You probably know that link building is an important part of SEO, or helping you climb to the first page of search engines for your desired keywords.
But what you may not know is that the words you choose to link out and into your website are important as well – very important!
Google’s algorithms pay more attention to these words, or anchor text, than you may know. And you can’t game the system anymore just by using keyword-laden anchors. Google wised up and now calculates not just which words you choose to link but how often you use them, as well as the text around them. So the trick is to find the gray area – optimize – not don’t over-optimize. This will allow you to fine-tune your SEO and watch rankings climb. Break the rules, and the Google gods can penalize your site.
Let’s start with what is anchor text and why does it matter? An anchor is the words you click to move from one internet destination to another; it “anchors” two different locations on the internet together.
And beyond SEO, the words you choose for anchors are important because they promise what’s on the other side of the link so it’s important that it be very relevant and not misleading. It lets Google’s algorithms know what your topics are and helps it make sure you’re not being spammy.
Let’s also distinguish between no-follow and follow links since that’s relevant for SEO.
On the HTML side, the only difference is that a no follow link contains an extra piece of code. In the eyes of the Google algorithms, however, that tiny piece of code makes an enormous difference.
Nofollow: Tells Google NOT to take the backlink into account when determining SEO value for either page. Since March of last year, Google is starting to take nofollow links as a hint in determining a website’s position in SERP.
Sponsored: Tells Google that this link was obtained through some agreements between you and a publisher.
UGC (User Generated Content): Tells Google that the link (and the whole content) was placed on this page by users.
Follow: Tell’s Google to give credit to the page you’re linking to and take it into account when scanning your links.
Of course, when talking about search engine optimization and Google algorithms, “simple” isn’t in the vocab. In fact, there are at least 10 different types of anchor text.
A generic anchor doesn’t include any text referencing a keyword but it can be pretty powerful because it usually includes a call to action or draws attention to the link like “click here”, “read more”, “more info”, etc.
Branded anchors include your brand name, and they are great for building recognition and will keep you from getting flagged for spam. Plus, they are a safe bet to avoid getting flagged for spam.
But if you use an exact match domain (EMD) that includes a target keyword, it gets a little more complicated. You get a little leeway from Google before earning a penalty, but if you take it too far with the goal of over-optimizing, Google could catch you.
If you have public figures associated with your brand Google might also identify any links with their name as a branded anchor as well.
Exact match anchor text includes the precise keyword the page you are linking to is targeting. While it’s important to have some exact match anchors, Google also pays close attention to these links and could penalize you for spam if you have too many.
Partial match anchors include your keyword phrase along with other generic, random, or stop words.
Related anchor words link to a page using a variation of the target keyword. They are like partial match keywords, but related anchors don’t include the precise keyword phrase. You will want to build some related anchors to help Google’s crawlers better understand what your links are all about. Plus, they keep your link profile diverse so Google is less likely to hit you for spammy links.
Some link analysis tools will toss random and generic anchors in the same category. However, random anchor words might also include phrases that aren’t quite as generic as “click here”, but they aren’t really related to the target keyword either.
Naked anchor text is just a URL pasted into the copy from the browser bar – but it is clickable! You might see links like this if someone adds references at the bottom of their article and includes your link as a source. They aren’t pretty, but Google likes naked anchors because they are far less likely to imply someone is trying to use spammy practices to rank for a keyword.
Brand + keyword anchor words include your brand name (or branded phrase) and a keyword. They can help you optimize for the keyword without looking spammy to Google AND build brand recognition at the same time.
Maybe you have heard that adding ALT text to your image description is important? Well, your ALT text for images is what Google reads as the image’s anchor (when said image is part of a link). Image anchors are healthy because they diversify your anchor text profile. Plus, they can improve your SEO for Google images. You want to write a descriptive ALT text for the image link.
Long-tail anchors are similar to partial anchors, but they contain more words. These give you a chance to include your keyword along with some related, descriptive, generic, or branded keywords. While you don’t necessarily want to write long-tail anchors all the time, they can be useful for SEO.
Today, using nothing but exact match anchors is a well-known taboo in the SEO community.
Marketers should instead embrace randomness. Google still pays close attention to anchor words and uses them to judge the content of your site, but if you are trying to manipulate the algorithm with anchors, you should expect Google to catch on.
Now, Google understands that some domain names contain keywords. Those are called exact match domains (EMDs). In up to 70% of cases, Google will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the anchor is branded rather than an exact match.
Keep in mind that Google deploys new algorithms and updates existing algos all the time. One day, you could wake up and Google could have updated to detect the difference between branded and exact match anchor text for EMDs. You just never know.
It is always best to keep your anchors relevant, avoid over-optimizing, and create a positive experience for Google users above all else.
Google cares about which sites you link to. If you link to a site that spreads false information, promotes hate, or engages in spammy practices, Google can penalize you. Even if a site has good intentions, the link can still end up hurting your ranking.
Removing hate-promoting sites from the equation, checking a site’s Alexa ranking and only linking to sites with a score of 100k or less is a smart practice.
Now, Google also understands that sometimes you must link to “bad” sites as a reference. Maybe they are the only source or you need to debunk the information. In that case, you can use a nofollow link to tell Google “I don’t endorse this site and I don’t want it counted against my SEO.”
Relevancy is key. While too many exact match anchors can certainly count against you, you also want your anchors to relate to the topic on the other side of the link.
Using exact match anchors for internal links is a big no-no. Google understands you might not have control over what other sites do, but it DOES know you can control your own internal links. If you use exact match anchors for internal links, Google will assume you are trying to manipulate the system and penalize you. Instead, use related anchors, long-tail anchors, or generic anchors for internal links.
Randomness is good when it comes to anchor text. You generally want to strive for:
30% to 40% branded anchors
30% to 40% partial match anchors
20% to 40% generic, related, naked, random, exact match, and other anchors
Google’s recent BERT update taught us that the search engine is tweaking its strategy in favor of natural human language and the surrounding context.
When you read something online, you don’t ONLY look at the anchor text to decide whether you will click the link. You also read the surrounding sentences and paragraphs to understand what is on the other side of the hyperlink, right?
We should assume Google is doing that too. Most marketers don’t choose an entire sentence as their anchor. However, it might be worthwhile to consider that the Google bots will scan the words in the entire sentence as it scans our anchor text.
On that note, you may also want to avoid using the same anchor words throughout an entire body of text – even if you are linking to different sites each time. Google may still consider this over-optimization and penalize you.
Image ALT tags are critical for a few reasons. They help visually impaired readers understand what an image is about, tell the Google bots what an image is about and function as anchor text. Image ALT tags should be highly descriptive and sound like a natural sentence. It used to be common practice to keyword stuff ALT tags, but Google quickly caught on, so keep your keywords to a minimum here. Choose one main keyword and incorporate it into a descriptive sentence about the specific image.
Some marketers have written off guest blogging as part of an anchor and link building strategy. As usual, people were using their guest blogging bios to keyword stuff anchors and backlinks. While you certainly shouldn’t do that, you CAN still use guest blogging from highly relevant and authoritative websites to improve your anchors and overall SEO. Limit yourself to authoritative sites that relate to your niche. Google will surely notice if you are publishing on content farms it has already flagged for spam a dozen times.
Anchor text is an important factor in your website’s SEO health. In the eyes of Google, anchor words help it learn which sites are running spam operations and which are legit. Anchor words also tell your readers where they can find more information and what is on the other side of your links.
When developing a link building strategy, anchors can’t be an afterthought. Spot can help make sure they are front and center as part of your SEO strategy!