Most marketers know link building is one of the countless critical factors for boosting your search engine rankings in the eyes of the Google Gods.
However, the words you choose for linking out and into your site matter too – and quite a lot! Those words are called anchor text, and Google’s algorithms pay more attention to them than newbies (and even some marketing veterans) realize.
In the early days, you used to be able to game the Google system by keyword stuffing anchors. Well, Google noticed and now carefully watches not only which words you choose to link, but also how often you use them and the surrounding text.
Yes, the technical details are complicated, but the basics are easy enough for everyone to understand and apply.
By optimizing—but not over-optimizing—your anchor words and learning the best practices, you can fine-tune your SEO and watch your rankings climb. If you break the rules, Google can penalize your site. (Not good.)
This post will cover a few key points:
- What is Anchor Text, and Why is it Important?
- Understanding Anchor Text HTML
- Anchor Text and Backlinks
- 10 Types of Anchor Text and How They Work
- Naked Link Text
- How Does Anchor Text Affect SEO?
- Avoid Too Many Exact Match Anchors
- How to Optimize Anchor Text for SEO
- Don’t Link to or Earn Links from Toxic Sites
- Make Sure Anchor Words are Relevant
- Avoid Using Keyword-Rich Anchors for Internal Links
- Distribute Different Types of Anchor Text Wisely
- Pay Attention to Surrounding Text
- Don’t Neglect Your Image ALT Tags
- Keep Guest Blogging
What is Anchor Text, and Why is it Important?
SEO is a complex matter that consists of thousands of little details. Anchor text is one of these details.
An anchor is a text you click to move from one internet destination to another; it literally anchors two different locations on the internet together.
While anchors typically link webpages, they can also initiate downloads and link to documents like PDFs or files in Google Drive. That is why you should only click anchors from sites you trust, and hover over the link with your mouse – but don’t click! – to make sure the URL looks legitimate.
Here is an example:
SEMrush is the all-in-one kit for digital marketing professionals.
In that sentence, the word “SEMrush” is the anchor text. By hovering our mouse over the anchor, we can rest assured knowing it links to the SEMrush homepage and not a mysterious malicious file.
The text you choose for anchors is important for a few reasons:
It tells your readers what to expect before they click the link. Anchor words are THE promise about what is on the other side of the link, so they must be highly relevant.
It tells Google algorithms what your content is about. Google’s algorithms use your anchor choices to make sure you are not engaging in spammy practices AND to understand the topics you are linking to in your copy.
Understanding Anchor Text HTML
Anchor text HTML is remarkably simple — this is the code we all learned to produce when we perfected our Angelfire sites and Myspace accounts back in middle school.
Here is what it looks like on the backend of WordPress in the text editor:
And when you click over to the visual editor, you can see how the link changes to ONLY display the anchor text on the frontend:
Anchor Text and Backlinks
At this point, it is worthwhile to distinguish the difference between nofollow and follow links since this post is about anchors in the context of search engine optimization.
On the HTML side, the only difference is that a nofollow link contains an extra piece of code. In the example above, a nofollow link would look like this:
<a href="https://www.semrush.com/analytics/backlinks/"rel="nofollow">Backlink Analytics Tool </a>
In the eyes of the Google algorithms, however, that tiny piece of code makes an enormous difference.
Nofollow: Tells Google NOT to take the backlink into account when determining SEO value for either page. Since 1st March 2020 Google is starting to take nofollow links as a hint in determining a website's position in SERP.
Sponsored: Tells Google that this link was obtained through some agreements between you and a publisher.
UGC (User Generated Content): Tells Google that the link (and the whole content) was placed on this page by users.
Follow: Tells Google to give credit to the page you’re linking to and take it into account when scanning your links.
The discussion of no-follow links is really more of a topic for backlinks, but it is worth considering when you choose your anchor words as well (we’ll explain some details further below in the best practices).
10 Types of Anchor Text and How They Work
Of course, when talking about search engine optimization and Google algorithms, “simple” isn’t in the vocab. In fact, Google identifies at least ten different types of anchor text.
Here is a snapshot of the SEMrush anchors:
Generic Anchor Words
A generic anchor doesn’t include any text referencing a keyword. Instead, the reader must rely on the surrounding copy for context clues about what is on the other side of the link.
Generic anchor text might seem spammy, but it is actually pretty powerful. Why? Well, it usually includes actionable language, a straightforward CTA, or draws direct attention to the link.
Generic Anchor Examples:
About the author
Branded Anchor Text
Branded anchors include your brand name, and they are great for building recognition. Plus, they are a safe bet to avoid getting flagged for spam.
But – and this is a big but – if you use an exact match domain (EMD) that includes a target keyword, it gets a little more complicated. You get a little more leeway from Google before earning a penalty, but if you take it too far with the goal of over-optimizing, Google could catch you.
If you have public figures associated with your brand – such as a CEO, journalist, influencer, or prominent author – Google might also identify any links with their name as a branded anchor as well.
