Though the Google Penguin update wasn’t technically the over-optimization that spokesperson Matt Cutts hinted might be coming, the algorithm change definitely had an impact on today’s anchor text optimization best practices.
To understand what this means and why this matters, it’s important that you first understand how anchor text is used in Google’s ranking algorithms.
Essentially, anchor text refers to the word or phrase that appears in underlined, clickable text whenever a link appears on a website. In the link, Single Grain, the words “Single Grain” represent the anchor text of a link that’s structured in HTML like this: <a href=”http://www.singlegrain.com”>Single Grain</a>.
Through experimentation, SEOs discovered that including target keyword phrases as anchor texts in the inbound backlinks they built to point at their websites had an effect on their overall rankings for these queries. This isn’t surprising. Although Google values linked connections between sites as “editorial votes” that demonstrate one website’s confidence in another, Google only has a few potential signals to use when determining exactly what the link relates to—and one of these signals is the relevance of your inbound anchor text to your webpage content.
But while it’s helpful for anchor text to be relevant, using the same anchor text phrases over and over in the links that you build is overkill that’s likely to get you penalized. Instead of simply repeating your target SEO keywords in this crucial spot, consider the following process for determining when to diversify the anchor text you use in your link building efforts.
Step #1: Sort Your Backlink Profile by Anchor Text
Before you can begin diversifying your anchor text (should you need to do so in the first place), you must first obtain a list of all the links pointing back at your website, along with the anchor text associated with them. There are a number of different tools you can use to do this, including:
While the Webmaster Tools program is a free option, be aware that it won’t provide you with as much information as you’ll find using any of the other paid services listed above.
Once you’re in your account, export a list of your backlinks and their corresponding anchor texts to an Excel file or other spreadsheet document so that you can determine what percentages of your backlinks are:
- Branded keyword phrases (for example, your company name or slogan)
- Domain name matches (as in, yoursite.com or www.yoursite.com)
- Exact match SEO keywords based on the search queries for which you’d like to rank highly
- Un-optimized phrases, like “Click here”
Step #2: Sort Your Competitors’ Profiles by Anchor Text
Before you begin to analyze what the percentages of your own backlink profile mean, take a few minutes to repeat the process for both your competitors’ websites and other top sites in your niche or vertical.
Again, separate the links you uncover by their content, including branded phrases, domain name texts, target SEO keywords and un-optimized phrases. Within the target SEO keywords category, break down each competitors’ existing anchor text distributions to see how many different keywords they’re targeting, as well as the number of times each variation is used.
Step #3: Analyze Your Anchor Text Distribution
Once you’ve finished compiling your data from Steps #1 and #2, it’s time to compare, contrast, and make a plan for how and when you’ll diversify your anchor text distribution.
Now, unfortunately, there are no “hard and fast” rules about anchor text variations, so I’m sorry if you’ve come to this article looking for a statement like, “No more than 50 percent of your anchor texts should be keyword optimized.”
However, you can establish your own general guidelines based on the information uncovered already in your research by taking the following considerations into account:
- No one anchor text should stick out within your profile
One of the first things you’ll want to look for when examining your own backlink profile is any anchor texts that stick out in terms of usage. If, for example, your profile shows that you’ve used 10 different anchor texts in your linking efforts, but that you’ve used one variation approximately 50 percent of the time, you’ll want to take steps to even out your overall distributions. Having one anchor text represented more frequently than others is a dead giveaway to the search engines that you’ve engaged in over-optimized link schemes.
- Your industry will influence your ideal anchor text distribution
But even if your anchor text variations are relatively diverse, they may not be in an ideal proportion compared to your industry’s standards.
For example, say your link profile is comprised of 25 percent keyword-optimized anchor texts, 50 percent branded terms, and 25 percent un-optimized phrases. This seems fine, until you see that your competitors and others in your niche tend to use a balance of 50 percent SEO anchor texts to 25 percent branded and un-optimized phrases.
It might not matter if your distribution is significantly different from your competitors’, especially if you see a tremendous amount of variety across the board between others in your niche. Some industries can get away with a heavier usage of exact match anchor text, while larger competitors might skew more towards branded keywords as a result of their relative size.
However, if you do notice that other players within your industry or vertical adhere to a similar anchor text distribution that’s significantly different from your own, consider that this might be occurring because others in your niche have found an ideal balance to ensure high SERP rankings and diminished chances of being penalized. If you suspect this might be the case, it’s in your best interests to alter your anchor text distribution to fall along the same lines you’ve uncovered.
- Your linking practices should be optimized, yet natural looking
As a general rule, people rarely create natural backlinks using exact match or long-tail keywords in the anchor text. When left to their own devices, webmasters generally form natural links using branded keywords (as in, your brand name, domain URL, or an expanded brand phrase), though this can leave SEO-oriented website owners at a disadvantage.
For best results, it’s a good idea to balance both SEO and branded keywords in your anchor text variations. If you’re a young company without an established brand identity, targeting a higher percentage of exact match keywords may allow you to secure the natural search traffic needed to grow your business faster than tailoring your anchor texts to target branded search volume that doesn’t yet exist.
On the other hand, as your company grows, it’s natural to incorporate more branded keywords into your anchor text construction. Doing so will provide an advantage in Google’s current brand-oriented SERPs, and will also help to establish your organization’s prominence within its industry.
Step #4: Repair Any Over-optimized Anchor Text Variations
If you find that your current anchor text distribution is out of whack with your ideal variation for any of the reasons described above, you’ll want to take immediate action in order to bring your anchor texts in line with SEO best practices.
When it comes to repairing over-optimized anchor texts, you’ve got two options:
- You can work with referring webmasters to have links with specific anchor text versions changed or removed entirely, or
- You can build new backlinks that will bring your anchor text distribution into accordance with your stated goals.
The solution that you choose will depend largely on how skewed your existing distribution is, as well as how easy it will be to replace the bad links you’ve created in the past. If you’ve engaged in paid link schemes that won’t be easy to undo in the past, you may also find it useful to consider Google’s new “Disavow Links” tool (though this program should be used with caution to prevent the unintended loss of positive link equity).
Obviously, repairing an over-optimized anchor text distribution with one that meets today’s SEO guidelines isn’t going to be an overnight project. It will take time to correct your overall link phrase distributions, but with consistent, concerted effort, you should see an improvement in your overall natural search performance and a reduced susceptibility to current and future search engine penalties.