The Death of Exact Keyword Anchor Text

Anchor text is the lovable clickable blue that links one web page to another. The words in the anchor text indicate what the destination page is about, and through these cues Google builds its index of the world’s web. Naturally, this is of interest to the search engine optimizer, and the control of anchor text has consistently been a large part of the SEO science.

But to what extent will it evolve? And are keywords in the anchor text going to continue to be relevant in the long-term?

There are many opportunities for SEOs to take some measure of control over the anchor text of the links that point to their pages. Most allowable by Google’s standards is internal link anchor, where we get to decide where and which flavours of our own link juice we want to pour and flow.

In a world where explicitly soliciting links is against the guidelines, choosing anchor text for links from external sources pushes the boundaries even further. But as anyone who’s ever heard of a Google Bomb knows, keywords in anchor have made and continue to have an impact on rankings, and incoming anchor has been an established, resilient ranking factor.

In general, common thinking about keywords in or near links runs as follows:

 

The table shows minimum cases of relevance for a link from one site to another, as far as that relevance contributes to the ranking potential of the destination page. There is some degree to which a keyword is present (the ‘Text’ column), and there is a location for this keyword relative to the link itself (the ‘Keyword location’ column). We can consider a link as getting less pure as we go down the columns, with more purity generally entailing more efficacy in transferring value.

To the extent to which we are trying to communicate the subject matter of a link’s destination page, the exact keyword as the entire anchor text is the most pure, direct and concentrated. But it is also the spammiest, because while it meets its technical link requirements in full, the fact is that naturally acquired links tend to not be so purely optimized. There is a natural reasonable proportion of links that naturally fit this “optimal” type, and to build a backlink profile well beyond this proprtion invites penalty disaster.

Commerciality

A relatively recently approved Google patent (that they applied for in 2004) mentions “commerciality of the anchor text” in a list of types of “feature data” Google would gather and analyze concerning links. What does commerciality mean? That the link instructs the surfer to buy something on the destination page? That the link was bought, and is itself commercial? If it is this second option, then surely conspicuous keyword-rich anchor is your commerciality indicator.

 

Scan around backlink anchor profiles for top ranking sites, and you’ll see that by a wide margin the most common anchor texts for backlinks are branded terms which may or may not contain non-branded keyword targets. In addition to the name of the company/site, links often contain a URL in the anchor itself, a root .com URL, which can also be thought of as a branded term. That’s the strange part in all this: how do we reconcile with the fact that the purest link setup is by nowhere near the most common? Doesn’t having some exact anchor still work? What is an SEO to do?

Nature Boy

There are SEOs that unflinchingly champion the naturalistic approach. Regarding content, they say forget keyword density, don’t waste time splitting hairs over guessed percentages, and just write good, natural text and the rest will take care of itself.

While I am generally in favour of this kind of approach to SEO, especially with something like keyword density, as an SEO I still insist that regardless of what was written without SEO in mind, you better have the phrase you hope to rank for appear at least once in the text. Multiple mentions are good within reason if the text permits, but generally the idea is to be natural but within SEO reason.

I believe that keywords in the backlink anchor function similarly. For the most part, let your anchor come out as it does, and trust that its natural way of coming to be will be right for you long term. But, if you do have some measure of control, get at least a small percentage of the links to have your anchor.

 

Speaking of Natural…

Is it in Google’s best SERP interest to give any advantage to an exact keyword anchor, versus that keyword being somewhere else in the sentence?

For example:

Check out PartyOptions.co.uk for great party supplies.

Is that anchor really going to help that page rank better for ‘party supplies’ compared with:

Check out PartyOptions.co.uk for great party supplies.

This second case has to seem more natural, and is the reason why brands dominate natural backlink anchor. On the purity table, it represents the ‘exact kw + is in the same sentence’ combination.

The Sentence

Anchor text is meant to specify a location. This is why anchor text so often tends to be ‘here’. The link takes a user from one location to another, and so the anchor specifies this other location. Brand names are a great means of identifying the location. As such, there’s no reason why a search engine should desire that the placement of a keyword relative to a link needs be more precise than ‘in the same sentence’, otherwise they are just asking for spam.

Using just the anchor text for keyword indication is the simplest and lightest route for a search engine to take. But the relatively specific window invites spam and is subject to the problems outlined above, as far as where anchor text is most likely to occur naturally. As semantic analysis develops and search engine spiders are able to better “understand” what they’re reading, word placement granularity as fine as exact keywords in anchor will become irrelevant as the words themselves without the surrounding context.

Assuming Control

Moving forward, if an occasional opportunity for a natural-seeming anchor text modification to an exact term presents itself, take it, but otherwise leave your profile untouched. If soliciting links, often choose the brand name, or let the person putting the link up decide. As behavioural data plays a growing role among ranking factors, the human clickability of the link could over-match any advantage conferred to exact keywords as anchor. There is a risk of exact keyword anchors being ugly enough to discourage a click. The weight given to being in the anchor will drop, and the click-driven user behaviour factor weight will grow.

Do you think keywords specifically in the anchor text itself will have an impact long term compared with the same keywords just appearing nearby?

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