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Anchor Text Optimization: Best Practices for Anchor Text Selection in Link Building

What is Anchor Text?

Anchor text is the visible, clickable text in a hyperlink. It’s those words that turn your mouse cursor into a finger-pointing hand. Most of the time, the text is blue and underlined – unless it has been uniquely styled by a webmaster to appear differently.

The image below shows how an anchor text looks behind-the-scenes in HTML code compared to on a website:

Anchor Text Example
The anatomy of a backlink in html code. The anchor text is between the <a> tags.
Anchor Text on A Page and In Code
The anchor text of the backlink is shown in blue in the above image.

Why is it important for SEO?

When it comes to link building, imagine you’re a candidate in an election, running a race to boost your search ranking and become a keyword leader.

Every link that points towards your website serves as a “vote of confidence” in you. There’s a catch though: to win the election and become a keyword leader, it’s not just about the number of links or “votes” you obtain.

To win the election, you will also be judged on the quality of the links as a collective profile. In other words, do you have a high-quality base of “voters”?

With a complex algorithm, Google assesses the quality of links pointing towards a website, determining exactly what the site is about. Taking hundreds of different factors into account, Google uses this algorithm to rank you amongst competitors in search results. If a competitor has higher quality links pointing towards their website, they may rank higher than you in search.

Alongside link quality, anchor texts also play a key role in determining how you rank among competitors. Google’s algorithm uses this text as an indicator of the content that the link points to, what the target URL is about, and assesses it against what the anchor text claims it to be about.

Thus, the texts in the link do actually matter. They will help serve as a ranking element for your page. For example, if the anchor text for a link pointing to your website is “bathroom sinks”, this gives an impression to Google’s algorithm that your website is about something related to bathroom sinks.

So, with all that being said, surely it makes sense to only build links with anchor text links matching the specific keywords you want to to rank for, right? Wrong.

If only it were that simple…

It used to be a common practice in SEO to swamp your link profile with links that contain only exact matching anchor texts. However, nowadays that approach can get your website heavily penalized by Google.

To better understand why this is now the case, we need to trace back a bit to Google’s 2012 Penguin Algorithm.

A Brief History of Anchor Text in SEO

In the early days of the internet, SEO was about focusing on singular keywords and creating content for the search engines without regard for quality or relevance. This content was designed to manipulate search engine ranking factors.

An anchor text strategy would typically involve the use of many unnatural and spammy backlinks, consisting of exact-match anchor texts.

At the time, such sneaky strategies worked. When you wanted to rank highly for a particular keyword, you would build links with as many exact-match anchors as possible, in addition to mentioning your keyword as often as possible in your page content.

This would often result in link profiles being flooded with the same anchor texts to the point where they were unnatural and potentially spammy. Yet, with the rise of machine learning and the advancement of Google’s algorithms, it is nearly impossible to slip through the cracks of Google’s eye and get away with the overuse of unnatural, exact-match anchor texts.

Google Penguin: The Changing Face of Anchor Text

On April 24, 2012, Google launched what was known as the first ‘Penguin algorithm’ update.

This change would affect websites all across the web, as rankings dipped substantially for those pages that ‘over-optimized’ their content.

The Google Penguin algorithm was built with the intent to create a more fair space for the web, preventing the aforementioned sneaky methods from helping spam websites to rank highly in search.

Running periodically and acting as a litter-picker for the search engine, the algorithm was tasked with weeding out websites that attempted to rank highly by using keyword stuffing, excessive anchor texts, and low-quality links.

For several years, Google only ran its Penguin algorithm periodically. There would be long gaps (spanning from a few months to a year) where Penguin wouldn’t run and webmasters went unregulated in manipulating their websites to game rankings.

However, upon the inevitable return of the algorithm, these websites faced their day of reckoning, plummeting down search rankings as a consequence of their behavior. And in September 2016, Google released the permanently-operating version of the Penguin algorithm (Version 4.0).

