It’s 2017 and, believe it or not, I’m writing about anchor text. It might seem like a Throwback Thursday topic, but as an industry, we’re still being challenged about ‘why links don’t have anchor text’ and ‘what our anchor text strategy is’.
This post will outline my thoughts on anchor text, why it’s time to let it go, and why some SEOs still cling onto it. To get started, we need to take a walk down memory lane…
Let’s start in 2004
The mid-2000s was when I became involved in SEO, and things were much simpler. Simply put, an SEO needed to make sure the website was accessible, throw some content on the page, optimise the title tags, and build as many exact match anchor text links as possible.
You could rank any term, and if you were careful with the domains and mixed up the anchor text variations, it was a fairly stable strategy. This is the technique I used to personally enter the top five on Google for ‘SEO’ within six months of launching a blog.
The landscape started changing in 2011 with the introduction of Google’s Panda algorithm, but the real bombshells came in 2012 when sites of all shapes and sizes were being hit with manual actions, wiping out rankings for their most valuable terms to devastating effect.
Then, Google launched Penguin: an algorithm designed to wipe out your manipulated link profile and rankings.
On top of all of this, they also took out some pretty big link and blog networks, and actively penalised websites selling advertorials for the purposes of embedding links.
It was a blood bath, so surely that should have been the end of manipulative techniques?
Not exactly. This was four years ago, and while Google has refreshed Penguin several times, no manual actions have been sent; a few networks have been taken out, and the last Penguin update was 18 months ago.
All of this has allowed manipulated results to make a return to the SERPs, and Google appears unbothered.
We all have short memories
There is another issue: because we don’t know the detailed workings of Google’s algorithms, we have to make educated guesses based on testing and measuring correlation (yes, correlation; SEOs love correlation, myself included).
So, what happens? We pull the link profiles of high-ranking websites, and discover that they have a ton of exact match and other commercial anchor text. This must be the reason they’re winning, right? Maybe, but you have to read between the lines.
As an agency, we get asked about this a lot, and here is why the industry absolutely has to let exact and commercial anchor text go.
SEOs are keeping it alive
The only reason Google had to clamp down on anchor text heavy links is because SEOs massively overused them. We all found a strong signal and did it to death: it was cheap, scalable, worked in a silo, and produced great margins.
Think about it: agencies could charge to get clients results from SEO without needing to improve the website, work with internal teams, understand the business or produce quality content. On top of all that, it only cost a few hundred dollars, which meant the margins were insane.
The only people interested in ensuring anchor text remains a strong signal are the SEOs who rely on it as part of their business model.
Admittedly, it did work, and you could fly below the radar five years ago, but following this strategy now will turn your website into a ticking time bomb.
Ultimately, if you’re paying an agency or ‘expert’ to do your SEO, and anchor text is the key strategy, it is only there to support the business model of your agency and not your business. Google will update Penguin and you will lose your rankings.
Disavowing means you’re blind
Six months after Google manually penalised thousands of websites for manipulative links, it launched the disavow tool. This was simply a text file you filled with all the links you felt were unnatural and responsible for your penalty.
You uploaded the file and requested a reconsideration, hoping you had found enough bad links to remove the penalty.
Businesses are still actively doing this to prevent action from Google in the future, and here is the problem: you have no way of knowing if a competitor has disavowed links or not.
You can analyse as many link profiles as you like, and they could have 100% links using exact match or partial match anchor text, but for all you know they are disavowed, which means you shouldn’t count them.
The disavow tool has almost made analysing link profiles redundant, although admittedly, there is still real benefit in understanding where fresh links are coming from. But looking at historic profiles and anchor text splits really doesn’t tell us anything.
It’s a trap
I came across this article about SEO experiments (it’s a good one, you should read it), and it discussed how exact match anchor text can influence rankings, and how powerful they were.
Although there is no specific advice given, suggestions like this can lead people to think this is an important part of an SEO strategy, when it’s actually a dangerous one.
There is no debate that anchor text is a powerful signal, as it still does work to increase rankings. However, it’s also a trap, and commonly agreed to be one of the key elements that Google looks at when penalising websites for manipulative links.
In the short term, you might be able to see some quick wins using these techniques, but in the long term you are putting your SEO traffic and revenue at serious risk.
Are you a publisher?
Have you ever published on the web? Written a blog? Posted on social media? Contributed to a forum? Not for SEO purposes, but to genuinely contribute?
If you have, then in all honesty, do you even bother considering the anchor text you use?
I have and continue to write occasionally, and even as an SEO, I give no consideration to anchor text. It’s just not a natural way to write, unless your business is the commercial anchor text such as hotels.com.
People who are going to naturally link to your business are not going to use anchor text. Unless, of course, it’s your SEO agency using their blog network.
Log into Google Analytics or your platform of choice and take a look at your organic traffic from Google and the revenue/leads it drives. Could your business honestly survive if that was to disappear overnight? That is the stark reality of focussing your strategy on anchor text.
The industry has come a long way since 2004, but it still hasn’t fully matured, in my opinion. The commercial reality of a successful SEO strategy is very real, yet the budgets that businesses invest in SEO are still very low.
This, unfortunately, doesn’t help to encourage in-house teams and agencies to do better work and rely on more than quick-win tactics.
I’ve actively worked with businesses for whom SEO has driven over 50% of their revenue, but accounts for 5% of their marketing spend. It’s time to get serious about Search, and invest in doing the right things.
Anchor text post Penguin 4.0
When Google rolled out its ‘real-time’ Penguin 4.0 algorithm in September 2016 and announced that penguin is now part of it’s core algorithm, many saw ranking fluctuations, both good and bad. Historically, Penguin algorithm updates were designed to eliminate web spam by attempting to identify unnatural offsite SEO signals. In relation to this blog post, the distribution of anchor text should be natural, and the quality of links going to your website should be high.
Penguin is now more granular, so by sending spam signals by using unnatural, keyword targeting anchor text will negatively affect your rankings. Penguin 4.0 has helped develop this topic by increasing the risk real-time to businesses who focus their SEO efforts purely around an anchor text based strategy, and likewise, to SEOs who continue to place such importance on anchor text based strategies.
The bottom line is, anchor text can be a powerful ranking factor when done properly. Naturally earnt links should in turn bring with it a link profile consisting of natural anchor text distribution. Focus less on anchor text and more on the quality of the backlink.