We’ve already given you seven tips for stellar anchor text optimization, but those just scratched the surface. In truth, there are many more ways you can optimize your anchor text for higher rankings and more clicks.
Here, we’ll explore those tactics so you can take your anchor text from basic to next-level. These are 15 of the best ways you can effectively optimize your anchor text.
- Does Anchor Text Matter for SEO?
- 1. Don’t Over Optimize
- 2. Don’t Use Target Keywords for External Links
- 3. Prepare the Reader’s Expectations
- 4. Tweak Length on a Case-by-Case Basis
- 5. Use the Right Code
- 6. Prioritize Accuracy
- 7. Learn the Truth About Exact Match Anchors
- 8. Embrace Randomness
- 9. Don’t Forget About Images
- 10. Don’t Sweat Anchor Text Ratio
- 11. Audit Your Current Anchor Text
- 12. Remember the Surrounding Text
- 13. Use Keywords Sparingly
- 14. Learn by Example
- 15. Leverage Synonyms
Does Anchor Text Matter for SEO?
While there’s no shortage of silly SEO myths scattered across the internet, the importance of anchor text is not one of them.
Knowing how Google’s algorithms work, that’s not exactly surprising. As the 1998 research paper introducing the search engine detailed, Google evaluates pages based on factors such as:
- external and internal links;
- on-page keywords; and
- you guessed it, anchor text.
The same is still true today, as can be seen with John Mueller doling out advice for proper anchor text use on a regular basis. In fact, anchor text is one of the most unique current ranking factors because it affects both the page it’s on and the page it’s pointing to.
So suffice it to say that anchor text is an integral part of SEO in the 2020s, and whether you’re an SEO beginner or a seasoned expert, it needs to be on your radar. If you play your cards right, it can help you achieve better rankings and net more visitors for the site you’re optimizing. Ahead, we’ll explain how.
1. Don’t Over-Optimize
If you’ve ever researched bad links or black hat SEO, then you already know there’s such a thing as too much (or even unscrupulous) optimization. From buying links to publishing duplicate content, there are a bevy of questionable techniques capable of getting sites into trouble with the powers that be. And as a major component of any SEO strategy, it’s a given that anchor text can be subject to over-optimization as well.
But what is over-optimized anchor text exactly? It tends to have a few telltale characteristics, including:
- too many keywords;
- too many internal links in one place;
- text that’s irrelevant to the link it’s attached to; and
- a large number of links all sharing the exact same anchor text.
Luckily, all of those issues are relatively easy to sidestep. To do so, simply:
- refrain from adding more than one or two natural-sounding keywords to any one piece of anchor text;
- don’t put hundreds of links on a page that doesn’t need them;
- ensure all anchor text is relevant to the page it’s linking to; and
- don’t reuse the same anchor text over and over again.
2. Don’t Use Target Keywords for External Links
The link that a piece of anchor text is attached to can lead to either an internal or external page. And if it leads to an external page, then the words the anchor text contains will affect how search engines view it.
Therefore, it’s important for SEO practitioners to remember that although external links can benefit their own site’s rankings, they should also take care to avoid using their own target keywords (at least when linking to competing sites).
For example, let’s say that you’re optimizing a site for a digital marketing firm. As such, you want it to rank higher for the term digital marketing. But on one of the site’s pages, you create an external link that leads to another agency’s website and has anchor text containing the phrase digital marketing.
In that case, you’d be telling Google that the other agency’s website should rank for digital marketing. For obvious reasons, that’s something you don’t want to do.
This doesn’t just apply to a site’s primary keywords, either. You should also be mindful about using secondary keywords in anchor text for external sites. In the case of the digital marketing firm, that could include phrases such as growth marketing and content marketing agency.
3. Prepare the Reader’s Expectations
As with many elements of SEO, it’s important to remember that anchor text doesn’t just exist to serve search engines—it also helps readers by giving them a clear idea of what they’re clicking on.
You can ensure it does so by crafting anchor text that prepares the reader’s expectations for what the linked page will contain.
For instance, take this example from one of our own articles on iloveseo.com:
Based on the context, what do you expect the anchor text to link to? If your first thought was the Trust Barometer report being referred to, then you’re exactly right. That’s what the anchor text implies, so that’s what you anticipate.
But what if the anchor text linked to Edelman’s Facebook page instead? You’d likely be confused upon opening the link, and probably wouldn’t stick around for long. And if the anchor text linked to a completely irrelevant page, then you might even feel deceived.
With that scenario in mind, it’s easy to see the importance of clear, accurate anchor text that lets readers know what they’re about to click on.
4. Tweak Length on a Case-by-Case Basis
While it’s easy to speculate whether anchor text should contain a certain amount of characters or words, we think it’s best to get our answer straight from the horse’s mouth. In Google’s link text guidelines, they have the following to say about anchor text length:
That’s it! No character counting, no minimum requirements—just keep it succinct where possible and don’t let it occupy an entire sentence.
So when you’re trying to figure out how long to make a particular piece of anchor text, we think it’s best to let contextual factors decide. For example, does the anchor text give readers a clearer idea of what it links to if it consists of three words rather than two? If so, then three words is the right length for the situation.