Google Penguin Penalty
One example of many websites that suffered huge traffic hits following the introduction of Google’s Penguin update.

When Penguin first arrived, many websites saw a massive dip in traffic, which also meant a drop in revenue. The update alone had left 3.1 percent of websites penalized. Things were no longer the same.

We’re still not quite sure why Google called it “Penguin” – aren’t those aquatic, flightless birds supposed to be adorable and friendly?

Penguin is much like a surveillance system, penalizing those who partake in nefarious SEO tactics. Business owners and webmasters should always be aware, as Penguin has the potential to work against you if you aren’t careful.

In the end, as long as you maintain best SEO practices, making sure your off-page anchor texts feel “natural” and not excessive, whilst also providing high-quality links, you will be safe.

7 Different Types of Anchor Text

With a bit of a history lesson in mind, it’s time to dig deeper into the meat of anchor texts – the different types. By knowing these types below, you get one step closer to understanding how to use them well.

1. Exact Match Anchors

This is where you use the exact keyword or phrase that you intend to rank for:

Exact Match Anchor Text
"Link building" as an example of a keyword you want to rank for - shown as an exact match anchor

Before the arrival of Penguin, one of the easiest ways to get ranking on search engines was to use exact match anchor texts.

Having some exact match anchors is expected in a healthy, natural link profile – as long as you are mindful of maintaining a good balance (anchor text ratio) and not using them excessively.

Takeaway Tip: Filling your page content with exact match anchors used to work – but not so much anymore. It’s time to get creative with your anchor text strategy.

2. Partial Match Anchors

This is where you use a variation of the keywords to describe the linked page’s topic.

Partial Match Anchor
The anchor "best tool for SEO" contains all the key words (SEO tool) but as a phrase

As with all types of anchor text, it’s important to make sure that the text is reflective of the linked page’s subject matter. To achieve this, some people try to stuff their anchor text with keywords to force relevance – but this is a grave mistake.

Google’s Penguin algorithm will be able to tell when you’re trying to manipulate search rankings with keyword stuffing. If the placement of keywords in your anchor text doesn’t feel natural – don’t risk linking it up. It’s like walking down the street holding a stranger’s hand. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t link up tight.

Takeaway Tip: Partial match anchors need to be truthfully descriptive of what the text links to. It is ideal if you can get some keywords in your anchor text, but avoid keyword stuffing for fear of invoking the penguin.

3. Branded Anchors

An anchor text that consists of a brand’s name is what we call a branded anchor. This is often the safest type to use if referring back to a branded profile.

Branded Anchor Example
The simplest example is using the company name as the branded anchor

If you have an exact match domain, featuring targeted keywords that you want to rank for in search results, you might run into some problems with the perilous penguin.

An example of an exact match domain would be linkbuildingservice.com

Up until the release of Penguin, exact match domains were one of the best magic tricks in the SEO game – giving your website the rocket fuel it needed to soar in rankings.

However, it’s arguable now that branded anchors have greater performance in passing value to the site that is linked to. Branded anchors are a very direct way of creating exposure and receiving that sought after ‘mention’, which brings additional credibility to your link profile.

Branded Anchors More Popular
Number of domains that contain the branded anchor text "moz" vs the exact match anchor "search engine journal"

Not all sites or blogs will allow the obvious mention of a brand or are, at the very least, extremely picky about any such inclusions. The criteria can be demanding but the value to your ranking objectives in getting your branded anchors published can be quickly realised.

Takeaway Tip: Ask yourself: does the brand name include exact match keywords that another brand would want to rank for? If yes, you will need to consider how Google’s algorithm could interpret the anchor text.

4. Generic Anchors

This is where you use generic words such as “read more”, “find out more” and “visit this website” as anchor text.

Generic Anchor Text
Generic words such as "find out more" are used in the generic anchor texts

Whilst generic anchors don’t provide any keyword ranking value, they look very natural in a backlink profile. For this reason, you are unlikely to incur any Penguin penalties for using generic anchor texts.

