When you first learn about SEO, you’ll be forced to read all the beginner blog posts that discuss the two pillars of search engine optimization - Links (backlinks) and Keywords. In this article, we’re going to focus on an aspect of optimization and UX that combines both of those topics through the strategic implementation of anchor text.
If you’ve ever had to follow a link from one piece of content to another post, you have likely come across anchor text - the highlighted, hyperlinked words that are clickable and send you to another page.
Sometimes it’s as simple as, “click here,” or, “learn more.” Other times, a writer and editor go the complete opposite route and a whole paragraph of text is functioning as the link.
You’ll be happy to know that this text is super valuable if you understand how to use it. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide that covers what anchor text is, some best practices, and strategies that you can start using immediately to help readers and search engines love and understand your content.
Table of Contents
- What is anchor text?
- Types of anchor text
- Google’s Penguin update for regulating links
- Anchor text best practices
- Closing remarks
TL;DR Anchor Text Overview
- Anchor text refers to the specific words that are hyperlinked on a webpage in order to direct a user to another piece of content.
- This text should be optimized in order to give search engines and users context on what they can find on the page they’ll be directed to.
- Some common anchor text types include: exact-match keyword anchor text, partial match text, branded link text, naked links, generic or random, alt attributes for images, and jump links for sitelinks.
- SEO professionals or content directors should implement variations of anchor text phrases to ensure they are abiding by Google’s guidelines. Many people advise aiming for only having 1 - 5% exact-match anchor texts.
- A variety of case studies do exist that are worth reading. They should be taken with a grain of salt, but they give readers a sense of just how Google might be weighting this text.
Anchor text is the clickable text on a webpage, often displayed as a hyperlink, button, or image description (alt attributes). You can think of this text as the label or title for your link.
And for those of us that work in search engine optimization or copywriting, the anchor text should concisely tell readers and bots what is waiting for them on the other side.
Pictured below is an example of anchor text from the Ten Speed post about blog post templates. We would guess from both the link and the subject of the sentence that the reader that clicks on “successfully improve traffic” would be sent to a page or blog post that discusses ways to get more or better traffic to your site.
<a href> html code sample - where the anchor text sits
It’s easier to understand why anchor text is also known as a link label or link title if we look at the actual html code for a link (As shown below).
<a href=”https://yoursitehere.com”>Useful Anchor Text</a>
You’ll notice that the html link code begins with the usual <a href> tag to label that this is a link. Then right before the closing of the tag you get your label. In this example the anchor text would read “Useful Anchor Text.”
To give you a real world example, below is the html code for the “successfully improve traffic” that we referenced in the image above.
What is the value of anchor text in links?
Great, so now you have a sense of how to define anchor text, how the tag is implemented in the html source code (what it looks like), but what is the value that using this type of text gives to you? And does it truly benefit your content from an SEO perspective?
Let’s answer that second question before we get any further. But you don’t need to take it from us that anchor text is useful for SEO. According to Search Engine Journal, Google’s John Mueller laid out the general way in which Google uses anchor text.
“Essentially, internal linking helps us on the one hand to find pages, so that’s really important. It also helps us to get a bit of context about that specific page...And we get some of that from the anchor text from the internal linking. And some of course from understanding where these pages are linked within your website.”
There is also this twitter post which we found on the Ahrefs piece about anchor text:
Link to actual twitter thread: https://twitter.com/JohnMu/status/864190235822899200
Let’s break down the true usefulness of anchor text.
1. It’s great for user experience (UX)
Have you ever been on a site that seems to hyperlink random words? Or better yet, have you ever been on a site that hyperlinks phrases like, “click here” or “learn more”?
Of course you have. We all have. And while you might have clicked one of those phrases, chances are that you did not. You kept reading the article you were on rather than risk being sent to another page that you had very little idea about what it might contain.
The proper use of anchor text gives a reader a clear understanding of what linked content will be about and draws on related information or questions about the piece they’re currently reading through.
2. Anchor text provides context clues to Google and other search engines
As Google continues to get better at reading the words on webpages and assigning the appropriate search intent to those pages, descriptive anchor text also tells Google what linked content is about.
This can be especially useful as you develop internal links throughout your website to create pillar architecture. If you write up a blog post about content marketing, you’ll likely create a few more blog posts about content marketing examples or content marketing strategies.
Your content marketing pillar post can then reference the post that provides content examples by featuring the anchor text “content marketing examples.” Now the search engines and your readers understand the connection between the two pieces of content.
Recommended Reading: Building Content Pillars That Reward Your Readers and Showcase Your Authority
3. This can be a great way to assign keywords to your content
Using variations of some of your target keywords that match the intent of the post you’re sending someone to is a great strategy for getting those keywords assigned to that page. We’ve all experienced being unsure why it’s taking so long for our content to be interpreted correctly by Google.
