News & Events
Anchor Text Best Practices for Backlinks (Using Branded, Exact Match, Generic, Etc)
- October 26, 2017
- Posted by: Jeff Bowdoin
- Category: Search Engine Optimization
When talking about anchor text, we are concerned about two areas of SEO – Anchor Text for Internal linking and Anchor Text for Backlinks. Both can get you into trouble if you over optimize. But, using anchor text wisely can give your SEO campaigns much-needed power in relevancy.
That’s the key word here – to use your anchor text wisely.
How important is anchor text for Backlinks?
Anchor text is very important when it comes to your backlinks. It can add relevancy to your pages by using keywords and keyword phrases and variations.
In fact, early on, Google had a pretty heavy reliance on anchor text, as shown in Google’s 2008 paper called “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”
2.2 Anchor Text
The text of links is treated in a special way in our search engine. Most search engines associate the text of a link with the page that the link is on. In addition, we associate it with the page the link points to. This has several advantages. First, anchors often provide more accurate descriptions of web pages than the pages themselves. Second, anchors may exist for documents which cannot be indexed by a text-based search engine, such as images, programs, and databases. This makes it possible to return web pages which have not actually been crawled. Note that pages that have not been crawled can cause problems, since they are never checked for validity before being returned to the user. In this case, the search engine can even return a page that never actually existed, but had hyperlinks pointing to it. However, it is possible to sort the results, so that this particular problem rarely happens.
This idea of propagating anchor text to the page it refers to was implemented in the World Wide Web Worm [McBryan 94] especially because it helps search non-text information, and expands the search coverage with fewer downloaded documents. We use anchor propagation mostly because anchor text can help provide better quality results. Using anchor text efficiently is technically difficult because of the large amounts of data which must be processed. In our current crawl of 24 million pages, we had over 259 million anchors which we indexed.
But anchor text for backlinks in 2017 and beyond is more important in the sense of sculpting your anchor text distribution to appear more natural.
This is what I was talking about using your anchor text wisely. You can definitely throw some keywords in there, but you mostly want to keep it looking natural. You don’t want any red flags to appear to Google to tell them “Hey I’m building links over here, and by the way, I am manually adding these links”
If you have a completely natural link profile such as links earned from outreach and editorial links (i.e. links you don’t control), then you don’t need to worry about anchor text at all. Google will be able to tell that the anchor text and your link profile is completely natural.
However, if you are actively building links alongside the naturally earned links, you want to make sure all your anchor text distribution looks natural.
What is a backlink profile?
When analyzing a backlink profile, you would typically consider many aspects to gauge the overall health of your link profile. Here are a few of the things an SEO may look at analyzing their link profile:
- Total number of backlinks
- Total Number of unique, or referring domains
- Total number of backlinks
- Link Quality (manual checks, trust flow, trust ratio, etc)
- Anchor text and variation – (i.e keyword rich, branded, etc.)
- Link velocity and fresh/incoming links
- And more
One of my favorite SEO tools, Serped has a great backlink profile tool, among other tools.
In 2017 and beyond, it is getting more and more important to have a natural looking link profile. With Google’s Penguin now running in real time, it is even more important to keep an eye on your backlinks. Having a natural link profile requires many things to fall into place and your anchor text distribution plays a major role in that equation.
There are many SEO tools out there that can give you a breakdown of your anchor text from your backlinks. The following example is from majestic (another great tool):
How keyword rich anchor text increases relevancy (but be careful)
So why is anchor text important for backlinks? One word. Relevancy.
Let’s say you have an e-commerce store that sells 3D printers. Let’s say you specialize in portable 3D printers and you become an authority in your niche on portable 3D printers. Over time, you get a lot of backlinks from people with the anchor text: Portable 3D Printers.
Google sees many other trustworthy websites in the same niche that are linking to your site with the anchor text of “portable 3D printers.” Naturally, Google is going to think that either you are really relevant for that keyword, or it will decide it looks unnatural. If it was truly natural, you don’t need to worry about it, since Google should be able to tell the difference.
The history of backlinks and anchor text
The Google Bomb
Many SEO had experienced a lot of success using this popular tactic. It was so powerful that there were even viral “Google bombs.” A Google bomb is where a lot of webmasters link out to a webpage with a particular anchor text, in hopes that it would rank for that keyword.
For example, in 2006 there were many funny Google bombs taking place. One famous Google bomb was targeted towards George W Bush for the term “miserable failure.” What happened was, tons of sites linked to George W. Bush’s whitehouse.gov biography page with the anchor text: “miserable failure.”
Sure enough, his page ranked #1 on Google. Pretty great right?
There are many more examples, but the George bush google bomb is probably the most famous. Google soon put a stop to the Google bombs in 2007 by adjusting their algorithm to prevent this phenomenon.
