SEO

Anchor Text Optimization Case Study: What’s Natural?

A significant component of the Penguin update appears to deal with anchor text over-optimization of backlinks. Savvy SEOs have been concerned with maintaining a natural anchor text profile for years now, and the Penguin update has just underscored how important natural anchor text optimization really is.

What constitutes a natural anchor text profile? The reality is that a natural mix of anchor texts is far less optimized than you might think. Geoff Kenyon made a post on SEOmoz suggesting that 65% non-targeted, 35% targeted is a good mix to aim for.

I believe that this is such an important issue that I wanted to do my own study to add a few (post-Penguin) data points to the conversation. In this post, I’ll share the results of a quick study I completed on 9 websites. Each website chosen for this analysis has a strong brand and is ranking well for an important keyword.

Notes about the analysis:

  • Anchor text data was pulled from Open Site Explorer.
  • Anchor texts from all links pointing to the root domain were used for calculations. (I also looked at data for only the ranked page; in most cases there wasn’t a big difference.)
  • Number of root domains linking was used for calculations.
  • Due to the way I filtered results, domain and URL anchor texts were generally lumped together as branded anchor texts.
  • In general, I did not count product names, product lines, etc. as branded terms. If they were counted, the percentage of branded anchor texts would increase.
  • Unique anchor text instances is calculated by adding the “Number of Linking Root Domains Containing Anchor Text” column in the OSE cvs export.
  • Primary goals were to estimate natural usage of branded anchor texts, and to take a major keyword the site ranked for and analyze how much that keyword was used in the anchor text profile.

Hunter Sailboats

www.huntermarine.com is ranked #1 on Google for “sailboats”

I analyzed 769 unique anchor text instances:

  • Branded anchor texts (contains text “hunter”): 559 linking domains, 73% of total
  • Exact Match anchor texts (for keyword “sailboats”): 0
  • Phrase match anchor texts (contains phrase “sailboats”): 20 linking domains, 2.6% of total
  • Partial and broad match (contains “sailboat”): 23 linking domains, 2.9% of total (this is due to “boat” being part of the brand name)
  • Of the top 20 anchor texts in use, all are branded

Ranger Boats

www.rangerboats.com is ranked #1 on Google for “bass boats”

I analyzed 1,938 unique anchor text instances:

  • Branded anchor texts (contains text “ranger”): 1,139 linking domains, 59% of total
  • Exact Match anchor texts (for keyword “bass boats”): 3
  • Phrase match anchor texts (contains phrase “bass boats”): 13 linking domains, 0.7% of total
  • Partial and broad match (contains “bass” and/or “boat”): 876 linking domains, 45% of total (this is due to “boat” being part of the brand name)
  • Anchor texts including “bass”: 25 linking domains, 1.2% of total
  • Website has a significant amount of pharmacy-related links. Assume that a black hat SEO got content onto the domain and tried to get it ranked.

 

Mercury Marine

www.mercurymarine.com is ranked #2 on Google for “outboard motors”

I analyzed 6,091 unique anchor text instances:

  • Branded anchor texts (contains text “mercury”): 3,315 linking domains, 54% of total
  • Exact Match anchor texts (for keyword “outboard motors”): 1
  • Phrase match anchor texts (contains phrase “outboard motors”): 34 linking domains, 0.5% of total
  • Partial and broad match (contains “outboard” and/or “motor”): 543 linking domains, 9% of total
  • Of the top 20 anchor texts in use, the only non-branded one is “click here”

EZ Loader

www.ezloader.com is ranked #1 on Google for “boat trailers”

I analyzed 402 unique anchor text instances:

  • Branded anchor texts (contains text “ez”): 215 linking domains, 53% of total
  • Exact Match anchor texts (for keyword “boat trailers”): 1
  • Phrase match anchor texts (contains phrase “boat trailers”): 53 linking domains, 13% of total
  • Partial and broad match (contains “boat” and/or “trailer”): 147 linking domains, 37% of total
  • Of the top 20 anchor texts in use, the non-branded ones are: roller trailers, pontoon trailers, aluminum trailers, bunk trailers, parts guide, request a brochure, manufacturer’s recall clearance letter, personal watercraft, parts e store, adjustable trailers, adjustable brochure

Lund Boats

www.lundboats.com is ranked #1 on Google for “fishing boats”

I analyzed 765 unique anchor text instances:

  • Branded anchor texts (contains text “lund”): 545 linking domains, 71% of total
  • Exact Match anchor texts (for keyword “fishing boats”): 0
  • Phrase match anchor texts (contains phrase “fishing boats”): 7 linking domains, 0.9% of total
  • Partial and broad match (contains “fishing” and/or “boat”): 383 linking domains, 50% of total (this is due to “boat” being part of the brand name)
  • Anchor texts including “fishing”: 43 linking domains, 5.6% of total
  • Of the top 20 anchor texts in use, the only non-branded ones are “website” and “more info”

What About eCommerce?

