Anchor Text Isn’t Dead, But It’s On A Feeding Tube

anchor text isn't dead but it's on a feeding tube

SEO Meme

Haven’t you heard? SEO is dead, and so is anchor text! Regular online marketing panic memes aside, these statements couldn’t be more wrong on the facts: SEO is more alive than ever. And anchor text isn’t dead… but it’s definitely on a feeding tube.

Let’s go back to the reason that all these Chickens Little’s started alerting us that the sky is falling: Back in April of 2012 Google released an update to their algorithm, commonly known as “Penguin.” Penguin was originally labeled as an “over-optimization” penalty, but was later known to negatively impact websites with poor anchor text diversity. By poor “diversity,” I mean using the same link text, over and over again, in many links pointing back to your site. Such “unnatural” practices were a strong indicator to the powers that be (a.k.a., Google), that rankings were being fabricated by using the same keyword in the text of a link from an external website incessantly.

Here’s what happened: Webmasters and SEOs alike found that linking to a website using their target keyword as the anchor text would indicate to Google what the website was about, and directly affect rankings for that phrase. Google got smart, and worked into their algorithm a principle that a disproportionate amount of exact-match anchor text links pointing to a website wasn’t natural and should be penalized, or at least not rewarded. Hence, the Penguin update and the subsequent Doomsday predictions for the SEO industry.

Exact Match Anchor Text Example

How Many Exact Match Links are too Many?

While other marketers are breathing into paper bags, let’s get specific about working around this Penguin problem:

I suspect that a specific ratio of exact-match to more natural link text would ring a bell at Google and tank your rankings – if you had any. I’ve seen some information published on what the ratio might be, but having an exact number isn’t the point. The point is that moving forward you’ll be able to implement the strategies listed below to build a natural looking link portfolio and not waste time doing the math.

Now, as natural as Google is encouraging people to be when they link from a blog post or a web page, you should still take care when writing the text for a link. I want to offer up a few ways that you can diversify your anchor text while staying as natural as possible, which will allow you to keep your anchor text off life-support and avoid being penalized.

  1. Plain URLs: Placing the URL as your anchor text is as natural as it comes: www.site.com, site.com, http://www.site.com, http://site.com.
  2. Branded: Using your brand name as the text for a link can be quite natural as well: Brand, Brand.com.
  3. Unassuming anchor text: Sometimes you don’t want to include a keyword at all: click here, here, website, visit our website.
  4. Guilty by association: This is a good kind of guilt. Place your keyword-phrase near a link to your website, like so: “We are the best widget company around. For more information visit www.site.com.”
  5. Long-tail keyword phrases: The same long-tail anchor text should be used sparingly – “<a href=”http://www.site.com/blog”>Visit our blog for useful widget tips</a>”.

You can mix and match the strategies above to get the best results for your individual situation.

For example: If you have been doing SEO, or have used an SEO firm prior to April 2012, and your site lost traffic around that time, I recommend using strategies 1, 3 and 4 to effectively offset a potentially toxic percentage of exact-match anchor text in your link portfolio (all the links pointing back to your site, including natural links and those built through SEO efforts). At any rate, in nearly every situation I recommend evaluating your specific back-link profile to identify what can be included in your link strategy moving forward.

Next, we’ll go over ways to find out what anchor text is already pointing back to your site through existing links.

Evaluating Your Link Portfolio

If you don’t have any idea what links are currently pointing to your website and what anchor text they contain, you’ll want to do a little research your link portfolio. Evaluating a link portfolio can be time consuming and—if you don’t know what you are looking for—can be quite fruitless. Here are a number of resources that allow you to evaluate your existing link portfolio and some tips on which resource can provide you with what data.

Google Webmaster Tools

Once you have claimed your website, Google provides the functionality to download your links by date found (see below). Google however, does not provide the anchor text that is contained within your links.

Google Webmaster Tools Link Analysis

Open Site Explorer

In order to get the access to your full link portfolio, you’ll need to pay for a membership, but the information  including top pages, linking domains, anchor text, link metrics, and other info that you get on yours and your competition’s link portfolio can be invaluable.

Open Site Explorer - Anchor Text

Download CSV

Ahrefs

You can only run one free report per IP address a day here – so if you aren’t looking to purchase a membership you can still get some good valuable information. Although, for the average user, it may be too much information. You’ll need to register and sign in to view the majority of information about your links.

ahrefs - anchors

Anchor text links

Majestic SEO

Majestic provides similar data to other services listed above, and also requires purchase of membership to access the anchor text data feature. I haven’t used Majestic a lot, but many SEOs swear by it.

Majestic - Anchor Text

After using one or all of the above mentioned tools and spending some time working through spreadsheets of links (I told you it would be time consuming), you should be able to get a feel for what your anchor text profile looks like and some statistics to help you identify any imbalances.

Repairing large amounts of unnatural link text can be a lot of work. But implementing a new strategy that limits or—better yet—eliminates using exact match keywords as anchor text will put you on the path to successful rankings.

Take the High Road

SEOs and unassuming do-it-yourselfers were over-optimizing anchor text and Google got tired of it, so they flipped the search results like a game of Boggle, and it’s your job to fix it. If you do it right and incorporate the long-term strategies as explained above, you’ll avoid future penalties and pat yourself on the back for your increased traffic while others are still wondering what happened to their rankings.

