Anchor Text Optimization - Ultimate Strategy for Backlinks 2023
Chief Link Building Strategist
Since SEO began as a serious practice, link builders have been trying to figure out how to perfectly optimize the anchor text of their backlinks.
We're going to look at all of the important facts and provide some important and actionable advice for optimizing anchor text.
- Generally speaking for any site, build a ton of branded links to the homepage to build trust.
- Don’t link too aggressively directly to service pages or money pages.
- Build tons of links to informational content & pages.
- Always air on the side of caution when it comes to keyword rich anchor text.
- Younger websites should be extremely cautious, especially in hyper competitive industries.
- Use a huge amount of variety on your anchor texts.
- Relevance is key - make sure the paragraph and page you're linking from actually relates to the page being linked to.
What are anchor texts?
Anchor text is simply the text that appears highlighted in a hyperlink and can be clicked on to visit a target web page.
Think of anchor texts as editorial bridges between pages. These go far beyond the literal meaning of the words that make up the anchor and rely (a lot) on the surroundings (the sentence or paragraph they come in) to classify as a high-quality anchor text.
A high-quality anchor text has two fundamental functions:
Naturally link two pages together
Provide the reader with an additional resource that may help their reading experience
Types of anchor text
There are various types of different anchor texts, which we've identified below.
Branded anchor texts
Natural anchor texts
Instead of using keyword queries in our anchor text, we use natural accessory words that refer to what the searcher may expect to do after clicking on the anchor, E.G.
- click here
- this in-depth guide
- visit their website
- find more information by clicking this link
Partial match anchor texts
This is where we mix keywords along with accessory words to keep it feeling natural and more descriptive e.g.
- 9 easy link building strategies that anyone can use (using the page title as the anchor)
- actionable link building strategies
- link building strategies you can implement
- link building strategy guide from LinkBuilder.io
- the ultimate strategy for link building in 2022
Exact match anchor texts
- link building strategy
- link building strategies
- best link building strategy
- link building tactics
Keywords vs. Anchor Text
It's very important to differentiate between the two.
Understanding keywords (search queries)
Keywords are just another name for search queries (that thing you put into the search box).
I actually much prefer the term search queries, because ultimately it’s what the end user is typing into Google that matters.
More often than not, questions will contain keywords that will help Google (and searchers) navigate its index and develop relevant suggestions (in the form of SERPs) that closely match the intent behind the query.
These can also be called keyword queries.
There are no rules for typing queries on the search box - most users just type the simplest query to get a fast result which matches up whatever they're looking for. You'll find that these don't read all the time naturally, i.e.:
IT support Seattle
crypto exchange Australia
gym near me
Anchor texts are not keywords
First, we have to comprehend that Google is a user-oriented index. The most popular search engine's ultimate goal is to provide answers, not pages (think of that for a second, and you will realize these are two different things).
When you’re devising an anchor text strategy, of course you need to consider the keywords you’d like to rank for, but using only those keywords as your anchor texts would be a very unwise move.
The reason is simply because people don’t link that way!
Think about it - If you’re writing an article about going to the gym and you’d like to recommend a great nationwide gym, you’re not going to say “try this amazing gym near me” - that wouldn’t make any sense, it’s just a poorly constructed reference.
What you’d say is something like this - “try Gold’s gym, they have branches all over the country”
So if your target keywords and anchor text strategy aren’t one and the same, then how exactly should you optimize anchor texts?
Let’s dive a little deeper…
Google's Advice on Anchor Text
We've actually gotten some interesting insights from Google over the years with regards to links and anchor text in general.
In fact, it's extremely helpful to read Google's official guide on anchor texts here.
Over the years, Google representatives have
- Anchor text is a ranking factor - Google does use anchor text to determine what a page is about, and it helps them to rank that page.
- Longer anchor texts can be helpful - Using more words in anchor text provides more context to Google about the page being linked to.
