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What I have setup on my site is a pagination unit that consists of two clickable arrows representing previous and next pages, and in between them, I have clickable numbers.

Each number is styled nicely, however, the number representing the current page is highlighted, but the HTML element I use for the selected page number is em. My code to produce the numbers is similar to:

<ul>
<li><a href="1">1</a></li>
<li><a href="2">2</a></li>
<li><a href="3"><em>3</em></a></li>
<li><a href="4">4</a></li>
<li><a href="5">5</a></li>
</ul>

SEO wise, is using the emphasis element acceptable for this setup even though I'm highlighting a number, or am I better off just using the i element? Or does it matter?

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Neither em nor i are appropriate elements. Nothing in their definitions would suggest that they could be used for this purpose.

The b element might be appropriate here ("a span of text to which attention is being drawn").

But instead (or in addition to b), you might want to consider removing the link to the current page:

<ul>
  <li><a href="1">1</a></li>
  <li><a href="2">2</a></li>
  <li>3</li>
  <li><a href="4">4</a></li>
  <li><a href="5">5</a></li>
</ul>

This gives you a different styling by default (but you could also style it in some other way, of course), and it might be preferable for usability (but opinions differ here).

Does any of this matter for SEO? Probably not.

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The parent element should it be a <li>, <p> or <div> makes no difference, all are valid parents, and Google will not factor this into the results, why would it?... as said in previous answers, questions, Google cares little about your mark-up, as why should Google? Your visitors don't see your mark-up, they see the end result.

You can read the differences between <em>, <i> and <b> as they all play their part for a semantic-web, but play little, to no role in SEO.

SOURCE

They have the same effect on normal web browser rendering engines, but there is a fundamental difference between them.

As the author writes in a discussion list post:

Think of three different situations:

web browsers
blind people
mobile phones

"Bold" is a style - when you say "bold a word", people basically know that it means to add more, let's say "ink" around the letters until they stand out more amongst the rest of the letters.

That, unfortunately, means nothing to a blind person. And on mobile phones and other PDAs, text is already bold because screen resolution is very small. You can't bold a bold without screwing something up.

<b> is a style - we know what "bold" is supposed to look like.

<strong> however is an indication of how something should be understood. "Strong" could (and often does) mean "bold" in a browser, but it could also mean a lower tone for a speaking program like Jaws (for blind people). And strong on a Palm Pilot may be an underline (since you can't bold a bold).

HTML was never meant to be about styles. Do some searches for "Tim Berners-Lee" and "the semantic web". <strong> is semantic - it describes the text it surrounds ("this text should be stronger than the rest of the text you've displayed") as opposed to describing how the text it surrounds should be displayed ("this text should be bold").

So ultimately it's

  • <i> vs <em>
  • <b> vs <strong>

Summarised in a one sentence:

SOURCE

<strong> and <em> are semantic - they specify that the enclosed text should be "strong" or "emphasised" in some way, usually bold and italic, but allow for the actual styling to be controlled via CSS. Hence these are preferred in modern web pages.

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