Anchor text is the text used in the links to your site. It used to be that if you acquire enough links with the appropriate keywords in the anchor text that your site will begin to rank for those keywords. But at some point websites experienced penalizations for having statistically unnatural ratios of anchor text links. What is the best practice for the use of anchor text today?
Industry Standard Guidance for Anchor Text
There is no industry standard on the best use of anchor text. How much anchor text is appropriate is a matter of opinion. Some believe that the search engine results pages (SERPs) can be studied and the best anchor text ratios for each niche can be discovered.
Anchor Text Ratios
If you study the backlinks of millions of websites, anchor text patterns emerge showing that a certain percentage of anchor text is normal for every niche. This is called a Correlation Study. Correlation studies try to find a cause and effect relationship between observable information.
But studying anchor text ratios ignores the fact that the reason some pages are ranked has nothing to do with their links. Here are four scenarios of how Google ranks pages while ignoring links:
- Some pages are ranked near the bottom because they have a poor user experience (related to ads, website speed, mobile friendliness, etc.).
- Other pages are ranked near the top because users expect to see those specific websites. Some sites are popular and users expect to see those sites.
- Some sites are ranked at the top because of geographic location. There are some situations where a significant majority of users are located in a specific region and they tend to respond better (evidenced by CTR data) to a site located in their region.
- Other pages are ranked somewhere in the middle because the user intent demands a result that provides a comparison of various product providers.
Modification Engine Prevents Reverse Engineering
When a site is ranked, it is ranked by something called a Core Algorithm, sometimes called the Ranking Engine. But there is another engine, it’s called the Modification Engine. The Modification Engine will take the results from the Ranking Engine then set it aside and use other criteria for ranking the SERPs.
What that means is that all the traditional ranking factors like the amount of links or the anchor text stop influencing where the page shows up in the SERPs. The modification engine takes over and uses other factors. The modification engine plays a large role in re-ranking the SERPs.
If the SERPs are influenced by the modification engine and not the ranking engine, this means that the anchor text is not the reason why pages are ranked in the positions you see. Then logically, this means any anchor text ratios you extract are meaningless since other factors influenced why a page is ranked.
Over 200 Ranking Factors
Over two hundred factors influence why a page is ranked, and that presents another problem with trying to extract anchor text ratios and correlating those to an ideal percentage that looks natural.
Then there is the real problem that we can never know which links Google is using to rank a page, which links are only passing a little ranking equity and which pages are passing no link equity.
It becomes impossible to extract a meaningful statistic about anchor text ratios without knowing:
- Which pages are passing full PageRank
- Which pages are passing partial PageRank
- Which pages are not contributing any PageRank at all
Does Data Talk and Everything Else Walks?
You cannot trust hard data because the data is soft. What some people call Hard Data is actually only partial data. As I outlined above, there is a lot of information missing to make that data useful.
The algorithms are larger than just anchor text. There is more going on to produce the SERPs. So the endeavor of correlating anchor text ratios becomes impossible. There is not enough data in anchor text ratios to correlate to why a site is ranking.
What do Others Say About Anchor Text?
How much anchor text to use is largely a matter of opinion. The above are my opinions. I asked a few experts for their opinion and here is what they had to say:
Julie Joyce, LinkFishMedia
Julie Joyce is a link building expert who goes way back. She’s one of the people involved with link building who I have a great respect for. So it was a no brainer to ask for her opinion on the use of anchor text today. Here are her observations:
“I think anchor text is an important signal but I also think that since it’s obviously one that can be so easily manipulated, it might be less important than it was before. I can’t see that it could ever become unimportant certainly.
I don’t think it carrys as much ranking power as it used to. A site that has 75% exact match anchors has to look unnatural. Even though I know it’s naughty there is the odd occasion when I overdo it and it works but it doesn’t stick. I think other factors have become more important for ranking.”
On whether search engines are relying on surrounding text as the anchor text-type signal or letting the landing page tell the story:
“I’d love to think it’s a mix of both. You can manipulate the surrounding text pretty easily too, but it’s harder to do that with an entire landing page without completely ruining your conversion rate.”
Bill Slawski, GoFishDigital
Bill Slawski is the preeminent expert on search engine patents. I sought his unique perspective on how Google might be using anchor text today.
“Anchor hits, as described in the phrase-based indexing patents, describes how related (co-occuring phrases for high rankings pages for a particular query) phrases in anchor text might be boosted as expert links under those patents.”
Bill Slawski wrote about this in a blog post:
“One of the most recent related patents, granted in 2014 is worth looking at more closely, because it provides details on how the use of related words; certain terms and phrases on pages and in anchor text can help a search engine understand what pages are about, and rerank those pages.”
Bill Went on to say:
“It is possible that Google could be looking at a window of words around a link as associated text for those links.”
Matt Diggity, Diggity Marketing
Matt Diggity is a relative newcomer to search marketing. He brings a fresh set of eyes to SEO. His specialty is focusing on the cutting edge of search marketing. So I sought out his unique perspective.
“My opinion, based on my experience, is that anchor text is still a very significant signal.
An exact match anchor text from a powerful link source is one of the best offsite armaments in an SEO’s arsenal. Don’t overdo it though. Once or twice at most.
I’ve also seen anchor text reshape a page’s topic (unintentionally) and cause more harm than good. Send too many off-topic anchors to a page and watch it stop ranking for the keywords it intends to, and potentially start competing with other pages on your site.”
On the question of whether anchor text still carries ranking power as it used to:
“Hard to say.
Anchors are always attached to links.
I do indeed feel like I’m not getting the same movement as back-in-the-day from target anchors sent from links, but is that due to anchors getting less weight, or the links themselves becoming less of a ranking factor in the grand scheme?”
Asked if search engines are relying on surrounding text as the anchor text-type signal or letting the landing page tell the story, Matt offers:
“That seems to be the industry consensus but unfortunately I haven’t tested this myself so I don’t have a comment on it.”
What is the Best Use of Anchor Text?
There is no consensus on what is the best way to use anchor text. Bill Slawski points to the use of surrounding text (the text that surrounds a link) as supplementing anchor text and Julie Joyce agrees that there may be a mix of anchor plus surrounding text. Matt Diggity takes a conservative approach and declined to give an opinion about surrounding text until he has tested the hypothesis.
While there may not be a “best” approach, there may be agreement that the safest approach to anchor text is to rely on branded anchor text and allow the surrounding text and landing page to define what the meaning of that link is.
But that’s at the risk of possibly losing out on the full ranking power of an anchor text. The gold standard of course is letting the web publishers who are doing the linking decide what anchor text to use.
Images by Shutterstock, modified by the Author