Anchor text is one of the key elements of the web, perhaps even its most recognizable feature. It allows for a seamless reference to an external source, improving the user experience and increasing the range of possibilities of expression for content creators.
In this article we will go through the basics of anchor text, its meaning for SEO efforts and look through some best practices on how to optimize your anchor text for the best SEO results.
What is anchor text?
To put it simply, anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink. Anchor texts usually have appeared as blue highlighted text, optionally underlined. Today, much more often, the style is adapted to the website template to keep everything consistent. Either way, anchor text should stand out against the rest of the text and other elements, so that users easily find and click them. For example, Onely’s anchor texts are dark blue and green-underlined:
However, no matter how your links look the web page, they will look more or less the same in the HTML code – a chunk of text between the <a> tags.
Anchor text can also be in the form of clickable buttons:
Another important feature of anchor text is that it must show which type of page users will be taken to after they click the link on the web page. A bare URL address is usually not enough for users to deduce the type of content they can expect when they click. Nowadays, imagining any linking with no anchor text feature is difficult.
How do users and search engines use anchor text?
Anchor text is one of the key elements of the web, perhaps even its most recognizable feature. It allows for a seamless reference to an external source, improving the user experience and increasing the range of possibilities of expression for content creators. Anchor text provides users and search engines with additional information about what they can find on a linked web page. Also, internal links handled with relevant anchor texts help search engines determine what is the site structure of the website.
Does anchor text impact my search engine rankings?
The general influence of anchor text and backlinks on Google rankings has fluctuated in the past and is now considered to be lower than before. There isn’t any hard data available on how much of a factor link texts are.
As we mentioned earlier, if the search engines can crawl your website quite easily, it’s likely to get indexed more quickly. And from the moment it is indexed, the page starts working on its visibility and ranking.
Including relevant keywords in such an anchor text can strengthen our website’s ranking for that keyword because it signals to Google that this is something important.
In general, we should only link pages that:
- contain high-quality content
- they are relevant to the page from which we are linking
- are important to us from the SEO point of view (their ranking matter, they are not excluded from indexation, and they do not return error statuses)
which is, putting it briefly – websites that are valuable for users.
In terms of search engine optimization, optimizing anchor text has been one of the basics since the early days of the internet (which we will develop later on). Using strategies like private blog networks (PBN), which are now considered dirty, it was possible to create thousands of backlinks and manipulate their anchor text to get the best results. However, in 2012 a new Google algorithm update arrived, and methods changed.
What’s the deal with the Penguin Update and manipulating anchor text?
Penguin’s main goal is to find and punish sites that try to improve their rankings with very low-value spammy links. Google is well aware of when sites manipulate links to improve their rankings. When a website buys links on a large scale or acquires them through PBNs that are designed to artificially increase Google ranking, Penguin will locate it (you can read more on that here).
See Google’s SEO Starter Guide chapter on spammy behavior in terms of links.
So is anchor text a ranking factor?
Yes, according to what we mentioned above and Google’s SEO Starter Guide, anchor text is quite a crucial ranking factor:
the better your anchor text is, the easier it is for users to navigate and for Google to understand what the page you’re linking to is about.source: Google's SEO Starter Guide
What are different types of anchor text?
There are multiple anchor text variations that you can use to link to a webpage. They are classified in relation to the target keyword and the target page it links to.
Exact-match anchor text
Exact-match is the most straightforward type of anchor text. The target keyword exactly reflects the content it’s linking to. So, for example, my anchor text could be “crawl budget” if I wanted to link to Onely’s article “The Ultimate Guide to Crawl Budget.”
Exact match anchor text used to be heavily exploited in spammy link building in the dark times of SEO, where spammers would massively link on the same keyword in the anchor text.
Partial-match anchor text
Partial-match anchor text consists of only modified target keyword or the keyword and also other words. It’s not as straightforward as the exact-match anchor text, it’s more descriptive. A page title can make a good job as a partial match anchor text.
For example: “technical SEO experts” when linking our technical SEO service page, or “learn how to optimize your budget“, when linking to the article on crawl budget optimization.
Generic anchor text (or: zero-match anchor)
Generic anchors do not consist of any keyword and oftentimes are quite ambiguous. Both users and search engines do not get any additional value from such anchors. They usually encourage users to click on this specific element (e.g. CTA buttons). As the name suggests, these anchor texts consists mainly of a generic word, such as “Click here”, “read more” or “here”.
A naked link anchor text usually is based on naked URLs. Naked urls are in theory the most informative for the user as they show the linked page exactly. However, this only works if the URL has a user-friendly structure, i.e. it contains a relevant keyword, it is readable and does not contain a sequence of random numbers and characters.