What anchor text strategies have you used that worked well after Penguin? What creative ideas have you used to diversify anchor text? Leave a comment below!

Post by Tyler Brown, SEO Manager at SEO.com.

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15 Comments

  1. Larry T. says

    This information is spot on with how to handle googles ever changing updates. Thanks for giving us an explanation of these tools for future reference. You are right, as long as we keep using the long-tail approach we should be able to improve our sites and make them more compliant with these updates. Great post! 

  2. Dustin Williams says

    I couldn’t agree more with you on the value of anchor text links. SEO isn’t dead and will never die. It just evolves. You give five great suggestions for adding variety to anchor text. If you take your suggestions and add co-citations you will have a recipe for a strong linking strategy. If you are not familiar with co-citation, it is basically where a brand is mentioned in the same context as targeted keywords. For example, if the content mentioned something about an SEO company, you would also include a reference to SEO.com to get the co-citation. 
    If you suspect that your website is being penalized for over-optimization because your link portfolio contains large percent of keyword anchor text links, I suggest using two tools to evaluate your links. Open Site Explorer and Link Detective. You will need to export a .CSV report on your inbound links from Open Site Explorer and then import it into Link Detective to get a report on the anchor text diversity of your links. You can then determine what you need to do to correct the problems and remove the over-optimization penalty.

    • Tyler Brown says

      Great points Dustin. The co-citation theory was briefly touched on in strategy #4, but could have been much more descriptive, and really, could warrant a separate blog post alone (as you know).  I’ve never used Link Detective, but I’ll have to try them out soon.

      Thanks for the input!

  3. Peter A. Lorenzen says

    Once the “too many anchor text links”-damage is done a website is hard to put back on track. That is why a always keep records of my achortexts in Excel. I have keept a 1:1:1:1:1 ratio between the five types of links you mention with great succes…

  4. Ryan Bradley says

    Really elaborate post, great job.  I still think EMD’s are in no mans land on this issue.  Because if their brand and website are target keywords, even their branded terms will be keyword rich.  So their link profile won’t be as diverse then a regular branded name for a domain.

    • Tyler Brown says

      Thanks for the comment Ryan. I have speculated that Google takes a keyword heavy brand name into account and won’t penalize your website for having a keyword heavy portfolio of links for your brand name. That said, it is probably a good idea to use anchor text as the domain name, rather than using your brand name (if that makes sense).

      I would be curious to hear if anyone has additional experience with EMD’s and brand names that are also target keywords, and if this plays in positively or negatively to your link portfolio and anchor text ratios.

  5. Bill Zientek says

    This is a good summary of the Penguin update and what happened last April.  What are your thoughts on the Disavow tool?  I haven’t tried it, but I’ve heard mixed reviews.  Regarding anchor text link ratios, the general consensus seems to be 20/80, as in roughly 20% of total links using keyword anchor text, and the other 80% being split among other types (URLs, brands, long tail, etc.)  Obviously there is no exact number, but this is probably a “safe” ratio.

  6. SEO Nick says

    Hey Tyler, I think your feeding tube analogy is pretty spot on.. and in terms of the ratio I have found something similar in my over optimization testing that there definitely seems to be a threshold at work, I talk a bit about it in my post on recovering from over-optimization over on SEOmoz, but the data I used came from this great study done by the guys at MicrositeMasters; http://www.micrositemasters.com/blog/penguin-analysis-seo-isnt-dead-but-you-need-to-act-smarter-and-5-easy-ways-to-do-so/

  7. Simon Broskov says

    Did anyone mention Google update? This article is just so spot on and I think the updates are a clear sign of that exact anchor texts will become less important in the future and surely have to make them more varied.
    I think many already learned that lesson, from declining rankings.

    • Tyler Brown says

      Absolutely. The key is to just be natural, and you won’t have to worry about future updates.

      Thanks for your input Simon.

  8. Bill Zientek says

    This is a good summary of the Penguin update and what happened last April. What are your thoughts on the Disavow tool? I haven’t tried it, but I’ve heard mixed reviews. Regarding anchor text link ratios, the general consensus seems to be 20/80, as in roughly 20% of total links using keyword anchor text, and the other 80% being split among other types (URLs, brands, long tail, etc.) Obviously there is no exact number, but this is probably a “safe” ratio.

  9. Jo says

    Definitely agree that the main thing is just to be natural. I think you can easily spend hours planning out ratios of exact, urls, longtails etc when in reality, just build naturally and keep the above article in mind. It’s a case of changing behaviours for seo’s who have trained themselves to build links in a certain way. Its totally understandable and hard to get out of that mindset, especially when you have a client who is asking for results.

  10. Jeff says

    I’ve found that I’ve been able to rank first page with zero exact match anchor text. My most recent case has gotten to page 1 in under 2 weeks, granted for a fairly long-tail keyword. I’ve only built 5 or 6 links and just added an exact match anchor to see if it makes a difference.

  11. Ravi Shah says

    I absolutely agree with you that natural references give better result in ranking. I have analyzed one of the website which have top ranking in SERP for tech related keyword and I have found that all inbound links coming from different domain with different keywords. I have also found that it has many backlinks coming with plain URL. Summary of my analysis is that if you want to get top position in SERP’s or fight with Panda and Penguin updates then you should have to maintain or define ratio of the inbound links and don’t try to generate links on same or exact keyword.

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