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Should I use the HTML5 section element and if so, where?

Unlike other HTML5 elements such as header, footer and nav, it’s never been particularly clear to me when is appropriate to use section. This is due in large part to many experts having expressed that it doesn’t quite work as intended.

I like HTMHell’s rule-of-thumb regarding section:

If you’re not sure whether to use a <section>, it’s probably best to avoid it.

They go on to recommend that it’s much more important to create a sound document outline. That phrase can be confusing because of the related history of the browser document outline algorithm (or lack thereof) but I think what the author means here is to use and nest headings logically because that alone will give you a “document outline” and also helps AT users scan and skip around the page.

Relatedly: don’t let the original intended use of section tempt you to put multiple H1s on a page in the vain hope that browsers and assistive technology will interpret their nesting level to handle hierarchy appropriately. That would rely on on a document outline algorithm but no browser implements document outlining.

One sensible application of section is to provide additional information to screen reader users about the semantic difference between two adjoining content areas, when that distinction is otherwise only being made visually with CSS.

Here’s an example. Smashing Magazine’s blog articles begin with a quick summary, followed by a horizontal line separating the summary from the article proper. But the separator is purely decorative, so if the summary were wrapped in a div then a screen reader user wouldn’t know where it ends and the article begins. However by instead wrapping the summary in <section aria-label="quick summary">:

  • our wrapper has the built-in ARIA role of region. A region is a type of generic landmark element, and as a landmark a screen reader user will find it listed in a summary of the page and can navigate to it easily.
  • by giving it an accessible name (here via aria-label) it will be announced by a screen reader, with “Quick summary region” before and “Quick summary region end” after.

Update 07/11/22

Adrian Roselli’s twitter thread on section is gold. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from it:

The reason you would use a section element for accessibility purposes is to create a region landmark. If you are using headings properly, in most cases your content is already well-structured and will not require a region landmark. If you do need a section, note that from an accessibility perspective using the section tag alone is meaningless without providing an accessible name. To provide this, ensure your section has a heading and connect the section to that using aria-labelledby.

You can use section without the above measures and it will not harm users. But be aware it’s aiding your developer experience only, because it’s not helping users. And it may also mislead you and others into thinking you are providing semantics and accessibility which in reality you are not.


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