What is anchor text and how do you optimize it for maximum SEO performance?
That’s what this guide is all about.
You’re going to learn:
Ready to become an anchor text optimization pro?
Let’s jump in.
What is Anchor Text?
Anchor text is the visible and clickable text in a link.
Here’s how it looks in HTML:
<a href=”http://www.mywebsite.com/”>my cool website</a>
The phrase “anchor text” applies to all hyperlinks including internal and external links.
This guide you’re going to read is about external anchor text.
Because it alone can make or break your SEO performance.
But before you can learn how to optimize anchor text, you need to know the history.
A Short History of Anchor Text
Let’s rewind the clock back to 2011.
In those days, keyword-rich anchor text was all the rage.
All you had to do was build links with keyword-rich anchor text and you would rank fast.
Then Google decided to launch the first Penguin update on April 24, 2012.
Your rankings got wrecked if you were using keyword-rich anchor text.
When I say “your”, I mean “my” rankings.
Many of my sites got wrecked with the first Penguin update. That’s because I was nothing more than an algorithm manipulator back then.
But in hindsight:
I’m grateful for that update because it forced me to actually learn SEO.
It also motivated me to figure out how to optimize anchor text in a safe and effective way.
But before I can show you the methods, you need to know the basics.
The first thing you need to know is the different types of anchor text you can use.
9 Different Types of Anchor Text
Here are nine different types of anchor text you can use from the safest to least safe:
1. Branded Anchors
“Branded” anchors are any anchor that uses your brand name. Here are some examples:
- Gotch SEO
- Nathan Gotch
- Nathan Gotch SEO
Sentence sample: “You can learn search engine optimization at Gotch SEO.”
Branded anchors are the safest type of anchor text if you’re using a branded domain.
If you have an exact or partial match domain, you need to be careful.
More on this in a later section.
To see the power of “branded” anchors, look at any big brand’s link profile.
Here are some examples for you:
2. Generic Anchors
“Generic” anchors are often calls-to-action (CTAs) like:
- click here
- go here
- this website
In a sentence: “Go here if you are looking for SEO information.” – “Go here” is the generic anchor text.
3. Naked Link Anchors
Any anchor that uses a raw URL is considered a “naked” link.
Here are some examples:
4. No Anchor Trick
This is a tricky little strategy I see big brands doing.
Whether purposefully or not, it’s a good idea. Here’s what it looks like:
The easiest way to build “noText” anchors is through images. You can also “forget” to include an anchor within an article.
5. Image Anchors
Google uses an image’s ALT text as the anchor text for a linked image.
6. Brand + Keyword Anchor
You can diversify your anchor tex profile by combining your brand name and your target keyword.
- Gotch SEO Ahrefs
- anchor text by Gotch SEO
- Gotch SEO link building tactics
7. Keyword Variations
Keyword variations are perfect for diversifying your anchor text profile. They can also help drive more topical relevance to your page.
Here are some examples of my target keyword is “backlinks“:
- what are backlinks
- where to get backlinks
- how do you build backlinks
8. Partial Match Anchors
Partial match anchors are similar to keyword variations. The key difference is that you’re adding generic words around the primary keyword phrase.
Here are some examples for the target keyword “anchor text”:
- this anchor text guide
- cool anchor text article
- read this anchor text post
9. Exact Match Anchors
Exact match anchors are the king of all anchor text.
They have the power to increase your rankings, but also have the power to get your site penalized.
An exact match anchor is an exact match of whatever your target keyword is for the target page.
Example: if “buy backlinks” is my target keyword, then my exact match anchor would be “buy backlinks“.
Those are all the anchor text variations I recommend using.
Now let’s talk about something that will make your anchor text even more powerful.
How to Build Relevance Without Exact Match Anchors
Google recently filed a patent about: “anchor tag indexing in a web crawler system”.
I’m not going to bore you to death.
Once you get past all the technical language, there’s one big idea in this patent:
Google uses the text around your link (“annotation text“) to assign its topical relevance. It will also use the anchor text of the link to accomplish that goal as well.
So what does that mean for you?
