When writing web copy or blog posts, you’ll often come across opportunities to link to other pages. Whether you’re guiding readers to another section on your website or citing the source of a statistic, linking is a simple, effective way to share additional information with your readers.
By now, most people can immediately identify a link when they see one. The text is usually blue and underlined, or otherwise visually different than the rest of the copy on the page. These visual cues tell the reader that more information can be found when they click on those words.
Web crawlers see links through a different lens. Since they parse the HTML rather than see the actual user-facing side of a web page, they’ll see code that looks something like this:
<a href=”https://www.brafton.com/glossary/anchor-text/”>Anchor Text</a>.
This line of code tells the crawler a few things. First, the letter “a” tells the crawler that this will be a link (and the “/a” denotes the end of the linked area). The “href” always preludes the target page, and the URL in quotation marks specifies what that page is. Finally, the text between the “a” and “/a” tags is the anchor text, or the linked area.
The result from this example would look like this:
Creating a link is a simple gesture, and one you may not give a lot of thought to. However, the target pages and anchor text you choose to include on your site can impact your SEO efforts. Similarly, the anchor text in backlinks that point to your site will also factor into your visibility, which means strategic anchor text selection is important in link building efforts, too.
The Penguin Update, and what it means for anchor text
Google is constantly updating its algorithm with the goal to make the search experience as helpful and user-friendly as possible. It makes several hundred changes to its algorithm every year, and not all will make a huge difference to how your site will rank or what you need to do to optimize your pages.
But every once in a while, Google makes a major update that changes the way SEO pros operate forever.
A little dramatic? Not if you ask all the sites that took a hit after the first iteration of the Penguin update in 2012.
With Penguin, Google wanted to take an up-close look at anchor text and links in particular. Prior to 2012, it was common practice to almost entirely use keyword-rich anchor text. Some shady web users used this technique to falsely inflate certain results, a practice called “Google bombing.”
To straighten things out, Google penalized “over-optimized” anchor text links, or excessive exact match keyword links. Within 24 hours of the update going live, some brands’ rankings plummeted – see the orange line on the graph below:
The Penguin update went live April 24, 2012, right around the severe drop in this site’s SEO visibility. Google announced the update only noticeably impacted 3.1 percent of queries in English, but clearly those that were affected had major ground to make up.
This isn’t to say exact match anchor text is never OK, but it should be used very sparingly: between 1 and 5 percent, Ahrefs suggests.
Penguin has been updated several times since 2012. In 2016, Penguin 4.0 began penalizing pages with anchor text issues in real time rather than progressively, Neil Patel explained. The good news is that Google will only penalize the page rather than the entire site, but this will still impact your visibility overall.
Options for choosing anchor text
Anchor text links should be placed naturally within a sentence, which means you likely have several options when choosing which words to hyperlink.
Here are a few common types of anchor text you may use, or may have seen on other websites:
Exact match: When you only link the keyword you’re targeting on a given page.
Partial match: When you include the keyword with additional words surrounding it.
LSI keywords: Latent Semantic Indexing keywords are when you choose a word or phrase that means basically the same thing as your target keywords, but aren’t an exact match.
Generic: When you link a word or phrase that indicates that there’s a link, but doesn’t say anything about it; “Click here” and “Read more” are common examples.
Branded: When you link the name of the brand of the target page: Brafton.
Site name: When you link the domain name of a page; this can include any subdomains or paths: Brafton.com or Brafton.com/brafton-blog.
Naked URL: When the anchor text is the URL itself: https://www.brafton.com/brafton-blog/
Image: When you link an image. You might do this for your call-to-action buttons, ads or logo.
The goal of creating a link is to provide value and clear direction to your reader. Though any one of these options will take users to the target page if clicked, they’re not all equally helpful. Understanding how each style of anchor text impacts the way readers and search engines view your page will help you build an anchor profile that benefits your site.
How to choose anchor text for SEO
At its core, SEO is all about showing search engines that your site is helpful and not spammy, and these basic principles apply to choosing anchor text, too.
To show that your site and the links you provide are helpful, your anchor text should:
- Clearly and succinctly explain what the target page is.
- Lead to relevant content.
And, to show that you aren’t spamming your readers, your anchor text should NOT be:
- Too generic.
- Too keyword-dense.
- Unrelated to the target page, or the content at hand.
How to choose helpful anchor text for your readers
Ultimately, you shouldn’t be choosing your anchor text to please Google. Your content is first and foremost designed to help your audience, and so should your anchor text links.
To make your anchor text as helpful as possible, select words that tell readers clearly what they will find when they follow the link. Here’s an example from Stevie Snow’s article about the content marketing process:
When you follow that link, you’ll be brought to Mike O’Neill’s article about – you guessed it – content ideation tools. What’s more, those content ideation suggestions are relevant to Stevie’s topic, creating a content marketing process.