Branded Anchor Examples:
Bill Hartzer of BillHartzer.com
According to Reuters News Agency
Julia McCoy says in The Write Blog
As CT News Junkie reports
Exact Match Link Text
Exact match anchor text includes the precise keyword the page you are linking to is targeting. If someone decided to link to this very blog post and chose to hyperlink with the words "anchor text", we would earn an exact match link text because that is the keyword we are targeting here.
While it is important to earn some exact match anchors, Google also pays close attention to these links and could penalize you for spam if you have too many.
Exact Match Anchor Examples:
B2B conversion rate optimization
(All examples above assume the link behind the text is targeting the exact phrase)
Partial Match Anchor Words
Partial match anchors include your keyword phrase along with other generic, random, or stop words.
Partial-Match Anchor Examples:
Useful SEO tools if you’re linking to a page targeting “SEO tools”
Buy running shoes here targeting “running shoes”
Informative keyword strategy guide targeting “keyword strategy”
Related Anchor Text
Related anchor words link to a page using a variation of the target keyword. They are like partial match keywords, but related anchors don’t include the precise keyword phrase.
You will want to build some related anchors to help Google’s crawlers better understand what your links are all about. Plus, they keep your link profile diverse so Google is less likely to hit you for spammy links.
Related Anchor Examples:
Yemen’s water crisis if you are linking to a page targeting “Yemen cholera epidemic”
Adidas Yeezy Boost targeting “buy running shoes”
Social media marketing targeting “Facebook content strategy”
Random Anchor Text
Some link analysis tools will toss random and generic anchors in the same category. However, random anchor words might also include phrases that aren’t quite as generic as “click here”, but they aren’t really related to the target keyword either.
Random Anchor Examples:
The rules have changed
It is hard to pick examples for random anchors because they could be anything, and they are subjective depending on each page’s target keywords.
Naked Link Text
Naked anchor text is just a URL pasted into the copy from the browser bar – but it is clickable! You might see links like this if someone adds references at the bottom of their article and includes your link as a source.
They aren’t pretty, but Google likes naked anchors because they are far less likely to imply someone is trying to use spammy practices to rank for a keyword.
Naked Anchor Examples:
Brand + Keyword Anchor Words
These include your brand name (or branded phrase) and a keyword. They can help you optimize for the keyword without looking spammy to Google AND build brand recognition at the same time.
Brand + Keyword Anchor Examples:
SEMrush for keyword research
Running shoes at Adidas
Perfume at Ulta
Image Anchor Links
Maybe you have heard that adding ALT text to your image description is important? Well, your ALT text for images is what Google reads as the image’s anchor (when said image is part of a link).
Image anchors are healthy because they diversify your anchor text profile. Plus, they can improve your SEO for Google images. You want to write a descriptive ALT text for the image link.
Image Anchor Examples:
Affordable cat trees for apartments
SEMrush link building strategy guide
LifeStraw travel accessories
Long-tail anchors are similar to partial anchors, but they contain more words. These give you a chance to include your keyword along with some related, descriptive, generic, or branded keywords.
Sometimes, long-tail anchors can include an entire subheading or headline for a link. Other times, writers will link to a whole sentence. While you don’t necessarily want to write long-tail anchors all the time, they can be useful for SEO. Plus, you can’t control what other sites do.
Long-Tail Anchor Examples:
Read more about keyword research on the SEMrush blog
Why duplicate content is bad for SEO
Remember when Amazon was a used bookstore?
How Does Anchor Text Affect SEO?
Google has always used anchor words to learn what webpages are about, so it can rank them for the right keywords. The original Google paper contains an entire section just for anchor text. Here is a snapshot:
The text of links is treated in a special way in our search engine. Most search engines associate the text of a link with the page that the link is on. In addition, we associate it with the page the link points to.
According to Google, anchors provide more objective descriptions of a link than the pages can provide for themselves through metadata. Makes sense. Anchors for backlinks (should) come from neutral third-party sources.
Google says anchors also help the algorithm crawl pieces of content that don’t or can’t supply a copy on the internet for indexing. Such as:
Anchor text used to play a heavy role in search engine rankings – a bit too much, in fact.
Can you see where this is going?
Before 2012, marketers used lots of exact match anchor keywords to manipulate the Google algorithm. By using keyword-rich anchors to point at your site, you could end up ranking in the first spot for keywords – even if your site wasn’t at all related to the anchor text topic.
If multiple sites chose the same anchor text to link to the same page, Google figured it must be related, so it should rank high!
Well, Google finally caught onto the deceptive practice and released the first of its Penguin updates in April of 2012, which cracked down on anchor text specifically. A ton of marketers saw their rankings plummet and rushed to tweak their anchor strategy.
Avoid Too Many Exact Match Anchors
Today, using nothing but exact match anchors is a well-known taboo in the SEO community.
Marketers should instead embrace the randomness. Google still pays close attention to anchor words and uses them to judge the content of your site, but if you are trying to manipulate the algorithm with anchors, you should expect Google to catch on.
Now, Google understands that some domain names contain keywords. Those are called exact match domains (EMDs). In up to 70% of cases, Google will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the anchor is branded rather than an exact match.