- Supply some context on why people should click on a link - Let readers know what kind of extra information or value the link provides.
There's one key reason why you shouldn't try to over optimize anchor text when link building, and that's because of a Google algorithm update which came into play back in 2012.
That was the Google penguin update, which targeted people spamming keyword-rich anchor text links aggressively.
The Google Penguin Update
- Before the Google penguin update in 2012, people used exact match anchor texts on their backlinks and it worked incredibly well.
- After the Google penguin update in 2012, Google cracked down on manipulated anchor text and penalized a ton of websites.
- Lots of websites lost all a ton of their rankings and their business.
- Sites that had lots of inbound links with 'Money keywords' in the anchor text were hit particularly hard.
- Sites with links from irrelevant sites and pages were also hit hard - this shows the importance of relevance.
- Fast forward 10 years, lots of SEO's seem to forget that the Penguin update is still actively running, and lots of over optimized anchor texts still do not work.
It's quite easy for Google to understand if you're pursuing an exact-match link building strategy, especially if you're building links to pages that don't naturally get many links (such as service pages).
As a link building agency, we get questioned time and time again by clients who want to see more keyword-rich anchor texts in their backlinks.
But it's a fool's errand to think you can push aggressively and expect to get away with it. The only exception to this may be on highly trusted and authoritative sites, which can get away with more. We'll dig into that more later.
For 90% of sites out there, you're just going to get punished algorithmically by building too many over-optimized links to the wrong types of pages.
5 Rules for Mastering Anchor Text
Now we're going to get into 5 actionable rules for mastering your anchor text strategy.
You should follow these rules for every campaign you're working on, and actually map out and track your target backlinks in a spreadsheet to ensure you're sticking to a sensible long-term plan.
Competitor Research & Modeling
Always look at the competitor's ranking at the top of Google for your target search keywords, and check out their anchor text distribution.
Tools like Ahrefs literally give you the exact anchor text blueprint you need to rank.
Just input the URLs of competitor's that are ranking at the top of Google, and you can see their anchor text distribution in seconds.
Here's an example using the search term "link building strategies"
At the time of writing, this article on Neil Patel was ranking #1 for the query.
Here's the anchor text distribution for this article:
As you can see, there's a wide variety of different anchor texts present here, but generally speaking lots of partial-match anchor texts which give us a good idea on how we might vary anchor texts for a competing article.
How to do competitor anchor analysis
- Export the anchor text data for the competing page you're analyzing
- Categorize the various anchors by type in a spreadsheet
- Repeat this for the other competing pages ranking in position 1-5
- Record all of the data & finalize your action plan
It should hopefully look something like this...
Feel free to use our template here - just click file > make a copy.
🧠 Don't count certain links - If you're doing this to a high level, you should not count links from social bookmarking sites and other low-quality no-follow sources, since realistically they're going to skew your anchor text plan massively, especially if your competitors have a high percentage of random bookmarking links. These are quite common to find in Ahrefs.
Please bear in mind that doing this type of competitor analysis is just going to help give you a range to work with. You can't rely only on the %'s that Ahrefs tells you, and you'll still need to use your own analysis skills to help decide on the best anchor text strategy.
Pitfalls of competitor modeling 👎
Some anchor text guides out there fail to account for one very important factor - a websites overall authority & trust.
Example - Wikipedia is behemoth when it comes to SEO - They rank near the top of Google for just about every single informational keyword imaginable. They also have a huge volume of exact-match anchor texts, because people frequently link to their page as a credible source to learn about a very broad topic.
If you tried to copy their aggressive anchor text strategy using the logic that they're ranking at the top and therefore have the optimal anchor text distribution, you would not succeed.
Simply put, if you're a younger website without no real history, without years of accumulating backlinks and without a strong foundation of traffic in your industry, then you can't get away with an aggressive anchor text strategy.
This is especially important for highly competitive industries like gambling, insurance, and loans - Google doesn't trust newcomers, and if you try to copy the anchor text strategy of the big players in your space, it just won't work.
