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.
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.
- 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.
- Branded: Using your brand name as the text for a link can be quite natural as well: Brand, Brand.com.
- Unassuming anchor text: Sometimes you don’t want to include a keyword at all: click here, here, website, visit our website.
- 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.”
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.