5. Use the Right Code
If you’re one of our HTML-savvy readers, feel free to skip ahead to the next tip. But if your coding skills could use some sharpening, then you might find it helpful to brush up on proper hyperlink code.
As W3Schools explains, the <a> tag defines HTML links. The full code for a clickable link looks like this, with the portion reserved for anchor text outlined in red:
You could just use that basic code for all your links, but if you want them to open in a new browser window or tab then you’ll need to make use of the target attribute. It can have one of four values, with the first being the most relevant for our purposes:
- _blank: Opens the link in a new tab or window.
- _self: Opens the link in the same tab or window.
- _top: Opens the link in the window’s full body.
- _parent: Opens the link in the parent frame.
While the value you choose is up to you, we like to use _blank in almost all instances. This allows readers to open new links without losing their place on the original page, thus also helping to keep visitors on your site for longer periods of time.
If you opt to do so, your link code will look something like this:
(Hint: You can use automatic substitutions in Google Docs or custom keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word to make inserting link code a breeze.)
6. Prioritize Accuracy
We’ve already touched on the importance of accurate anchor text, but it’s a topic worth exploring further.
To understand why, let’s take a look at the U.S. patent Google filed to protect their algorithm. Under the section titled Summary of Invention, the patent’s authors state that:
In other words, in cases where page A links to page B, it’s possible for page A to contain a more informative description of page B than page B does.
The authors also note that:
Both of these quotes tell us much more than simply why Google’s algorithm was worth filing a patent for. From an SEO perspective, they also reveal that Google specifically looks to anchor text and the page it’s on to determine the contents (and rankings) of the page being linked to.
So, it’s clear why it’s crucial for your anchor text to be as accurate as possible: Along with the page’s other text, Google’s algorithms will use it to determine what the linked page is about.
7. Learn the Truth About Exact Match Anchors
Exact match anchor text is just what it sounds like: Anchor text that precisely matches the primary keyword of the page it links to. For example, anchor text that reads fresh apple pie linking to a page titled fresh apple pie.
Much has been made of exact match anchor text over the years, especially when in 2012 Google began fighting sites’ manipulative use of it with the help of the Penguin update. In the wake of that update, some sites with a particularly large number of exact match anchor text links saw a dip in rankings.
As a result, some SEO practitioners began recommending that sites either drastically reduce the amount of exact match anchor text linking to them or even avoid exact match anchors entirely.
So what’s the right move? To answer that question, it helps to understand just how much of an impact exact match anchor text has on rankings. According to a study by Ahrefs, not much—across more than 19,000 SERPs, the correlation of exact match anchors to rankings is fairly weak. Specifically, the study found a mean correlation of 0.1436 and a median correlation of 0.1869:
While there are a lot of variables at play, based on the consistency of the results and the study’s hefty sample size, it’s largely safe to conclude that exact match anchor text does not play a huge role in determining a page’s rank.
So if we were to glean one lesson from this data, it would be that you shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about exact match anchor text and whether you have too much of it. Instead, focus on creating accurate, natural-sounding anchor text that makes sense in terms of both the page it’s on and the page it’s linking to.
8. Embrace Randomness
It’s important to note that Google’s powerful AI models, like MUM and BERT before it, are designed to understand natural human language patterns.
For instance, one person might describe a study as a “fascinating piece of original research,” while another might describe it as an “in-depth report.” Both descriptions use completely different words and are drastically different lengths, but both are valid.
That’s just part of how humans communicate—even when we all speak the same language, we still find a number of different and unique ways to put our thoughts into words.
As such, it’s pointless to strive for “perfect” anchor text which includes all the right keywords, is always the correct length, and never contains anything random or out of place. Rather, you should be embracing randomness and natural language patterns in your anchor text while trusting in Google’s ability to decipher what sounds organic and what sounds artificial.
In Google’s eyes, anchor text with elements of randomness is anchor text that’s written by SEO-savvy humans instead of SEO-obsessed bots.
9. Don’t Forget About Images
Did you know that images can have their own anchor text, even if it’s not visible to most users? It’s true, and it’s possible thanks to alt text. Simply use an image as a link and the alt text instantly becomes anchor text.
As with any other type of anchor text, just remember to be descriptive, keep it sounding natural, and only use relevant keywords. Google’s own guidelines provide some useful examples of good and bad alt text:
You can take advantage of this feature anywhere you use an image as a link. For example, the logo of your site could lead back to its homepage when clicked, or an image of a chat bubble could open a live chat window.
No matter the case, if you’re not using image alt text then you’re not leveraging the full power of anchor text. (Alt text is also an important part of any site’s accessibility features, so it’s worth implementing on that merit alone.)
10. Don’t Sweat Anchor Text Ratio
Remember how Ahrefs’ study revealed there is no strong correlation between exact match anchor text and rankings?
It turns out the same holds true for other types of anchors, too. Whether phrase match, partial match, or random, there simply wasn’t a significant correlation to be found. That can probably be attributed to Google’s powerful AI models—with their help, the search engine can analyze the true meaning of an entire page and all its anchor text, not just one piece of anchor text on its own.
