of the list items;

– Pairs of terms appearing in different list items may be considered to be farther apart than the pairs of terms falling under 1 and 2.

So, in the Saturn example above, the words “Saturn” (from the heading of the list) and “Distance” (from the last list item) are considered closer together than the words “Days” and “Rotation” even though “Days” is the last word of the first list item and “Rotation” is the first word of the second list item.

The above is an excerpt from Bill Slawski’s blog, who has a more detailed analysis of the patent. Many thanks to Bill again for illustrating the paragraph above with an image:

the same image as above annotated with lines describing the distance between words

A different kind of keyword proximity

What the images shows is that the gap between Days and Rotation is considered bigger that Saturn and Distance but also

  • the word in the header, Saturn, can used as base reference (position 0, let’s say) for other words in the list
  • the distance between Saturn and other words is computed against each LI tag from the list. So Saturn is zero words away from words One, Rotation, Mass and Volume. But, Saturn is 6 words away from Days (including stop words)

This means that if someone would search for Saturn Volume, this document would have higher chances of rankings than if someone would search for Saturn Earth.

The approach described in the patent comes to a bit of change for the definition of keyword proximity. The method keyword proximity is computed within lists seems to be a bit different than the classic definition, which derives it based on the actual distance between the words, as they appear in the source code.

If we were to compute the classic keyword proximity, the word Rotation will be 8 words away from Saturn (facts, one, orbit, of, sun, is, 10,759.2, days). However, within lists and list headings, the distance is zero.

If you care of keyword proximity when you list items on your content, you need to take into consideration that keyword proximity is computed differently.

Briefly, here’s how an optimized code will look like, for a good HTML list:

<div>Here is some useful info on</div>

<h3>Search Engine Optimization</h3>

<ul title=”SEO resources for advanced users”>

<li>Tutorial for advanced users</li>

<li>Cost and ROI of SEO</li>

<li>Experts sharing their opinions on SEO</li>


The words Tutorial, Costs and Experts were taken from Google Keywords Suggestion Tool and can be a part of your secondary or tertiary keywords, for which you may want to have a dedicated page targeting only them.

a list of keywords from Google Keyword Tool

You can find some keyword suggestions with Google’s Keyword Tool

Keep in mind that linking the word Tutorial will make the linked page more relevant towards that word. When you link inside lists, be careful not only about the proximity of the words relating to the nearest heading above (for same page relevancy) but also about the anchor text used to link to other dedicated pages (for outbound page relevancy). You want to have a mix of both. I would rather not link within the list with the anchor text Tutorial, but rather link within the body content with the anchor search engine optimization tutorial.

Now, suddenly list items are not as easy to deal with as you were used to. Sorry about that. However, remember the most important rule for on page SEO: write for humans, not for search engines.

Some particular cases of lists are navigation menus and breadcrumbs. While it seems logic to have your left navigation for an ecommerce site as list items, you need to make sure that sections such as drop down menus, or expandable facets are actually getting indexed by search engines. This means you need to implement menus and breadcrumbs in such a way that search engine bots can read the text and the links inside them with JavaScript turned off. Otherwise your site might get into indexing issues, not pass Page Rank to the important pages or other issues you don’t want to get into.

Here is a sample script for creating pure CSS drop down menu or here for a simple UL LI CSS SEO friendly horizontal menu.

Approach this kind of implementation carefully.

Now let’s look very briefly at other types of lists, the definition tags, DD, DT and DL

<dd> – definition description (also can be used for speaker’s words in dialogs)

This tag is used to describe an item in a definition list. The text within the <dd> tag will influence the overall page’s theme, and the semantic of the entire definition, but there isn’t much you can do to alter your rankings by playing with the <dd> tag attributes, except of course, writing good content within it.

While there are arguments that you can use <dd>,<dl> and <dt> tags to bring your site on the search results for “define:word” type of results, I’ve seen no proof until date. If you want to have page with better semantics, use them. It seems to somehow help with dictionary-type pages or glossaries.

<dl> – definition list – this tag is used with <dd> and <dt> to define lists

Use it mostly when you create definition types of lists, like glossary pages, FAQs

<dt> – definition term (also can be used for speaker in dialogs)

See the <dl> and <dd> tags above and read this document and this one.

Pitstop Media offers ROI focused SEO services. If you need a SEO company to help you rank #1 please contact us for a free, no obligation quote. We’ve helped companies rank first on Google in short periods of time, for highly competitive terms.

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Traian is Director of Search Marketing at Pitstop Media Inc. He has more than 11 years experience in helping small and medium businesses generate and convert organic traffic from search engines. Connect with Traian on Google+. He is also the author of the Ecommerce SEO book.


2 Responses to “List Items and SEO – UL and LI Tags”

  1. Jakub Bednar said:

    Dec 14, 12 at 6:16 pm

    This is extremely important that your developer doesn’t put main sections of a page in lists. I had my homepage redone for one of my websites and my developer did this and I lost a lot of ranking. I’m having him redo it asap. He put heading tags inside the main sections in the list, I’m glad I did the research on this and know (well not everything) what I’m doing as far as SEO goes. Thank you for confirming my beliefs on how lists and pages should be structured author, excellent article, I’m not surprised this page is ranking well in Google as it’s great content and very accurate.

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  2. Traian Neacsu said:

    Dec 14, 12 at 6:22 pm

    Jakub, when you’re redesigning your site, there’s so many factors that can lead to ranking drops. You may want to also check if that is not temporary or even a penalty/algorithm update.

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