Keep in mind that Google deploys new algorithms and updates existing algos all the time. One day, you could wake up and Google could have updated to detect the difference between branded and exact match anchor text for EMDs. You just never know.
It is always best to keep your anchors relevant, avoid over-optimizing, and create a positive experience for Google users above all else.
How to Optimize Anchor Text for SEO
When we talk about optimizing anchor text here, we are talking about Google’s best practices – not gaming the algorithm in your favor.
In October of 2019, Google released the BERT update, which uses natural language processing to understand and rank pages. What does this mean for anchors? We can’t be 100% sure because Google keeps its algorithms as tightly guarded as nuclear codes.
However, it could mean that Google pays closer attention to context clues around anchors now. Instead of reading simply the anchor text, Google’s crawlers might also scan and consider the surrounding words and sentences more so than they have in the past.
It also means Google prioritizes user experience and answering search queries more than anything else. So, that is what marketers should do.
And, that is why “optimizing” anchors involves creating a better experience for everyone.
Don’t Link to or Earn Links from Toxic Sites
Google cares about which sites you link to. If you link to a site that spreads false information, promotes hate, or engages in spammy practices, Google can penalize you. Even if a site has good intentions, the link can still end up hurting your ranking.
It is called the co-citation principle. Removing hate-promoting sites from the equation, checking a site’s Alexa ranking and only linking to sites with a score of 100k or less is a smart practice.
Now, Google also understands that sometimes you must link to “bad” sites as a reference. Maybe they are the only source or you need to debunk the information. In that case, you can use a nofollow link to tell Google “I don’t endorse this site and I don’t want it counted against my SEO.”
Make Sure Anchor Words are Relevant
Relevancy is key. While too many exact match anchors can certainly count against you, you also want your anchors to relate to the topic on the other side of the link.
Remember, Google uses anchors as information to learn what webpages are all about and how important they are so it can rank them in keyword searches appropriately. You definitely want to pick anchors that make sense for the link, and that will help create a positive experience for your readers.
If you start choosing random words for anchors just for the sake of diversity, it could end up qualifying as clickbait, and your readers won’t be happy; Google watches this too.
Avoid Using Keyword-Rich Anchors for Internal Links
Using exact match anchors for internal links is a big no-no. Google understands you might not have control over what other sites do, but it DOES know you can control your own internal links.
If you use exact match anchors for internal links, Google will assume you are trying to manipulate the system and penalize you. Instead, use related anchors, long-tail anchors, or generic anchors for internal links.
Distribute Different Types of Anchor Text Wisely
Randomness is good when it comes to anchor text. You generally want to strive for:
30% to 40% branded anchors
30% to 40% partial match anchors
20% to 40% generic, related, naked, random, exact match, and other anchors
Nothing is set in stone here. Try checking out some of the top websites in your industry. See what their outgoing and incoming anchors look like so you can piece together an idea.
Pay Attention to Surrounding Text
Google’s recent BERT update taught us that the search engine is tweaking its strategy in favor of natural human language and the surrounding context.
When you read something online, you don’t ONLY look at the anchor text to decide whether you will click the link. You also read the surrounding sentences and paragraphs to understand what is on the other side of the hyperlink, right?
We should assume Google is doing that too. Most marketers don’t choose an entire sentence as their anchor. However, it might be worthwhile to consider that the Google bots will scan the words in the entire sentence as it scans our anchor text.
On that note, you may also want to avoid using the same anchor words throughout an entire body of text – even if you are linking to different sites each time. Google may still consider this over-optimization and penalize you.
Don’t Neglect Your Image ALT Tags
Image ALT tags are critical for a few reasons. They:
Help visually impaired readers understand what an image is about
Tell the Google bots what an image is about
Function as anchor text
Image ALT tags should be highly descriptive and sound like a natural sentence. It used to be common practice to keyword stuff ALT tags, but Google quickly caught on, so keep your keywords to a minimum here.
Choose one main keyword and incorporate it into a descriptive sentence about the specific image.
Keep Guest Blogging
Some marketers have written off guest blogging as part of an anchor and link building strategy. As usual, people were using their guest blogging bios to keyword stuff anchors and backlinks.
While you certainly shouldn’t do that, you CAN still use guest blogging from highly relevant and authoritative websites to improve your anchors and overall SEO.
Limit yourself to authoritative sites that relate to your niche. Google will surely notice if you are publishing on content farms it has already flagged for spam a dozen times.
Anchor text is an important factor in your website’s SEO health. In the eyes of Google, anchor words help it learn which sites are running spam operations and which are legit. Anchor words also tell your readers where they can find more information and what is on the other side of your links.
When developing a link building strategy, anchors can’t be an afterthought.
It is your job as a marketer to pay careful attention to your types of anchor text, which words you choose, and even the surrounding words. As with most things SEO, diversity and moderation are key. Don’t keyword stuff, always diversify your types of anchor tags, and only link to highly relevant, reputable pages.
Save the key takeaways from this post for later by downloading the SEMrush Anchor Text Cheat Sheet right now! We also have an infographic below.