Make it Natural
When you're reading an article, the anchor text should always feel very natural, like it's supposed to be there and actually makes the page you're reading better for being there.
There's a very simple stress test to make here...
If an SEO can't easily identify the link straight away as being clearly placed for the purpose of link building, then it passes. Even if it smells a little bit off, it fails the test.
You should be thinking in the mind of an editor or writer, and not a dumb SEO who thinks that stuffing his target keywords into an anchor text like a moron is going to get him improved rankings.
Variety is Key
There have been some incredibly interesting studies done recently on internal linking, and although we're talking about external links in this article, I think the findings are very relevant.
If you look at any pages that have consistently ranked near the top of Google, you'll see a massive variety when it comes to the anchors linking to those pages.
Essentially, it's a good thing to vary your inbound anchor texts as much as possible.
In fact, as a general rule of thumb our advice would be to never use the same anchor text twice.
The reason is simply because in the real World, if somebody links to their site it's actually fairly unlikely that they'll use the same linking text as the next person linking out to you.
That doesn't mean you can't have overlapping keywords of course, but just get creative and vary the keyword strings you're putting together.
This way, we keep our client's anchor profile from looking over-optimised, giving clear hints of intervention to Google crawlers.
Never use the same target anchor text more than once if you can - however word variations of the same thing are fine.
Anchor text variety is highly correlated with higher search traffic
Naked URL anchors don’t seem to hurt, and in fact, are associated with more traffic.
At least some exact match anchors are associated with significantly higher traffic.
Use your page title (meta title) for anchor text - it's super common to do so
🤓 Pattern Recognition
Here's a sage piece of advice for getting inspiration on anchor text variation.
- Find the most popular publication or blog in your industry.
- Sit down for 30 minutes and read some of the most popular articles on the publication.
- Take notes on how the writer links out to other pages - it doesn't matter if they're internal or external links.
- You'll quickly start recognizing patterns, and your understanding of how real writers and editors place links will improve.
In a nutshell 🥜 - Read some great blogs in your industry, and study them meticulously to see exactly how the writers on those blogs link to other pages.
Google did seem to have confirm that the surrounding text around the link being placed is important, and helps Google to understand the outbound link.
For you, it means that if you're actively doing link building, you need to be making sure your link is placed in an article or paragraph which relates strongly to the page being linked to on your website.
If you're not using exact match or partial match anchor text, you should ensure your target keyword is nearby the anchor text.
Example using target keyword "Link Building Agency"
"If you don't have the resources to hire internally, then you should consider hiring a link building agency. We would recommend LinkBuilder.io as they come highly rated within the industry."
Consider Page Types
This is the final 'rule' but it's probably the most important.
The page you're linking to has a massive impact on what the anchor text should be.
Service based pages or homepages are going to be made up predominantly of branded anchors
Informational pages are more likely to have a higher % of keyword rich anchor texts
Actionable Anchor Text Ratios
If you want to be super safe, stick to these ratios when linking to the following page types.
Homepage & Service Pages:
10% Partial Match
5% Random e.g. “this guide”
5% Naked URL
20% Title Tag Variations - this is often underlooked
20% Partial Match
10% Include Brand + keywords
10% Random e.g. This guide
5% Naked URL
5% Exact Match
When exact match anchors are OK
As we've previously mentioned, you should be very cautious in general when actively using exact match anchor texts.
However, there are certain situations when exact match anchors can be more common.
Let's take a look at two examples...
Example 1 - The Wikipedia Page for World War II
In this particular case, the page has more than 30,000 referring domains, and 59% of the anchor texts are exact match.
- This is the name of Historical event - there's not really any other sensible way a writer would link to this page other than using the exact name of the event.
- It's an informational page which describes a particular event or concept in general.
- If you look at the other top pages in the search results, they all follow the same pattern.