Google over optimization penalty
It was the pre-2012 era in SEO that a keyword heavy optimized anchor text distribution worked amazingly. And by the way, pre-2012 in the SEO world is like back in the agricultural revolution in our human history (10,000 years ago). A lot of paradigm shifts happen in 5+ years in the SEO world.
Before 2012 an anchor text profile that had a lot of exact match keywords was preferable (i.e, if you are trying to rank for “iPhone cases” and the exact match anchor for that keyword, is “iPhone cases”).
However, in 2012 Google Launches the “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results. This changed the way good SEO was done forever.
Naturally, lots of articles came out warning of the “Google over optimization penalty.” People were starting to see their site’s rankings being affected by having too many keywords in their backlink profile.
What happens in SEO, is if there is some technique that is powerful enough to manipulate the search engine rankings, word will spread. Then the “technique” will probably become a widespread practice in the SEO world. In which case, Google needs to address in their algorithm – a never-ending cat and mouse game.
This was the case with the keyword rich anchor text profiles.
What happens though, is Google catches on and tries to prevent the manipulation of the rankings by SEOs. They added an “over optimization” aspect into their search algorithm to prevent people from abusing this powerful force in achieving rankings for particular keywords.
How keyword rich anchor text can potentially look unnatural
This over optimization penalty makes sense though, right?
Think about it. Most people are going to link to your website with your exact URL, your brand name and a wide variation of phrases, which may or may not include your keywords. So on a natural backlink profile, the exact match anchor text may comprise a very small percentage of your overall anchor text distribution.
Where many SEOs go wrong is they are stuck in 2008. I am still surprised to see many people over optimize their backlink profile to death. And death is a correct description for this. It can absolutely kill your SEO efforts if you go crazy with it.
They tend to overdo it and they get greedy with their keyword rich anchors. They have a site with 100 links and half of those links are “carpet cleaning [city]” or whatever they are trying to rank for. This looks totally unnatural to a trained SEO, so why wouldn’t it look unnatural to Google’s algorithm?
Keywords should be like your salt intake. You just sprinkle some on your food, don’t pour half the bottle. It’s not going to taste very good for the Google algorithm or your long-term business strategy.
Anchor text optimization for your Backlink Profile
Types of Anchor Text
- Exact match anchor text
- Partial Match anchor text
- Broad Match anchor text
- LSI anchor text
- Long anchor text
- Page title anchor text
- Branded anchor text
- Brand + Keyword anchor text
- Naked branded (URLs)
- Other (different than your target keywords)
- Generic anchor text (non-descriptive)
- Naked anchor text (URLs)
- Image anchor text
- Empty alt text with linking image
- Co-Occurrence (i.e surrounding text)
- Foreign language anchor text (usually not good)
You’ll notice that there are many types of anchor text. There will be certain distributions of a combination of these that appear natural to the google search engine.
If you are to go outside of these bounds, your site may appear to be involved in manipulative link practices and Google will adjust rankings accordingly.
This is where anchor text becomes very important for your overall backlink strategy. You need to keep it natural.
Don’t overuse keywords in your anchor text (backlink profile)
When you add too many exact match keywords and keyword stuffed anchor text, it can actually harm you.
In economics, there is a phenomenon known as diminishing returns. This concept applies to the usage of keywords in your anchor text. There is diminishing returns when using keywords.
At first, adding keywords may begin to help your SEO performance. But as soon as you pass a certain threshold, it stops adding as much benefit. Then you push past another threshold and it will likely trigger something in the algorithm that views your site as having unnatural links.
Focus on a natural link profile first
Rather than focusing on optimizing for keywords, you should be focusing firstly on creating a natural link profile. Ideally, it will be truly natural, but at the very least you should make it appear natural. This would include making sure your link profile has plenty of branded anchor text, plus naked links, variations of anchor text, etc.
You can essentially pick a top performing site in your niche or a competitors site and reverse engineer their link profile. Chances are, they will have a natural looking anchor text distribution that you can copy. If not, pick another random site that has a very natural anchor text profile, and mimic theirs.
Then focus on sprinkling some keywords in your backlink anchor text distribution
You still want to optimize your backlink profile and this includes honing in on your keyword distribution. Just don’t go crazy with it.
Remember, the key is to maintain a natural looking profile. This would mean you are keeping exact match keyword anchor text to a minimum, and also throwing in variations of keywords, etc.
If you are building links, and you build them in a way that creates a natural link profile, you should steer clear of any potential issues with Google.
Google’s new real-time penguin, baked into the main algorithm essentially allows the cream to rise to the top, rather than penalizing sites. Whereas before, you would get penalized.
And guess what, if your anchor text in your link profile looks unnatural, other sites can rise to the top, leaving you in the dust.