Anchor text is an interesting factor in SEO. Unlike some of the other SEO elements that we’ve discussed so far — such as header tags and technical SEO — anchor text is an important part of the SEO strategy both on and off of your site. While most elements affect just one or the other, anchor text has the ability to influence your search engine rankings via links originating from both on your domain and elsewhere on the internet. Today, we’ll talk about how to properly deploy anchor text in every context.
Anchor text is the part of a hyperlink (or just “link” for short) that users interact with. As web developers know, every page on the web is like an iceberg — massive amounts of code lie beneath the surface, and the average web user only sees the top visible portion.
In HTML, links look like this:
<a href="https://www.pageonepower.com/">Page One Power</a>
However, users only see this:
This part that users see (often underlined and in blue) is the anchor text. This allows links to appear visible and distinct, without disrupting the readable flow of content with raw code or other distracting elements.
Anchor text is meant to be visible to users, giving them a clue about where a link is going before they click it. In other words, anchor text should be at least somewhat descriptive of the linked-to or “landing” page, so users know what they can expect from it. However, users are not the only ones who read anchor text. Search engine bots, which crawl the web indexing each and every page that they find, also look at anchor text.
The information that these crawlers find ends up playing an important role in how search engine algorithms characterize and evaluate a website or a particular page. However, the exact role that anchor text plays and how much weight it carries will vary from search engine to search engine, and even from update to update.
Essentially, though, anchor text is one of many factors that search engines consider when trying to understand what a page is about and, therefore, what keywords that page should rank for.
When we break anchor text down into categories, we do so according to the relationship between a given link and the page or domain that it points to.
Backlinks have played an important role in Google’s search engine algorithm from the very beginning — so it’s no surprise that anchor text, which is an essential feature of any link, has also played an important role.
In Google’s early days, however, anchor text may have been regarded as too important. Prior to Google’s Penguin update, exact match anchor text was a tool that black hat SEOs often used to manipulate the Google search engine. By creating anchor text — both on- and off-site — that exactly matched the keyword they wanted to rank for, these SEOs could trick Google into presenting their pages as more relevant for a particular keyword or set of keywords than they actually were.
This trust in exact match keywords was remedied via the Penguin update, which improved the way links were weighed and factored into the search algorithm across the board. Following the Penguin update, many domains saw ranking penalties for relying too heavily on exact match anchor text. The New York Times even published an article about J.C. Penny’s abuse of anchor text and links — activities that the brand was later penalized for. Today, Google looks at anchor text for contextual clues about a page’s relevance, without placing too much weight in exact match anchor text.
Like many search engine ranking factors, writing good anchor text is a delicate balancing act between providing a good user experience and practicing good SEO. However, unlike many other search engine ranking factors, it’s a balancing act that is sometimes in and sometimes out of your control.
We can control the anchor text that appears in the content that we write on our own domains and, sometimes, in the links that we build on other domains. However, when external domains link back to us, we don’t always have control over what they’re saying or the anchor text that they’re using.
When you do have control over the anchor text you’re using, it’s good to:
Write anchor text that informs your readers and answers user questions. If you do this, you are already on the way to creating anchor text that will help you to rank for the most high-value keywords as well