I once wrote a blog piece about virtual event planners, aka the people that plan online events. It took Google almost 3 months to figure out that the main intent of the page was not “virtual planners” (virtual planners according to Google are something more in line with a calendar or weekly log of the things you need to do).
I was able to switch the way Google understood the page by including more descriptive anchor text on related pages such as planning events, checklist downloads, and from the event planning services page that pointed to this piece of content.
4. It MIGHT be part of a ranking factor
Knowing the exact specifics of the ranking algorithms is tough. Knowing the amount that something is weighted into those algorithms is even tougher.
However, we do know that links are a significant part of helping content rank. It’s reasonable to assume that helping to give context via accurate and informative anchor text usage is also factored into the equation somewhere.
That’s why whenever we are tackling content decay projects, we’re always sure to add relevant anchor text and internal links into posts. Those connections often elevate rankings and visibility.
There are several common types of anchor text and while not all of the following list is traditionally defined as true anchor text, their link and text usage are so analogous that it only feels appropriate that they be included in this list.
1) Exact-match anchor text
Exact-match anchor text refers to the use of the exact or main keyword or query that a piece of content is intended to have. No modifiers or contextual language is included in the link outside of that phrase.
Example: The exact-match anchor text for this blog would be “anchor text.”
Partial-match anchor text refers to a variation of the keyword target. Perhaps the hyperlinked phrase contains another word or two to help contextualize a specific part of the content you’re sending someone to.
For example, this blog is clearly targeting the keyword, “anchor text.” A partial-match might be hyperlinking the phrase “what is anchor text.”
3) Branded anchor text
This is a common way to link, especially to competitors or external sources. Instead of referencing too much context or a keyword, you can simply link their brand name as the anchor text.
I did that above when I hyperlinked “Search Engine Journal” to talk about how they featured John Mueller’s quotes on how Google uses anchor text.
4) Naked links (URLs as anchors)
A naked link is simply using the naked URL as the anchor to itself. A naked link example to our homepage would be: https://www.tenspeed.io/
5) Generic and random (the majority of hyperlinked text)
Generic and random anchor text are grouped together but neither provides the user any idea where they’re going. The most common generic anchor texts are, “learn more” or “click here.” Both of these are ambiguous, don’t give context, and are usually found on buttons as well as in CTAs.
6) Alt attributes for images
While not necessarily an anchor text, the alt attributes assigned to images function in a very similar way. By entering the keyword, a variation of a keyword, or longer modifiers that help describe an image as the alt attribute, you provide a way for Google to put your image in the SERP or image search tab. You also help increase the accessibility of your content by giving those with vision impairments a better, more accurate experience.
7) Fraggles and anchor linking for sitelinks on the SERP
Additionally, the fraggles or jump links similar to the links in the table of contents for this piece are a valuable way to use text that tells a reader where they can skip to.
These jump links also often appear as sitelinks on the SERP, giving readers an idea of all the sections your piece contains before they even click the organic listing of your content.
Before you run off and start changing all of your links to your exact-match keywords, it’s important to understand Google’s Penguin algorithm for policing links.
With a user-first mission, Google has always prioritized the ability to remove what it considers “spam or spammy” from ranking competitively. They’ve by no means created a perfect system, but they have taken steps over the last two decades to prevent people, particularly malicious companies and marketers, from over-optimizing via unnaturally acquiring links from other websites.
And while we could drone on about the history of the Penguin update since 2012, here is the short version.
In the earlier days of Google, using exact-match anchor text for all of your links would likely deliver you your keyword and a great way to rank your content. On top of that, those links didn’t even need to come from relevant pages with similar topics.
If you had a blog post about glue, you could find a way to throw on 20 or 30 links about elephants, fireworks, or any other content you wanted. That blog post about glue would then help these irrelevant posts rank.
Because Google was weighting those links so heavily, the industry saw a plethora of bad-faith link building practices such as purchasing irrelevant placement of links, the creation of websites just to place links on the pages, etc.
Thus Google’s Penguin algorithm was introduced. And with each update of Penguin has come an emphasis on relevance of page topics for those content pieces linking to one another, natural link building, etc.
That’s why a number of case studies now call for SEO’s to take a more nuanced view of using keywords in anchor text. And while Google won’t tell us the exact percentages and weights to avoid being penalized by their algorithm, detailed case studies like the one from Ahrefs give us a loose target to aim for.
Start by simply using anchor text in the first place
It sounds too simple, but you’d be amazed how many websites simply aren’t using internal links and anchor text at all.
Go back through your site(s) and make sure your blogs, videos, products, services, etc. are utilizing various forms of anchor text to help users get to relevant pages and to pass along link equity.
Use “succinct” anchor text
The word “succinct” is often doing the heavy lifting on other blogs about anchor text that you might read - “as long as it needs to be” is a more appropriate definition for the length of anchor text.