So if you’re looking to spend your time as effectively as possible, know that you likely won’t see results by attempting to tweak a site’s anchor text ratio. Google’s algorithms won’t pay much attention, and if you get too aggressive, your efforts may have unintended consequences.
We think Ahrefs’ Joshua Hardwick said it best:
11. Audit Your Current Anchor Text
Up to this point, we’ve discussed multiple excellent ways to create new anchor text. But it’s just as important to take stock of your site’s existing anchor text—after all, you likely have plenty of it to work with.
To do so, you’d be wise to start by choosing a free backlink audit tool that aligns with your workflow. Try checking out:
- Ahrefs’ Backlink Checker;
- LinkGraph’s Free Backlink Analysis Checker;
- SEO Review Tools’ Free Backlink Checker;
- SmallSEOTools’ Backlink Checker; and
- Majestic’s Backlink Analyzer extension.
And if you’re willing and able to spring for a paid option, then you can’t go wrong with Semrush’s Backlink Audit tool.
No matter which tool you use, gaining a clear picture of your site’s (and backlinks’) existing anchor text will allow you to pinpoint areas that need improvement, identify strengths, and make a smarter plan for your future anchor text strategy.
12. Remember the Surrounding Text
Anchor text is certainly important, but it’s also imperative to keep the big picture in mind—in this case, the text surrounding your links.
And no, we don’t mean taking a scientific approach by analyzing all the words within, say, a two-word radius of each link. Instead, we mean creating cohesive, well-researched, and above all high-quality content to populate each and every page.
Doing so will guarantee that Google’s extensively trained AI models will understand the context and purpose behind each one of your pages, and thus the true meaning of each piece of anchor text too.
From an SEO practitioner’s standpoint, this is great news. Why? There’s no need to fret over creating the most objectively perfect anchor text or risk losing rank, and agonizing over which words to include in your anchor text and which to simply include near your anchor text is entirely unnecessary.
Instead, you can simply work to make your anchor text as descriptive as possible without sounding unnatural, and let each link’s surrounding text tell search engines what they need to know.
13. Use Keywords Sparingly
If anchor text could talk, it would almost certainly say “stop trying so hard!” That’s true when it comes to anchor text ratio, and it’s true when it comes to keywords too.
Consider these two anchor text examples:
- A: great Chinese food Cantonese cuisine takeout; and
- B: great Chinese food.
It should be obvious which one sounds more natural (B) and which one sounds like a victim of blatant keyword stuffing (A). The difference, of course, is that A is packed full of as many keywords as possible, whereas B contains just one or two.
So even though it might be tempting to squeeze in more keywords than necessary, remember that Google can see right through such practices and you won’t be rewarded for doing so. Plus, users will always prefer to click a genuine and natural-sounding link than one that’s bursting with awkward keywords.
14. Learn by Example
SEO isn’t always as straightforward as we’d like it to be—with Google closely guarding the nuts and bolts of its algorithms, sometimes it’s more efficient to simply experiment with tactics that seem to work for other sites than it is to pursue the one “perfect” strategy.
To take such an approach for anchor text, first begin by identifying your main competitors. If you already know who those competitors are, great! If not, you can find out with the help of a free analytics tool like Similarweb.
There, simply enter your site’s URL and click search. In the resulting page of data, scroll down to the section titled competitors. For example, Best Buy’s biggest competitors include Newegg, Samsung, and B&H Photo Video:
Then, run your competitor’s sites through a free backlink checker like one of those listed above in tip number 11. Finally, use the results generated by your chosen backlink checker to examine each competitor’s anchor text and determine what’s working for them.
With that knowledge, you’ll be able to borrow your competitors’ most successful anchor text techniques without spending the many hours required to formulate them yourself.
15. Leverage Synonyms
While you should always strive to make your anchor text as accurate as possible, you don’t have to be completely inflexible with your word choice. That’s because Google’s algorithms are trained to understand synonyms, i.e. different words that mean the same thing. Google says that this capability took five years to develop and “significantly improves results in over 30% of searches across languages.”
For instance, the algorithms can understand that the word change can be synonymous for replace, exchange, or adjust, depending on the context in which it’s used:
So rest assured that in the majority of cases, Google will be able to tell which synonyms your anchor text and its surrounding content is relevant to. As such, don’t be afraid to use synonyms to your advantage.
For example, if your primary target keyword for a page is marketing agency, you can also link to it using anchor text that reads marketing firm. This will help capture traffic for both phrases, and Google will understand that they mean the same thing.
Better Anchor Text = Better Rankings
There’s no smoke and mirrors here: Anchor text taps into the core functionality of all major search engine algorithms, plain and simple. From the late 1990s to today, it’s a fundamental part of how internet search works, and it will likely continue to be for years to come.
So if you want to achieve the best SERP positions possible and keep your site’s SEO sharp, then you can’t afford to ignore the power of anchor text. Harness it and your rankings are sure to thank you.
Screenshots by author / December 2021
Google / Accessed January 2022