The sites above that I analyzed are manufacturers with strong brands. So what about e-commerce sites? Will their backlink profiles have a lower percentage of branded anchor text? (After all, they have a lot more products that can be linked to, and webmasters are as likely to be linking to a specific product on the site as to the site/brand itself.) I checked a few to find out:

Conclusion: E-commerce sites anchor text profiles are still primarily branded.

Conclusions

  1. The majority of links analyzed (about 55-75%) included the brand/website in the anchor text.
  2. The most common natural anchor texts are variations of the brand name and website URL.
  3. Exact match anchor texts were very rare (apparently they are not always needed to rank, even for competitive  keywords).
  4. Phrase match anchor texts are also uncommon. Most anchor texts that included keywords were partial match anchor texts.

While this study is certainly not comprehensive, it does serve to give a snapshot into what natural anchor text distribution looks like for a website with a strong brand. Please don’t take the numbers I’ve presented here as industry standards, but I do hope these numbers will help serve as a catalyst to encourage SEO’s to look at anchor text optimization a bit closer.

The data from my study matches relatively nicely with the data from Geoff’s study referenced earlier in this post. My data does show more branded anchor texts and lower keyword anchor texts. It’s hard to tell if this could be Penguin related, due to differences in the markets we analyzed, or simply because both our data sets were pretty small.

What does a natural anchor text profile look like?

The data from this study suggests that:

A natural link profile will rely most strongly on branded anchor texts (some of which may also contain keywords), secondarily on broad/partial match keyword anchor texts and other anchor texts (i.e. click here, website, etc.), with only a very rare exact match keyword anchor text thrown in.

Based on the data from my study and Geoff’s study, I believe the following may be a useful rule of thumb:

  • 60% brand, URL, brand+keyword, and non-targeted anchor texts
  • 30% partial, phrase, and broad match keyword anchor texts
  • 10% exact match anchor texts

I would love to hear from other SEO’s who have done their own analysis or have a different perspective on the data. What are your conclusions regarding anchor text optimization?

 Tip: To get more accurate numbers for your site, analyze competitors in your industry that you know are relying on natural linking.

 Anchor Text Optimization Case Study: Whats Natural?
Adam J Thompson is the founder of RYP Marketing, an online marketing agency based in Roanoke, VA. Need help with your SEO, link building, or conversion optimization strategies? Reach out to Adam via Twitter or email for a free "quick strategy review".
 Anchor Text Optimization Case Study: Whats Natural?

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34 thoughts on “Anchor Text Optimization Case Study: What’s Natural?

  1. I don’t think there is anything wrong with incorporating exact match anchor text into your link portfolio. Where sites run into trouble is when they are only targeting a few keywords and those make up the bulk of their anchor text. You don’t want to give the search engines any reason to assume that you might be trying to trick the algorithm.

    1. Nick, I agree that there is nothing wrong with incorporating exact match anchor text into your link portfolio. I just think many SEOs over-estimate their importance and over-use them, though. Many SEOs vary their anchor text by using (for example) 10 different exact match anchor texts.

      I still think SEOs should use exact match anchor texts, just perhaps not so much. Based on the data I’m seeing, I think exact match anchor texts should probably represent a minority of your link portfolio.

  2. Adam-

    This is a good post. I would like to see the flip side of this study as well, potentially looking at competitors who were ranking high before and may have dropped either low on, or off of the first page and how the ratio’s compare.

  3. I have been so focused on getting keyword backlinks that I have forgotten how to be natural. This is the kick in the pants that we all needed to get back to doing things natural just like I did in the beginning when all this web stuff was fun. Playing the google game has made it not so fun.

  4. I think this is a good point. But Im not sure if its correct or accurate. What if your brand it not popular or not that strong? Will Google still rank you for the keywords you are targetting even though you are using your keywords on anchor text. Well, the thing is we dont have an exact answer, Google only knows.
    So better, try different strategy or try mixing the the portion how much you can use your brand and your targeted keywords.