And while that doesn’t clear up any ambiguity for you, good advice is to provide any phrase that can offer insight into what is on the other side of the link. It could be a single word or a variation of a longtail keyword.
If you were writing a post about the history of the Penguin algorithm and its many updates, any of the following would be perfectly appropriate, natural anchor texts:
- Penguin algorithm updates
- History of Google’s Penguin algorithm
- How Google regulates spam via its Penguin algorithm’s ability to interpret natural linking
- Penguin algorithm updates since 2012
Target page topic relevance
Anchor text needs to be relevant in order to be effective. As Google indexes and understands your content, sections of your site, individual paragraphs, and short phrases, you should use all of these to help users and bots alike understand how pages and sections relate to one another.
And this actually means being relevant in several ways:
- The entire page - The overall topic and intent of the two articles being linked together should somehow be relevant to one another.
- The section or paragraph - The paragraph that your anchor text and link are placed in should also be able to give Google and the reader a better sense of just how relevant the linked content is to the piece they’re currently reading.
- The anchor text - The keyword phrase or variation of the keyword phrase within your anchor text should be relevant to the piece of content you’re linking to.
Mix up your anchor text approach for a natural distribution ratio
As we noted above, you’ll want to try and optimize your site via an internal linking strategy that utilizes a natural ratio of the varying types of anchors.
Like all things in search engine optimization, the ideal ratio depends on your competition, your business niche, and your best estimates based on case studies since Google isn’t giving out that information.
A simple, yet useful anchor text ratio to start with:
- Brand text: ~30 - 50%
- Keyword-rich anchors (Topic Relevant): ~15 - 20% with only 1 - 9% being exact-match keyword targets
- Naked URLs: 15 - 20%
- Generic and Random: 15 - 20%
It’s worth noting that anchor text is both a part of internal and external linking. This means that your website is likely attracting links and anchor text from a lot of different sources that are out of your control. And a lot of external links will assign your site naked or raw URLs as well as brand centric anchor texts.
That’s why, generally speaking, without too much effort on your part, you'll likely maintain a natural distribution of anchor text types even if you aggressively target topical keyword phrases on internal links.
Want to calculate your own anchor text distribution? Check out this guide by Kevin Rowe on Search Engine Journal.
Give your arch nemesis credit... but not too much credit
If you have used the Yoast plugin, you’ve seen the red indicator before that implores you to not link to another page using the target keyword of your current post. That’s relatively good advice.
In the same vein, it’s often viewed as true that you don’t want to use the keyword you are targeting in the anchor text that is linking to a competitor’s page.
You should acknowledge and feel free to give your readers and users the best experience possible by linking to your competitors when you feel it truly adds value or if you are citing them as a source for the hard work and data collection they have done.
In this instance, an anchor text strategy that assigns a brand anchor to their resource is best practice and completely appropriate.
Add “exact title matching” anchors or “parent to child page” navigation menus
Anchor text is often a part of the larger internal linking strategy and website architecture of a site. It’s especially valuable in a pillar and cluster strategy (also called hub and spokes strategy). However, instead of always relying on a large body of text and descriptions in order to link your pillar posts to the clusters pages and vice versa, there are occasions when it might be more useful to implement a sidebar navigation tool that takes advantage of targeted anchor text.
A great example of this comes from the parent page by a Michigan law firm, Buckfire Law, that has individual pages for each type of accident case type that they handle. The pillar post in the image below is targeted toward car accident lawyers. Along the right side of the post they have a sticky navigation bar that uses descriptive anchor text to indicate types of car accidents that a reader might want to learn more about.
Additionally, some SEOs take advantage of exact title matching anchor text. Instead of utilizing an anchor text that works through your paragraphs naturally, you might simply end a specific section with a CTA hyperlink of the other page’s exact title.
For example, if we wanted to send a reader to check out our recent blog post with the title “Short-Form Content vs. Long Form Content: Which Is Better?” then we would add a prompt after a relevant section that used that exact title as the anchor text - it might look like:
Recommended Reading: Short-Form Content vs. Long Form Content: Which Is Better?
Some SEO professionals swear by this technique, implying that exact title anchor text matching seems to at least correlate with higher rankings via relevant intent matching.
In closing, we’d add that most marketing teams or writers should feel free to use the above techniques on their own without fear of penalty. Remember to mix up the anchor text types you can control to give the user the best experience possible.
And if you’re worried about coming off spammy and being penalized for having too many anchor text links of one type, you have a few options.
- Always abide by Google’s own spam guidelines
- Hire SEO specialists and consultants to help you optimize your existing content.
- Test it, break it, and fix it. Mistakes can (and will) happen and while time consuming and not ideal, they can usually be undone.
Overwhelmed or don’t have the time to dedicate to this type of work? Book a call with us and we’d be happy to help optimize your content.