- Wikipedia and other top ranking pages for this key term and insanely high authority - Wikipedia has a DR score of 96, they can stomach as many exact match anchors as they like, because Google knows they're an incredibly trusted source, despite what your University teachers would have you believe.
Example 2 - Definition Page for CRM on Salesforce
In this particular case, the two dominant anchors are both exact-match variations.
- This page is a definition page - It's literally explaining what a CRM is.
- For this reason, it does make sense that it would have a higher % of exact match anchor texts.
- Even despite the unique nature of the page (it's a definition page) it still only has around 35% exact match anchors, and still plenty of variations.
- Again, this page is on an extremely trusted website - Salesforce, with a DR score of 92.
We can safely say that certain types of purely informational content may be more prone to getting a higher % of exact-match or keyword driven anchor texts.
But we must stress that you should always do competitor modeling, and always take into account how authoritative the ranking website is.
When exact match anchors are NOT OK
So as we've continuously stressed - in 90% of situations, you should not be actively building links with exact match anchor texts. By all means, include longer-tail variations which include your keywords - Google actually think that's a good thing.
One of my favorite hobbies is looking at guest posts on link farms, because so many of them link out to pages with exact match anchors. Please, before you continue check out the video below.
Let's take a look at a couple of examples where using exact match anchors is definitely a bad idea...
Example 1 - Link to Debt Consolidation Page
So I visited a blog which I know is a link farm, and literally the very first article I clicked on had this exact match anchor text linking out to debt consolidation company.
I'm not going to name and shame the website in question, because they're probably just outsourcing link building to a company that clearly doesn't care about the quality of websites they're earning links on, and the anchor texts they're using.
Why is this a bad link?
- It's very obviously placed for the purpose of link building - It doesn't pass the stress test we spoke about earlier
- It's linking to a commercial, service based page rather than an informational pages
- It's actually linking to a local page for a very specific town in Canada, which makes it even worse
- None of the competitor's ranking for this page even have backlinks
If you are going to build links to these types of pages, it should be branded link most of the time, or at least have more relevance around the specific service or location.
Example 2 - Link to Web Design Company
I must stress again, looking through posts on known link farms is actually quite fun.
It's the perfect training course for understanding how not to do link building.
Here's another example of a web design company who has a link from this blog post:
😩 The frustrating thing is that the company being linked to actually looks like they do some amazing work - They have some incredible web design case studies, and they work with some huge brands across the World.
However, they clearly just don't know how to do link building, or they're outsourcing link building to a poor provider.
Why is this a bad link?
- Exact match anchor text to a service page
- Terrible relevance
- Does not pass our natural stress test
Our key takeaway here is that if the anchor text feels unnatural to you (the reader) then it should not be there.
Most service based pages or commercial pages don't have exact match anchor text unless it's in the form of a clear & legitimate recommendation.
What Pages Should I Link to?
This ties very closely into our discussion of anchor texts, because it's clear that certain pages get way more links than others.
- You can link more aggressively to content and informational pages.
- You can and should build a ton of branded links to your website, provided they feel natural.
- Do not link aggressively to commercial pages, money pages, service pages unless you have a clear and logical reason for doing so.
Anchor Text for Geographical Locations
Context is paramount for the anchor to perform its function and take the readers right where they need to be.
It is not wrong to include the business or service location in the anchor text or its surroundings, but this is something not to be taken lightly.
More often than not, things get tricky when optimizing commercial pages whose scope is local. When competing for better search engine visibility in heavily competitive geographical locations such as "lawyer New York", we tend to see SEOs spamming keyword-rich anchor texts hard.
When analyzing competitors, we have to be careful and mindful about what we decide to reverse engineer and what is better to avoid.
Before referencing directly to a location, we ask should ourselves:
Is the geographical area relevant to the website that links back to our clients?
Is it convenient to let searchers know about the specific locations when these may be coming from worldwide?
