Anchor text and SEO

By Leon Tranter | SEO

Oct 11
anchor text seo

If you are serious about learning SEO (and if you want to succeed with blogging, you should be), you have to learn about anchor text. It is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood and misused topics in search engine optimization.

In this article I’m going to explain what anchor text is, what the different types are, and how to use them. Including for both internal and external links (where you have control over them). And some strategies for picking your anchor text proportions (I’ll explain what that is too). So let’s get started!

What is anchor text?

Anchor text is simply the text (the actual words and numbers) that are present in a link. So rather than the target URL of the link (i.e. where the link is pointing to), anchor text is the actual word or words of the link. Which can be anything! It might be related to the target URL, or not at all.

Although more unusual, a link can also be present on an image. In which case, the anchor text of the image link is considered to be the alt tag on the image (another reason to be careful with your alt tags, they are effectively acting as anchor text).

In terms of the underlying HTML, it is the characters that appear between the opening <a> (anchor, hence the name anchor text) tag and the closing </a> tag. This image from Moz explains it pretty well:

from Moz (https://moz.com)

How is anchor text used?

Anchor text is used in two ways.

Anchor text is used by humans

For human readers, it is the words they see on the link. This can obviously affect their decision to click the link or not! Would you be more likely to click on a link that said “CLICK HERE NOW”? Or one that said “interesting SEO article from the Moz blog”? Or how about one that said http://somedodgywebsite.com/iwillstealyourcreditcarddetails ?

Anchor text is also important for search engines

Search engines use anchor text also. When an indexer from Google or Bing finds a link, it pays careful attention to the anchor text. It considers it to be an important signal about the meaning and purpose of the target link, from the point of view of the link poster.

For example, say Google finds a link on a website to some article about dog training. It would consider a link like this:

This is an interesting article on dog training.

To be a stronger vote for the article’s authority on dog training to this:

I found a dog training article, click here.

The first link is obviously trying to emphasize and draw attention to the fact that it includes information on dog training.

What different types of anchor text are there?

There are several different types of anchor text. I’ll explain all the types here.

Exact match

This is an anchor text phrase that is a keyword phrase for the target article. For example, if an article on dog training tips had an anchor text phrase of “dog training tips”, it is considered to be exact match.

Partial match

This is an anchor text phrase that is related to a keyword phrase for the target article. For example, if a link to an article on dog training tips was “pet training” or “dog obedience tips”, they would be considered to be partial match.

These “exact match” and “partial match” concepts are also used when describing domains (e.g. dogtrainingtips.com is an exact match domain or EMD, pettraining.com is a partial match domain or PMD).

Branded

If you have a dog training website called Dog Town, then if someone links to your article on dog training tips with the anchor text “dog town”, that is considered to be branded anchor text.

Generic

If the anchor text of a link has nothing to do with any keywords or brands, but is just general words like “click here”, “read more”, or “more information”, it is considered to be generic.

Naked

If the anchor text of a URL is simply the URL itself (or something close to it), that is called naked anchor text. So if the text for a link to www.example.com/dogtraining was http://www.example.com/dogtraining, then that’s a naked link.

Images

If a link is part of an image, then the anchor text is officially considered to be “image”, but in reality the alt tag (actually the alt attribute, the text included between quotes in the alt=”” attribute for an image tag) is used for the anchor text. In which case it would then become one of the other types described above.

Which types of anchor text should you use?

So you might be wondering what kind of anchor text to use in links. As always in SEO, the answer is not that simple.

Firstly, if you’re linking to other people’s websites, use whatever damn anchor text you want! If you really want people to click it, i.e. it is an affiliate link or something, then put whatever anchor text you think will be most meaningful and inviting to click.

The only other consideration would be if you want to do something really nasty like negative SEO or Google Bombing. I don’t talk much about those black hat techniques on this blog. If you want to read about them, you can search yourself and read about them.

Now for links to your own websites, anchor text is very important. Ideally the anchor text will be inviting for people to click on (you do want more traffic, right? right!). And you want it to send clear messages about your content to search engine crawlers.

You might be thinking “I want all my links to be exact match! That will be more inviting for people interested in my content to click on, and it will help Google to understand what my content is about, which will help it rank for those keywords!”.

