Last updated: November 22nd, 2014
As any great SEO specialist knows, effectively utilizing anchor text is an important part of getting search engines to recognize relevancy of target pages and highly rank pages in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). However, in recent years many search engines including the reigning king of the market, Google, have implemented penalties to those who over utilize anchor text as a manipulative tool to get to the top. So what is anchor text and how do you use it properly? Read on to find out.
What is Anchor Text?
For those who are unfamiliar, anchor text is an important part of web design that you likely run into every day. Basically, anchor text is the blue underlined text you find that is clicked to direct you to another web page. For example, if I link to Wikipedia’s Article on Anchor Text, then “Wikipedia’s Article on Anchor Text” is the anchor text in this example. In HTML the anchor text would be the bolded section of this: www.example.com”>My Example Website
Thus, anchor text is not the link URL itself, but rather the text that typically explains what is being linked to by the writer. For search engines, anchor text is valuable, because it helps search engines learn what the page being linked to is about and whether or not it is relevant to a topic it claims to be about. Though search engines are often quite intelligent about determining the contents of a page, it sometimes may use anchor text from other pages on the Web to help determine if it is accurate assuming humans (for the most part) accurately describe a page in question when linking to it, as with the Wikipedia example above. However, this isn’t always the case, and can cause search engines to make mistakes.
For example, if I used my prior Wikipedia example, using anchor text that linked to say “pictures of cats,” search engines would assume that the link in question is perhaps more relevant to pictures of cats than anchor text. When done enough this can make your site or web page high relevant to certain keywords. This was once seen in practice when political pranksters managed to link the term “miserable failure” to the official White House Biography of then President George W. Bush enough times to make it the top search result for “miserable failure” in Google.
However, Google’s algorithm has evolved greatly since those days, and now sites can actually punished for abusing anchor text excessively to their benefit. Likewise, inaccurately describing a page can now lead to ranking punishment by search engines. Because of this, new precautions need to be taken by potential anchor text users.
Balancing Anchor Text Usage
Though it’s unclear exactly when, most search engines over time have now punished many websites for artificially manipulating anchor text to gain rankings in the search engines. Perhaps the most notable change is that search engines are now devaluing links with too much uniform anchor text across the Web. For example, if say Steve sold toasters on his website, and got all 50 of his friends to link to his website with the anchor text “best toaster ever,” search engines might flag this as suspicious. The fact of the matter is that most “natural” writing about your website is highly unlikely to use the same anchor text as the next site over.
As Google has (accurately) determined, most humans express descriptions differently than one another. You’re much likely to have one blogger likely to say “this is my favorite toaster,” another saying “you should buy this toaster” and another saying “use this for great toasted bagels,” rather than all three saying “best toaster ever.” Uniform text often gets seen as artificial and even “bought” by a website, which is often highly devalued in search rankings by the major search engines. With this in mind, it’s important to diversify both your inbound anchor text (in cases such as guest blogging), your outbound links (to sites you find relevant or interest) as well as your internal linking practices.
Likewise, keep an eye on who is linking to you and the anchor text they are using. Many black hat SEO specialists will use spammy terms such as “buy viagra” and then link to your site to devalue your domain with search engines. However, most of the time this is avoidable, as search engines also pay attention to the reputation and renown of sites linking to you when considering ranking — though that doesn’t mean it can occasionally cause problems.
Finally, don’t try and beat the system by using different anchor text on one page to link to the same outbound page multiple times. Experimenters at Moz have discovered the Google only looks at the first anchor text to a site on a web page when considering links. Perhaps more important, excessive linking to the same page over and over may be seen as spammy or user-unfriendly practice by a website and may also earn you site a punishment in SERP rankings.