Takeaway Tip: Generic anchors are expected to take up a good chunk of your anchor text ratio, appearing natural and healthy in a backlink profile.

5. Naked Links

This is where you use the URL itself as the anchor text.

Naked Anchor Example
The URL itself is used as the anchor text

It is described as “naked” because the URL is left entirely visible.

With the complex and largely undefined rulebook of Google’s Penguin algorithm, some people have avoided anchor texts altogether, nervous about its potential effects on their search ranking.

Completely avoiding the use of anchor text could negatively impact your search ranking.

By following a few best practices, you can avoid making any damaging mistakes, enhancing your backlink profile for the better.

Takeaway Tip: Using a naked link is rarely necessary or justified. Take a read of the best practices for anchor text selection, later in this article.

6. Images

This is where you use an image that is wrapped within a hyperlink.

Image as A Link
Clicking on the Reputio logo would take you to https://www.reputio.com/

For example, you might have an image of a fitness gym and upon clicking this image, you could be taken to a gym website.

Whilst some may argue that there isn’t any anchor text here, Google’s Penguin algorithm still crawls the image in search of it. As the anchor text associated with a linked image isn’t immediately obvious, the algorithm fine combs the image in search of some data. This is when it encounters the image’s alt attribute and treats it as the anchor text for the link.

Typically, on websites like WordPress you can insert the text in the alt tag section within the image metadata window, as seen below. This can help Google identify what your image is about, and relate it accordingly to the target keyword.

Alt Attribute of Image
Website crawlers looks for the alt attribute to understand what the image is about

Takeaway Tip: If you’re building a backlink from an image, try to add an alt attribute, as it can be leveraged as anchor text.

7. LSI Anchors

A more difficult concept that many people might not know of LSI, or Latent Semantic Indexing. These anchor texts are all about using variations of your keywords.

LSI Anchor Text
web design" might be you target search keyword, but adding "Wordpress" to it creates a unique variation of your keyword

For example, if you’re trying to rank for the keyword “web design”, you could use a variation of your keyword with a key phrase like “WordPress web design”.

This type of anchor text can enable you to rank for multiple keywords at the same time, giving you the chance to cover many different bases. If you’re trying to rank for a highly competitive keyword, using LSI anchors will help you to enter into search results on the fringes with key phrases that include the keyword.

To better understand this, think about when you often search a targeted keyword and add a surrounding question to it. Google will often provide you some popular, relevant options for you to select from, right?

LSI Suggestions
Google search often suggests LSI keywords that are commonly searched for

These suggestions can give you a general idea of what latent semantic indexing is and how to go about creating keyword phrases that are relevant and similar.

While there are some experts that believe latent semantic indexing anchors won’t help your SEO, it is still worth considering to have a part of your overall strategy. Just make sure that you incorporate this into your content coherently and naturally.

Takeaway Tip: Using LSI anchors can help you avoid using too many exact-match anchors, so you can include a highly competitive keyword in anchor text without the fear of being penalized.

6 Best Practices for Anchor Text Selection

One of the biggest mistakes that business owners make is aimlessly placing their anchor texts anywhere and as many times as possible.

This can be dangerous. With Google’s Penguin, using any anchor text without thought can lead to your website being severely penalized. We need to be thoughtful with what words we use and how we go about applying them.

The following list are some best practices to keep in mind for anchor text selection.

1. Keep Switching It Up

In the same way that we have a balanced diet to avoid health problems, you should aim to feature a range of anchor texts and anchor text types in your link profile. Utilizing a range of anchor text types keeps your backlink profile looking natural and healthy.

You can achieve this by using a mixture of exact match, partial match, branded and generic anchor texts in the links you build. Everything in moderation is a great approach.

