Posted by Cyrus Shepard
We love exact match anchor text! It’s the Holy Grail of links that make our rankings soar – or does it? Many SEOs predict Google will continue to devalue exact match anchors as their algorithm evolves in the age of Panda. We’ve seen evidence of this phenomenon over the past year and many expect to see the value of exact match drop even further.
Many webmasters wonder if they should give up link building altogether. Not at all! Search engines collect a ton of data through links to better understand your content and how valuable it is. Recognizing these link signals can help you make the most out of every link you gain. Do you have any tips on anchor text? Let us know in the comment below!
Howdy SEOmoz! Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. My name is Cyrus. I do SEO here at SEOmoz. This week I want to talk about anchor text. Every week I get emails, I am sure you do too, from webmasters asking for a link, and they always want that exact match anchor text for the specific term they’re trying to rank for. It is a good practice. It works well. But things are changing in the SEO world.
1. Exact Match
In the old days, if you wanted to rank for something, your tactic was very simple. If your target keyword was Bing cherries, you just tried to get as many exact match anchor text that said Bing cherries as possible to your website. Those of you who have been practicing SEO for a long time noticed something about a year and a half ago or so, that this method did not work as well as it used to. If you got too many exact match anchor texts, it could actually hurt you. That’s why you say, that’s such a 2009 tactic.
Now with the Google Panda update, we’re talking about a whole other realm of ranking signals, such as engagement metrics, social signals, but we don’t want to forget these link signals. Even if exact match isn’t the end all be all, there is still a lot of information that Google and other search engines are getting from these link signals, and that’s what we want to talk about today.
2. Partial Match
Now, one of the most overlooked types of anchor text links is the partial match, and I am in love with partial match. I really quit going for these a long time ago. Now it is all about partial match. People sort of misunderstand what partial match is. The technical definition of partial match is any anchor text that contains at least one of your keyword phrases. So, if your keyword phrase was Bing cherries, these would all count as partial match anchor texts: Bing are the best cherries; I love cherries; Bing is awesome. Yeah, it’s probably not what they are talking about, but it is still technically partial match anchor text.
If you are a fan of the 2011 Ranking Factors that SEOmoz did – we’ll link to it in the text below – we took a look, one of the factors we looked at was the power of partial match anchor text versus exact match anchor text. Now, in general, if you look at the root domain metrics, the correlation between the number of exact match anchor text was 0.17. All things being equal, the power of partial match anchor text was 0.25. Significantly more power and more correlation between the number of partial match anchor text and exact match anchor text. So, all things being equal, it seems like people rank higher, just a little bit, if they have more partial match as opposed to these exact match that everybody is always going for.
This is how I’d like to explain it. If you give me a choice, if you could say I could have any 300 links I want but they have to be 300 partial match anchor text or 300 exact match anchor text, a lot of webmasters would go for this thinking it is the best policy. Statistically though, this is your best choice. This is going to contain some of your exact matches, but you’re going to have such a bigger broad tail, long tail queries that you can rank for. You’re going to get more traffic. You’re going to rank better for your targeted keywords, and this method is future proof. As Google deemphasizes these exact matches, this is going to take you forward in the long run. Those links are going to have a lot longer long-term value, and it is just going to give you a better natural looking link profile.
3. Context, Placement and Relevance
Other link signals, how do you make these links count? If you’re not getting the exact match anchor text, what are other context signals that Google could be looking at? Well, first of all, they are going to be looking at the on-page signals of the page that’s giving you the link. If you are trying to rank for Bing cherries, you want the title tag of that page to be cherries. There is an article Rand wrote a couple years ago, "The Perfectly Optimized Page." All those on page signals, those are what you want on the page linking to you – the title tag, the H1 headers, keyword usage, alt text in the photo. Those are all signals to Google that this page is about Bing cherries. It’s linking to you. You’re more likely to interpret that as this link is about Bing cherries.
Context, Google is getting increasingly more sophisticated at being able to do block analysis and determine what the page is about. So, if you have a section of ads, Google can kind of tell that is a section of ads. If you have a link in that section of ads, probably not going to count for very much. Same on the sidebar. If you have a link about Bing cherries on a page about monkeys and it is hidden in this link of text, well, the context and the placement of that link, Google says that’s probably not about cherries. It looks kind of like a paid ad, and that’s not going to count for very much. So, context, on page signals, all those traditional on page optimization, those things that you would want on your own page, you want to look for from the link.
4. The Future of Link Signals
Google is spending a lot of money to learn how to understand pages, to learn context. The days of the dumb search engine are kind of leaving us behind. Google is getting better and better at figuring out what these pages are about. If you read Google patents, which a lot of us like to do, SEO by the Sea is a great blog to read, they’re seeing patents such as sentiment analysis, such as in online reviews. Google will actually try to figure out if that review is a positive review or a negative review. So, even if you get the link, if there are words around it like Joe’s Pizza sucks, well that might not be, in the future, as good as link as Joe’s Pizza is awesome. Now, this is all theory. We don’t have the data and the facts to back this up, but the patents tell us this is where the future is going. Author profiling, the author tags that Google is using, they might be asking is this person an authority? If Rand Fishkin links to you with anchor text about SEO, Google may in the future decide Rand Fishkin is an expert about SEO. That link is so much more important than Joe Schmoe SEO because they know his author profile.
In the end, this system was easy to game. Exact match profiles, very easy to game. That’s why it went away. In the future, it is much harder to game. Search engines are becoming sophisticatedly more like human beings. So, when we look at these pages, we have to be human as SEOs. We have to judge these pages like a human. We have to write them like a human. We have to link like a human. The higher quality you do that, the longer your strategy is going to work and anchor text, linking signals, they’re all going to work for you.
That’s all. Thank you very much.
Bonus – A Final Note
Different SEOs hold widely varying opinions as to how much exact match anchor text is "too much." Estimates range between 25-80%. I don’t believe there is any perfect ratio, as other factors such as source, context and authority play significant roles. While there certainly needs to be more study in this area, I found the following articles interesting:
- Are We Over Engineering the Link Graph?
- Backing Up The Brand – Are Over Optimised Link Profiles A Barrier To Top 5 Rankings?
- How to Unnaturally Naturally Vary Your Anchor Text
As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and recommendations about "perfecting" anchor text.