Keyword-rich anchor text has long been an SEO best practice.
Because it’s a way to signal to search engines about what type of page your link is pointing to. That information is believed by many to play a role when it comes to ranking the page in search results.
Anchor text refers to words or phrases that a user clicks on to visit a URL that’s linked within a piece of copy.
Anchor text is useful for providing context to users on the page they’re about to visit, but does it have any impact when it comes to search rankings?
Here are the claims about anchor text as a ranking factor, followed by the evidence which either supports or debunks those claims.
The Claim: Anchor Text as a Ranking Factor
Anchor text is believed to be a ranking factor in the sense that it helps search engines associate URLs with particular keywords or key phrases.
The importance of anchor text isn’t limited to what search engines can do with it; it’s also essential to providing a good user experience through enhancing website accessibility.
On-page optimization techniques that improve the user experience tend to correlate positively with search rankings, which is another reason you’ll see anchor text listed as a top ranking factor.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to optimizing websites is that SEO follows user experience.
When a website is built to provide the best experience for human visitors, it often ends up being optimized for search engines as a result. That’s not always true, but you’ll come to learn it holds true for anchor text.
How Does Anchor Text Fit With SEO?
Google can get some idea of what the page being linked to (the target page) is about based on words used in anchor text. If a page links to a URL using the anchor text “top 10 pizza places in NYC,” then Google knows what type of page users are being directed to visit.
With generic text (e.g., “click here”), it’s less clear to Google what the target page is about. Just as a site would provide descriptive text to assist users, it should do the same for Google.
Anchor text enhances the user experience in a number of ways. When a user is quickly scanning through an article, descriptive anchor text can help them immediately identify the links they’re looking for.
For example, if a user clicks on an article that makes a wild claim, they may want to scan through it to find the source of the information.
In a case like that, generic anchor text wouldn’t help users quickly find the link they need. It also tells Google nothing about the target page. That’s why descriptive anchor text is recommended over generic words or phrases.
Another, less obvious, way anchor text improves the user experience is through accessibility. Think about what the experience is like for a website visitor who is visually impaired.
Users who are blind or visually impaired rely on screen readers to browse the web. This involves using software to read off all the text on a page, including links, as the user navigates a website.
If the user hears “click here” or “read more” for all links they come across on a page, they won’t find it very helpful. In fact, it would be downright frustrating and they may choose not to visit the website again.
Accessibility is key to providing a good user experience. Even if you think it’s not important for your specific audience, it is important to search engines like Google.
With all of that said, it’s time to answer the question – is anchor text a ranking factor?
The Evidence for Anchor Text as a Ranking Factor
Yes, anchor text is a ranking factor.
Using descriptive anchor text when inserting links on a page is a best practice listed in Google’s SEO Starter Guide.
SEO can be a lot to take in for beginners, but it isn’t a secret science. Google aims to provide the most relevant results to users, and it needs the cooperation of site owners in order to do that.
That’s why Google makes it clear what it wants site owners to do when optimizing pages for its search engine.
When optimizing pages to rank in Google, it’s wise to listen to Google. So what does Google say about anchor text?
From Google’s SEO Starter Guide:
“…the better your anchor text is, the easier it is for users to navigate and for Google to understand what the page you’re linking to is about.
With appropriate anchor text, users and search engines can easily understand what the linked pages contain.“
The Starter Guide then goes on to recommend these best practices:
Choose descriptive text, rather than generic or off-topic text.
Write concise text, rather than a lengthy sentence or whole paragraph.
Make links visible, as they should be easy to spot amongst regular text.
Use descriptive text for internal links, but avoid excessive use of keywords.
More recently, Google’s John Mueller confirmed anchor text is still a ranking factor during one of his regular Q&As with the SEO community.
The topic of anchor text comes up often during Mueller’s Q&As. Here’s another example; this time Mueller addresses the user experience aspect of anchor text:
“If you’re updating anchor text internally to make it more easily understandable by users then usually that also helps search engines to better understand the context of those pages. So I would definitely go for that.”
We can’t talk about anchor text as a ranking factor without discussing how important it was in the early days of SEO. Google’s guidance on avoiding overuse of keywords in anchor text is a callback to how this signal was abused in the past.
It used to be easy for sites to manipulate their rankings by building links using exact keywords as the anchor text. Anchor text was weighted so heavily that pages could rank for keywords that never even appeared in the on-page copy.
Longtime SEO professionals may remember that Adobe once ranked for the term “click here” because that was a common anchor text used by site owners when linking to PDFs.
Google eventually caught on to how its overvaluing of anchor text was being abused by spammers. It addressed this issue in 2012 with the release of the Penguin algorithm update, which, in part, targeted manipulative link building tactics.
Now, sites that attempt to game their search rankings with exact match anchor text are more likely to have their efforts ignored than rewarded.
Anchor Text as a Ranking Factor: Our Verdict
Google confirms that anchor text is used in search rankings as a way to gain a deeper understanding of pages, which may help with getting those pages surfaced for relevant queries.
The strength of anchor text as a ranking factor is nowhere near the level it was before Penguin, when sites could rank for the phrase of their choice by building enough keyword-rich links.
However, anchor text remains important to the search engine optimization process.
Featured image: Paulo Bobita/SearchEngineJournal