Branded anchor text
The branded anchor text contains the name of the brand. So, for example, if I wanted to use branded text to link to Onely’s website, I could use : SEO Services by Onely, according to Onely’s authors, etc.
Branded anchor text would be more commonly used in external pages that link to you. The more high-quality branded links you get from professional sources, the better for building your authority in your niche (see our article on how domain authority is correlated with rankings).
Images are also used as anchor links,. In that case, the anchor text is the image’s alt attribute. It’s worth noticing that image anchors do not pass as much linkjuice as text links do.
How to optimize your anchor text for the SEO strategy?
As it often is, SEOs have to refer to Google documentation for guidance. Their article on link text gives some essential advice on what a suitable anchor text should be. But how to handle anchor texts so that we don’t over optimize things?
How to make an SEO-friendly anchor text?
Google expects our pages and content to help users. So, with this in mind, a good anchor text is:
- descriptive – text used in anchor should give an idea of what the linked page is about.
- concise – anchor text should include a few words maximum. Opt not to link whole sentences.
- easy to spot – anchor text should stand out against the rest of the content.
- keep your anchors relevant to the content you’re linking to.
- don’t put too many keywords in the anchor text. Keyword stuffing and putting links under the same keywords on and on is a bad habit from the black-hat SEO times. A rule of thumb of today’s SEO is doing things that are user-friendly. Take advantage of Google’s ability to understand natural language and context.
- Use generic anchors only if you have to – sometimes a generic message as here or next just fit, so if you feel you might have overdone with keywords in your anchor texts – go for it.
Keep this tips in mind especially to anchor texts in your internal links.
Does it matter which anchor text type I use?
In the past, many gray- or black-hat SEO strategies were used with anchor text and boasted significant results.
Nowadays, the SEO community is full of contradictory opinions on the efficiency of one type of anchor text over the other. People who want to play by the rules avoid over-optimizing anchor text. Meanwhile, some SEOs suggest using percentage-based systems of implementing anchor text types which are supposed to grant a significant ranking boost.
As a website owner, you don’t usually have complete control over the anchor text used for backlinks to your domain anyway. One exception to this is when you are guest-posting, which is a rare occurrence anyway.
Yes, you should keep your anchor text informative whenever possible, just as the Google Developers documentation suggests. The thing is, it looks like it doesn’t matter which anchor type you go with, as long as it signals precisely what the linked page contains.
Take a look at this anchor text research article from ahrefs.com, which they released in February 2019. The author wondered if there are any correlations between SERP rankings and anchor types, as well as the annotation text (as Google calls it) used by the best-ranking websites. The scope of his research was awe-inspiring, with as many as 384,614 top-ranking websites analyzed!
Ahrefs divided their experiment into two separate studies.
The first study that Ahrefs did was designed to see if using a particular anchor text type has any effect on the SERP position. They found that the correlation was very weak and, in some cases, effectively non-existent!
The second one looked into the influence of surrounding link text on the search results. Their findings? There is effectively no correlation with the search results position for any type of keyword in the surrounding link text.
The other point (and Ahrefs mentions it too) is that it is virtually impossible to have a page that you want to rank only for one particular keyword. Any compelling content naturally ranks for many keywords as it explores the topic profoundly and from various viewpoints.
If you still have any questions about optimizing anchor texts, don’t hesitate to ask Onely’s technical SEO experts.
Is the surrounding text a factor?
In the past, Google considered using the text surrounding a link to rate the resource’s relevance. Their “Ranking based on reference contexts” patent, filed in 2004, describes a system that “analyzes a portion of the first document associated with the reference, identifies a rare word (or words) from the portion, creates a context identifier based on the rare word(s), and ranks the second document based on the context identifier.”
To simplify, Google was tinkering with a system that would recognize what a link placed in a text file is pointing to, based on the text surrounding that link.
However, Google never addressed whether or not their algorithm is using surrounding text to evaluate links. And testing it is more and more difficult as the search engine is getting better at assessing the entirety of a page’s content.
Because of that, the only piece of advice that we can refer to is what can be found in the Google documentation: use anchor text that directly corresponds to what the linked page is about.
If you are building your SEO strategy, it’s good to know all the available anchor text types and their guidelines. As with many aspects of the internet, search engines promote relevant and descriptive anchor text that adds value to the user experience, regardless of which type you go with. Search Engine crawlers make full use of links and all anchor texts to better understand your site structure and crawl your website more efficiently.
At the end of the day, anchor texts matter and can be quite powerful SEO tool. Links exist to point to relevant external resources, and anchor text helps to identify them. But, as users, we don’t want to deal with spammy behavior and links that unnecessarily draw our attention.
In the long term, serving the visitors’ needs is the best approach to maintaining a healthy website.