    1. If your brand is not strong, I would encourage you to start building a stronger brand. Google has stated on more than one occasion that brands are important to them, and that they are looking at brand-related factors to help them rank the highest quality content.

  5. Hi Adam,
    Great article. I know that every branche has their own standards. This is a good and very insight article.
    I wonder about keywords as a person. When you post a comment and using your name and you do that often will that create a negative impact? These are keywords where hardly anyone wants to rank high for in Google. Because its not a keyword that relates to the industry. Can using your name harm your website? What do you think?

    1. Nicky, my opinion is that if you’re doing blog comments, using your name for anchor text looks natural to Google. (That’s what most users who aren’t doing the comments for SEO reasons do.)

  6. Hey Adam, Nice Article,

    I would like to see the other side of study as well, i think SEOs have to use exact match of Anchor text and i liked also insight study of this article.

  7. Adam,

    Thanks so much for the data. My sites were significantly impacted by this last update. Oddly enough, the Panda update had little if any impact. I believe that the most pressing factor was anchor text. Even though SEO’s have been talking about varying anchor text for years, I never gave it much thought because my results proved otherwise. In fact, it showed the exact opposite, that when varying text, search results were negatively impacted.

    As a result I was quite surprised when I saw the impact of Penguin. It appears that the SEO community was one step ahead of me this time. From now on I’ll certainly be varying my anchor text. Since most of my sites are marketing related, I’ll include marketing but will vary the keyword phrase. Thanks for the info!

  8. I would like to see the reverse of this as well. I have seen alot of sites rank very highly that only target exact match!

  9. Exact match anchor text is a touchy subject now a days. I think the 65 to 35 ratio might be a good start. Definitely don’t want to be going over 50%

  10. Nice post Adam,

    Exact match anchor text has turned from an easy way to influence rankings into a ticking bomb.

    I’ve analysed backlinks data in the finance sector and the exact match percentages are more than double compared to your examples. However, what I found really interesting is the fact that Majestic SEO and OSE would produce very different results most of the time. Personally, I wouldn’t trust OSE to carry out any links audit because:

    – It’s index is much smaller compared to Majestic
    – Reports many stale (dead) links
    – There is no control over site-wide links
    – Reports duplicate links

    Because of the above the end result is highly skewed unless manual filters have been applied in the reported data.

    1. I agree that OSE’s index is much smaller than majestic. The third party analysis I saw showed Majestic reported far more dead links than OSE did, though. Also, I used the OSE’s domain linking numbers (not total links) so sitewide links would be counted as one link.

      I agree that anchor text data varies based on the source, but I think the data I’ve used is still very helpful. The goal is not to get exact data, but to measure trends and make educated estimates.

      1. I ran some anchor text analyses to compare Majestic vs OSE. I definitely saw some differences, but they were reasonably in line with each other. For example, one of the sites I ran, OSE showed 66% branded, while Majestic showed 57% branded. A difference, to be sure, but definitely in the same ball park.

        I certainly see differences between them, though, and the differences between OSE/Majestic vs Google are probably even bigger. Just one reason why any numbers should only be taken as estimates/suggestions, not as rules.

        Would be interested in seeing a blog post showing the data you’ve found, too. :-)

      2. I agree that Majestic reports tones of dead links – especially the historic index. However, in my case the remaining live links would still outnumber the ones reported by OSE. I’m planning to publish my findings at some point so I will let you know.

  11. We are going to try this anchor text optimization study of yours. Though Google doesn’t announce any numbers or percentages regarding on optimizing anchor text for backlinks, this is a good number or percentage as it looks more natural. We checked some of our websites that got hit and some of them show aggressive anchor texts from external backlinks. Ahrefs.com is also a good tool other than the opensiteexplorer.

  12. Its really a great job! Its difficult to know what is good anchor text or not. In my point of view only google knows about it. Its a important subject have just arrived in Brazil.

  13. Keywords overuse is a common mistake SEOs make. After Penguin update we decided to revise our link building campaign and we started to build links in more natural way. According to OpenSiteExplorer, more than 50% of our backlinks have keywords in anchor text, which is not good. Keywords overuse is a bad way to trick search engines, it doesn’t work anymore:)

  14. 10% exact match anchor texts ?