2. Slice the Pie Correctly

Anchor Text Ratio
A recommended ratio of the types of anchors to use when building links

Exposure Ninja recommends using the above ratio of anchor text types when building links. While there is no hard and fast rule on how to specifically lay them out, the above ratio should give you a rough idea on how to better distribute the anchor texts in the safest way.

But do remember, no matter how good a ratio is said to be, there is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to weighing your anchor text ratio. In fact, following ratios to the tee can sometimes do your backlink profile more harm than good.

Exploring and auditing the backlink profiles of your top ranking keyword competitors is a good way to be on top of the SEO game. This can be completed using in-depth SEO analysis tools such as Ahrefs.

In exploring and auditing their backlink profiles, you will gain insight into what types of anchor text you should use, how often and in what context. Make no mistake, if your competitors are ranking highly in search engines, they probably have a decent backlink profile. Their anchor text ratios might not be a ready-made winning formula – but you can use them as a starting point to inform your future link building work.

We would recommend taking the average anchor text distribution of each competitor and applying this ratio to your website.

3. Don’t Over Do It

Do you remember when we used the word “swamping” earlier? This was in reference to swamping page content with exact-match keywords or swamping your link profile with exact-match anchors. If you’re anchoring words up to links in every other sentence – you run the risk of over-optimizing – a big no-no to the Penguin.

It’s important to note that Google doesn’t want you to do any link building. They instead want link building to occur naturally from your exciting and engaging page content.

The trick is to be inconspicuous with your strategy. Any anchor text included in your page content must not feel like a tactical SEO decision. Look at your competitors with high search rankings to learn the rhythm and flow of a successful anchor text strategy.

4. Avoid Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing in your anchor text profile is not a good look, especially if you’re trying to stay under the radar from Google’s algorithm. You should only be using target keywords in anchor texts when it is absolutely necessary. The use of a target keyword in anchor text should almost feel instinctive, rather than part of a scheming plan to rank higher.

Partial matching anchor texts are typically a safer way to approach target keywords than going straight for exact matching anchor texts. A top tip is to mix your target keyword with other words, which will keep your backlink profile looking genuine.

5. Throw Your Brand into the Mix

In one way or another, you’re going to need to get some target keywords into your backlink profile. You just need to be mindful of how you approach it and keep your distance from the grasp of the mighty Penguin algorithm in the process.

Using branded anchors can assist in breaking up target keywords, as a brand name often stands as a unique phrase that others won’t have any interest in ranking for.

6. Track Your Anchor Texts

Doing research on your competitors’ anchor texts and your own can be a long, arduous process, which is all the more reason why you should be learning to track them as soon as you start.

As you may know, this is very important when building backlinks in general.

Tracking Different Anchors
Recording your anchors and their associated URL is very important in SEO

Although it may be a lot of work at first, we recommend tracking this in Google Sheets or an Excel file to ensure you can always refer back to know what you’re doing.

This is something that can be handled by Reputio, if you require our consultancy to manage your link building and anchor text strategy.

Extra Tip: When Changing an Existing Anchor Text

Perhaps you’re reading this and realizing how little attention you’ve placed on your anchor text strategy till now. Or maybe you’ve gained a new fire of motivation to go back and improve what’s already been done.

Whatever the case may be, you should tread lightly when it comes to modifying existing anchor texts, as this has the chance of back-firing and may signal to Google that you are trying to manipulate the system.

To avoid this possibility, keep the following in mind:

  1. When changing a keyword-rich anchor to a non-optimized anchor, it may help to increase your rankings (if done correctly). This may occur if you go back and decrease the amount of commercial anchor texts. Moreover, if your Exact Match anchors or keyword-rich anchors are above 25%, it may be worth considering un-optimizing them.
  2. Another situation that can prevent problems is deleting an anchor and placing it in a different part of the article. By doing this, Google will see the anchor as fresh, losing an old, but gaining a ‘new.’

Disclaimer: Whatever you choose to do, changing anchor texts later on should only be done in severe, urgent cases. It is best to be avoided if possible.