And now we’re back to the whole “it’s more complex than that” thing in SEO (are we seeing a pattern here?). You don’t actually want that. To explain why, let’s do a quick history lesson.

A bit of history about exact match anchor text distribution

Back in the glory days of SEO in the early 2000s, sneaky webmasters were having a field day manipulating Google and making crazy money by ranking affiliate money pages at the top of high volume SERPs.

The Penguin update in 2011 hurt a lot of these sites, especially those relying on shoddy link farms and content spammers. But people were still doing well from over-optimising anchor text. Basically they would ensure their money pages had thousands of links with exact match anchor text.

So your dog training tips website (which was usually a review of a Clickbank affiliate product) would engineer piles of backlinks that all said “dog training tips” in the anchor text.

Google unleashes the Penguin

So in 2012, Google released a major algorithm update called Penguin, which caused huge shock-waves around the web. It did a number of things, but one of the main changes in it was heavy penalties for over-optimization of anchor text distribution.

Google figured (and they were right) that naturally acquired backlinks would have a fairly random assortment of anchor text distributions. The dog training tips website would have some links with anchor text “dog training tips”, some that said “dog tips”, some that said “dog obedience tips”, some that just said “click here” or your domain brand, a few random naked ones by some people who didn’t know how to make links properly, and so no.

If Google didn’t see this natural distribution, if they say 5000 links and 4990 of them all said “dog obedience tips”, they would see that not as a vote for your website, but as a massive vote against it, because you had clearly rigged those backlinks. (In case you’re wondering, “negative SEO” is the practice of engineering suspicious links like this to your competitors, to drive them down rather than up in the search rankings – nasty huh?).

So all those sites that were making thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per day got dumped from first page to tenth page, and all those black hat SEOs were suddenly broke and out of a job. And now we permanently live in a post-Penguin world. So you have to be careful!

How to decide your anchor text proportions

You obviously want a diverse spread of backlink anchor text. And if you are acquiring links naturally, you will get that. And you won’t have to do much about it.

Now if you are creating links yourself on blog comments, web 2.0s, and so on, you generally want to avoid exact match or even partial match anchor text. Those links are usually nofollow anyway so don’t count for much, but exact match web 2.0 links look pretty bad in Google’s eyes.

So you could use branded and generic anchor text there. Naked is a pretty poor option because it sends no real signals to Google either way and they look bad to humans and will probably never get clicked on.

These branded and generic anchor text links are often called “pillow links”, and the building of these low quality non-keyword links is called “link pillowing” (I don’t know how it got that name – if you do, let me know in the comments!).

Look at your competition

However, a smarter option is to analyse the backlink anchor text distributions of your competitors, i.e. the top ranking pages of the SERPs for your keywords. If they all have a text distribution of say 70% exact 20% partial 10% branded, then that distribution is obviously one that Google is happy with, so you should try and get that distribution too.

If you are over-extended on one of them, try and build some do-follow and no-follow backlinks with anchor text that will push your distribution closer to that of the top-rating pages. You should probably aim for a do-follow / no-follow mix that matches that distribution too.

Internal anchor link text

We’ve talked a lot about external links, what about internal links? Glad you asked! This isn’t as important as external links (since Google knows you control them completely). But they are still important.

Firstly, consider your human readers. You probably want them clicking your links, either to get them to a landing page / squeeze page / money page, or to simple increase page views per visitor and time on site. Which are metrics that Google looks at and considers when ranking your site.

Google also considers the anchor text in internal links to be votes for the meaning of those sites too. So if you are doing page siloing (which you probably should be), then you want to be linking from your lower ranked to your higher rank pages with anchor text that is either exact or partial match for the keywords of those top silo pages.

Link Siloing is another SEO topic for another day – but basically it means dividing your website into categories, and building internal links within the pages on your site so that pages within a silo link up to the top or authoritative pages in that particular silo (rather than just random internal links everywhere).

Summary

So I hope you found this article about anchor text useful. As you can see, it is a really interesting, important and overlooked topic! Do you still have any questions about anchor text and SEO? Or was there something I left out? Let me know in the comments!