Are my competitors making good use of their anchor texts? Does it make sense?
Does this anchor text provide an unmatched reader experience?
Always stay on the cautious side when linking to Geo-specific pages, especially service based pages.
Even if your competitor's are following an aggressive approach, you shouldn't necessarily follow them. They may be ranking well because their site has been around for 20+ years and Google trusts them.
Good Anchor Text Examples
We're going to finish off by showing some examples of good anchor text, and how it's placed naturally in common situations.
As we mentioned earlier, reading some of the best and most highly respected blogs in your industry in undoubtedly the best way to recognize the patterns that real writers & webmasters use to link out to other pages in a natural way.
🧠 Meticulously study the linking habits of well respected writers in your industry - This is going to be your new benchmark for how to think about anchor text.
Watch the video below to help get an understanding of good anchor texts.
Example 1 - Credit card page on bank of America
🔗 Three links that appear natural & helpful, despite going to a commercial page:
- From Lendedu.com (DR 76) - "If you don’t already have a Bank of America card, you’ll want to head to their website to begin the application process. It won’t take you long to sign up and be notified whether you’ve been accepted."
- From Upgradedpoints.com (DR 71) - "The card has a variety of other benefits and a varying welcome bonus, too. Check out Bank of America’s credit card page for more info."
- From CNBC.com (DR 91) - "The travel rewards card is the latest Bank of America co-branded credit card to disappear from the bank’s website, following the likes of the MLB™ Cash Rewards Mastercard®, World Wildlife Fund Visa, and other co-branded cards that have been pulled in 2021."
Example 2 - How to invest in Bitcoin article on Nerdwallet
🔗 Three links that appear natural & helpful, despite going to an informational-commercial page:
- From Yahoo News (DR 92) - "Whether you should invest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies depends on your financial situation. One rule of thumb when it comes to alternative investments like this is to ensure they comprise only a small percentage of your overall portfolio."
- From FutureLearn - DR 84) - "If you are interested in getting hands-on experience with cryptocurrency, you can consider investing. Guides are freely available on the internet (Investopedia, NerdWallet, 99BitCoins to mention but a few)
- From Yahoo Finance (DR 92) - "Once you decide to take the plunge you then have to decide whether to buy coins directly from an exchange like CoinDesk or Gemini."
Example 3 - Linking to Wise Agent, a real estate CRM software
🔗 Examples of homepage links which are helping the Wise Agent homepage to rank #1 for 'real estate CRM"
- From Placester.com (DR 87) Listicle post - 4. Wise Agent - Wise Agent provides contact management, lead management, a Chrome extension, and other features to track and optimize your interactions with all your clients.
- From Smith.AI (DR 73) - "This robust CRM features advanced automation and transaction management tools, along with a central database for client information. Wise Agent makes it easy to create optimized landing pages, generate lead categories and contact assignments, and more."
Example 4 - Best Dogs Food page on DogFoodAdvisor
🔗 Examples of links to an affiliate page which is ranking #1 for 'best dog foods' on Google.
- From iHeartdogs (DR 74) - "You can also research brands on DogFoodAdvisor.com for ratings, recall information, and nutritional content, and take that information with you to your vet."
- From Heavy.com (DR 80) - "On this list, we’ve compiled the remainder of that site’s best dog foods list that did not appear on our first post. These are all highly recommended dog foods according to the experts, so shop confidently."
- From Totallygoldens.com (DR 46) - "There are a range of factors that mark out a good dog food. According to Dog Food Advisor, a good dog food should have:"
The best links all feel completely natural to read, and they add to your experience.
In all of the examples above, the writer seamlessly blends the link in and in cases where more targeted anchor text is being used, it actually adds to the reader's understanding.
In summary, you only need to consider anchor text optimization when you are actively building links to your website. If this is something that you've decided to invest in, then you need to be very careful with your strategy.
Feel free to reach out if you'd like to discuss your anchor text strategy in more detail.