Going Beyond with Proximity Analysis

If we were to dig a bit deeper into the workings of latent semantic indexing, we can first discuss two concepts that have become quite popular in the SEO community:

Co-occurrence and Co-citation

While the two are sometimes mistaken as the same, there are definite differences between them.

Co-Occurrence

Co-occurrence refers to the frequency and proximity of specific keywords showing up on a site, building a relationship with similar words around them.

Co-Occurrence Around Keyword
The page on the right has related keywords around it signalling that the page is more relevant to "US Presidents"

Looking at the image above, we can see the page on the left contains fewer co-occurring phrases or words that are relevant to the main keyword “US Presidents.” Words like New York and Taxi cabs are not very relevant to anchor text itself – unlike the page to the right.

To a search engine, the page on the right possesses stronger topic focus, and will thus rank higher.

In the sentence below, the highlighted words indicate the co-occurrence around the branded anchor text: “Microsoft”. Each highlighted keyword would help build a stronger relationship around the link due to being in close proximity, thus building greater relevance.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, a multinational technology company

Co-Citation

Co-citation, on the other hand, is when a relationship is established between two different websites, regardless of whether there is a link between them or not. This connection occurs from the mutual link literally passing value onto the two through association, as better visualized below.

Co-Citation Passes Value to Two Pages
The two pages may be unrelated otherwise, but are related via Site A linking to both C and B

Wikipedia does a great job at this. You can see from the citation section below, they often strengthen the validity and authenticity of their content through co-citation.

Wikipedia Co-Citation Relationships
Wikipedia links to many sites in its citations creating co-citation relationship

More Advanced Optimization

The two concepts above are just a few of the ways in which we can better understand what search engines like Google are looking for. But by going deeper and understanding how search engines analyze content, we can do much more to strengthen our SEO game.

Entity Salience

In the context of SEO, entity salience refers to a specific metric that search engines may find as important or relevant to humans.

Entity Salience of A Keyword
Marvel Comics, the brand, has many closely associated phrases and terms

A demo of Google’s NLP application (as seen below) shows how Google algorithms understand text.

Google's Natural Language Processing API
Google's algorithm systematically picks out and scores terms that may be relevant to other keywords

It is very handy in identifying different entities in the text. Those words are then assigned a salience score (from 0 to 1), which then indicates the probability of each ‘entity’ and its importance in the text.

Using these insights can help to improve the words we use (or entities) within both our own website content and the content we publish on other websites in link building campaigns, and ultimately give search engines a clearer idea of how to rank those pages.

Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency (TF-IDF)

Although it may sound very technical, TD-IDF is just another way that a search engine like Google measures the importance of a specific keyword.

It does this by comparing a term’s frequency (hence the name) in a large collection of documents.

TF-IDF Comparing Importance of Words
Keywords are identified by looking at the number of documents in a collection and how many times a word appears in the set

For example, if you were to view a website completely dedicated to SEO, it’d be expected for that site to consist of many pages that revolve around topics like: keyword research, site auditing, Google bots, meta data, anchor texts, link building, etc.

It’d be very random if that SEO-based website contains pages of content about ‘farm animals’. Understanding the TF-IDF of a specific word can help you make smarter decisions on which keywords to use throughout your website.

The overall goal of TF-IDF is to statistically measure how important a word is in a collection of documents” (A.J. Ghergich)

Conclusion

Anchor text selection is a complex beast. For many SEO professionals, it’s sometimes hard to know whether you are doing more harm than good to a backlink profile. With the knowledge from this article under your belt, we hope you will have more confidence in selecting anchor texts going forward.

The search ranking glory days are ahead of you.

If you require anchor text selection advice specific to your website, please contact us to schedule a free consultation with the Reputio team.

Adam Crookes

Adam Crookes is a Blog Content Writer at Reputio. He's deeply passionate about studying the constantly-evolving best practices of SEO. Adam is based in England and would love to chat if you're ever visiting from across the pond!

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