    That certainly is very low. An average visitor to any page glance at the content and not read it line by line. He is looking for quick information and if your site is about boat trailers you have to link to it from the anchor “Boat trailer” . Looking as a visitor, even in this article it will be easy for me if you had linked “www.ezloader.com is ranked #1 on Google for “boat trailers”” boat trailers instead of ezloader. Anyway Google is the one who advised in the early 2000 to link from meaningful anchor texts. SEO’s over did it and now Google themselves have to penalize. To be honest it is a wait and watch game.

  15. Thanks for sharing this report. With this, we will also change the link building campaign of our company. Many of our clients were indeed affected with the latest Penguin roll out. And we do hope that by changing the anchor text campaign, we will do good in SERP the next update.

    Please update this report with other research.

  16. I really liked this piece, not the least because I run several e-commerce sites. I have to say that your conclusions are not far off from what I see in my own backlink analysis. But…

    “Tip: To get more accurate numbers for your site, analyze competitors in your industry that you know are relying on natural linking.”

    Not sure about you, but my competitors are not forthcoming about their backlinking techniques. :)
    And if you simply analyze their profile to see who has what kinds of backlinks, how would you tell the difference from a truly natural one and a carefully planned one?

    It occurs to me that you could check the amount / rate of backlink accumulation and how it corresponds to the ebbs and flows in their business (for instance, if they do a huge Mother’s Day push) but aside from that…

    it’s all a bit much. For our part, we have decided to make our focus this year (aside from growing sales and market share, of course) moving away form Google to greatest extent possible.

    Google is quite simply no longer a good business partner. Who would enter into a contract with another company with the understanding that they could change the rules on the fly?

  17. Thank you for the in-depth insight. It’s great to see case studies like these with so much misinformation going around.

  18. The anchor texts ration is really the big topic for SEOers after the penguin update has been rolled out. Thanks for this in-depth analysis and would like to try this out on my affected websites.

  19. Adam, I Went through this article thoroughly & all the comments here . I really need your opinion on the site I am working on. Targeted high search volume keywords try SEO from past 3 months key words are appearing but the problem is too much fluctuation, I have sorted all on page issues. Is it possible to guide me how to get rid of this SERP ranking fluctuation issues? site domain is infocheckpoint.com.

    For few days targeted keys will come in top 30 all of a sudden go out of 1000 ranks again after few weeks it will come back & again …………………This big amount of fluctuation is worrying me too much

  20. Good topic for discussion, Adam.

    As has been mentioned in comments above, Anchor text (appropriate usage ) has been talked about quite a bit out on the web lately….

    It is something that I am quite curious about, as there are some very different views on the topic….

    Considering over use of Anchor text(manipulation) has been said to be one of the factors that would incur a Google penalty, it would probably be better to lay off using too many keywords(brand names, etc)..or overusing certain brand terms.to the extent that it becomes a form of anchor text stuffing(so to speak)…………

    I noticed a certain comment system touting it’s ability(for the commenter) to apply anchor text(keywords –terms) in a way that would add benefits for ranking the keywords(terms) in question….
    Though, that is also part of their(and their affiliates) sales pitch……

  21. Stupid question maybe but that’s the difference between Phrase, Partial and broad match anchor texts? Examples would be good.

  22. Anchors randing Anything between 10-20% for your targeted keywords is good enough, just try to get more natural links by adding high quality content on your blogs so that people link to your post and this way your website gain links naturally over period of time.

  23. Really interesting post. I think it will depend a lot on the situation. First lycompetition is aa very human nature. As for links I believe that exact text is not a problem, because if we are identifying the site with their product’m showing the consumer that the key word is meaningless on the site. Now if I link to different site Keyword believe deserves punishment.

  24. Exact anchor matching is still very much needed, even if Google launched this Penguin and caused nightmares to many SEO guys and webmasters. As a SEO specialist I tried to offer link profiles based on branded and non-targeted keywords only and even if the sites were perfectly optimized onsite, they only rose to high spots after I added exact match as well. In many cases they were more than 10%. So have branded in a good ratio and from good sources and exact keywords will be very much appreciated.
    Instead, I found out that no matter what, don’t bring in 100 links from a single root domain, no matter the anchor used. It’s risky.
    Offering SEO services is such stressful today, when clients want 20 keywords on first page and they don’t understand that besides those, you have to come with another list of 20 branded/partial match/non target anchors to use, and this clearly increases the time span and investment. Good luck to us! :)