There’s no hard-and-fast guideline regarding how many words to use in your anchor text, but it should be as concise as possible. A sentence-long link is a lot to take in, and probably won’t clearly illustrate the link destination. On the other hand, a single-word link could be overlooked and may not be as enticing to click.
Best practices for using different types of anchor text
Between these general guidelines and tales of lost SERP positioning due to the Penguin update, you may be inclined to only use a few types of anchor text, or to avoid exact match anchor text at all cost. But this isn’t exactly the case. A varied approach to your anchor profile will come across as natural to your readers and can be a healthy SEO practice.
Exact match anchor text
In general, you should keep instances of exact match anchor text to a minimum. However, including at least one could help search engines identify the subject of your page.
Partial match anchor text
Partial match anchor text might look less spammy than exact match because you’re changing up the language and it looks a bit more natural. As such, if you want to use your target keyword more often without coming across as manipulative, using a word or phrase to complement the keyword may be the best route.
LSI anchor text
There are a couple benefits to using LSI anchor text. First, it brings variety to your text so you’re not repeating your target keyword too frequently. Second, it will bring attention to similar keywords your audience might be searching instead of your target keyword.
You can generally use LSI anchor text more frequently than exact match, though this still should be kept on the lower end of the scale – depending on whom you ask, you should use this style between 5 and 20 percent of the time.
Generic anchor text
Generic anchor text is another that should be used sparingly. However, there are times when it simply makes sense. Consider our Content Marketing Weekly; we use generic anchor text several times in each edition:
In this example, Dom Tortorice highlights the content that will be found in the article, then simply links the word “here.” This is fine because 1) readers will already know what they will find when they click the link (Dom already explained that specific article and only that article), and 2) he already linked to the content in the headline using non-generic anchor text.
Branded anchor text
Different people will give different breakdowns for the ideal percentage of each type of anchor text, but the one thing they all have in common is that branded anchor text should be your most common:
- SEMRush suggests using these 40 percent of the time.
- Serpstat recommends using these 50 percent of the time.
- Exposure Ninja says to use these 25 percent of the time.
Branded anchor text could be helpful when bringing people to your landing pages from one of your own blog posts or from guest posts on other sites. When working on link building, creating backlinks from reputable sources to point back to your site will benefit you in the long run. Here, branded anchor text that includes your name will help establish you as a thought leader and call greater attention to your business.
When using branded anchor text to link to other sites, it’s most beneficial for SEO and for your readers if the brand you’re linking to is an authority on the topic you’re discussing, like a reputable organization or an industry expert.
Naked URL anchor text
Naked URL anchor text is another style that many industry professionals value. Perhaps this is because it’s no-nonsense: It’s very clear what the page you’re linking to is because you’re sharing the exact web address.
On the other hand, there are some definite drawbacks to the naked URL technique. First off, when you’re reading content and come across a plain old URL, it can be a jarring experience. It doesn’t read as smoothly because you’re probably not expecting it.
Additionally, your reader may not think you’re as well-versed in web content as you should be. The reader probably knows how to create a hyperlink, so why can’t you?
If you’re going to use a naked URL, make sure it’s placed in a way that looks as natural as possible. Additionally, choose a shorter URL. A longer one that will span onto two (or more) lines will just look garbled – plus, it may be more difficult to identify what the target page is if the reader has to make sense of a series of subdomains and paths.
Image anchor text
Image anchor text will inevitably be less common in your content (you’ll most often choose actual words to link). In fact, some people may warn you against using images as your anchors; here’s what John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google had to say, according to Search Engine Journal:
“The one thing I would avoid doing is changing anchor text into an image. So if you have… a fancy font or something that you want to use on your pages and you change a link from being a text link to an image link and you don’t have any textual kind of connection with that image for that link then it’s really hard for us to understand what the anchor text is supposed to be.”
Of course, there will be times when an image anchor makes sense. Think about your CTAs – those may be linked images. The logo on your site may also be a linked image. One way to make an image more instructive to search engines is to include relevant alt text. Web crawlers will interpret the alt text in a similar way that they do anchor text.
Creating an anchor text strategy that works for you
Anchor text selection isn’t an exact science. Some instances will call for one type of anchor text, while other areas of your content will work better with another style.
The key to a smart anchor text strategy is to keep your content valuable and natural sounding to your reader.
The key is to keep your content valuable and natural sounding to your reader. Track your pages as you go so you can identify patterns in your anchor text to continuously improve your site. As you notice how your anchor text links impacts your SEO, you can make changes to improve your visibility over time.
Keeping tabs on the types of links you’re creating will also help you maintain an anchor profile that works for your site. When you notice you have plenty of branded anchors but your percentage of LSI links is beginning to decline, you may want to change or add anchors where they make the most sense.
Anchor text isn’t the most critical aspect of SEO, but that’s not to say you can ignore this feature of your content. With a little bit of strategy, you can make sure your anchor text is just as helpful to your audience as it is to Google.