The good news is that it’s simple and makes perfect sense.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Find relevant websites in your industry
- Get backlinks within content that’s relevant to your target page
- Try to place your primary keyword close to your link
- Use intelligent anchor text
- Understand that relevance is the key to link building success
Here are some examples for the target keyword “anchor text” (link placement in red):
“If you are looking for more information about anchor text go here right away.”
“Anchor text is the visible and clickable text in a link. For more in-depth information you should read this article from Gotch SEO.”
“For more in-depth information about anchor text I highly recommend this article: https://www.gotchseo.com/anchor-text/.”
Here’s the big takeaway:
Place your links in relevant content and place your primary keyword close to your link.
Now the question is:
What anchor text should you use?
The Right Anchor Text to Use
There’s a common trend among the hundreds of penalized websites I’ve audited.
They almost always have aggressive anchor text percentages.
It’s the first place I look when someone needs help with a penalized website.
You can analyze your anchor text distribution right now with Ahrefs.
Open up their Site Explorer tool and enter your domain.
Then click on “Anchors”.
Now before I go any further, I need to cover an important question:
Should You Copy Your Competitors Anchor Text?
My friend and fellow SEO, Matt Diggity recommends this strategy.
You should look at the anchor text percentages of the ranking competitors and model them.
I agree with the philosophy, but there are some issues.
1. Modeling the anchor text percentages of an authoritative website is risky.
Authoritative websites have built a lot of trust. Therefore, it’s more “acceptable” for them to have high percentages of keyword-rich anchors.
If you copy them, you’ll likely get wrecked.
Because your site doesn’t have the authority and trust to do so.
2. It doesn’t take into account site-wide anchor text percentages.
How do some websites get away with aggressive exact match anchor text?
It’s because they:
- Have the authority and trust to do so
- Have a high percentage of unoptimized anchors in their site-wide profile
That’s why you can’t model them on a page-by-page level.
You have to model their entire anchor text profile.
Let’s take Moz.com for example.
If you examine their site-wide anchor text, you’ll see that most of it is branded or generic.
This gives them the leeway they need to be more aggressive on the page level.
Here’s their anchor text for their “anchor text” page:
One could argue that this is “aggressive”. But it’s acceptable because they have authority, trust, and unoptimized anchor text across the site as a whole.
59% is huge on its own, but it’s small relative to their entire site:
So what’s the big takeaway?
You shouldn’t model your competitor’s anchor text if you don’t have authority, trust, and unoptimized anchor text across your site.
Then what should you do?
Follow these percentages and you’ll never need to worry about penalties and you’ll still get awesome results.
Safe Anchor Text Percentages That Work
These percentages are not law. Do what’s best for your situation. However, these ratios have helped me A) avoid getting penalized and B) still drive huge results (without being risky).
- 70% = Branded Anchors
- 20% = Naked Link Anchors
- 5% = Generic Anchors
- < 5% = Partial Match Anchors
- < 1% = Exact Match Anchors
Now let me introduce you to a strategy I developed for building a natural anchor text profile.
How to Rank With Less Backlinks
My strategy is “Anchor Text Cycling” and it works like this:
Step 1: Hit your target page with an exact match anchor
You might be wondering:
“Isn’t it dangerous to hit a brand new website with an exact match anchor?”
Sites get penalized for their link profiles as a whole.
Not one or two links.
It’s like saying eating McDonald’s one time is the reason why someone is overweight.
We know that it’s the combined effect of a bad diet over a period of time that leads to obesity.
The same goes for your link profile!
Now that I got the weird analogy out of the way…
Why do I use an exact match anchor for my first backlink?
A) I want to see how the site reacts
B) I want to establish what my site or the target page is about right away
The next step is to:
Step 2: Hit your site with unoptimized anchor text variations
Use branded, naked link, generic, and keyword variations at this stage.
Step 3: Track your rankings and watch the progress
You can get a decent read on your performance within 1-3 months. If your page isn’t moving, then you need to reassess. The answer is rarely to use more exact match anchor text.
Often times pages aren’t performing well because:
- The site isn’t strong enough
- The page doesn’t have enough backlinks
- The backlinks you do have are low-quality
- The page is poorly built
If you feel you have a 10/10 on those three facets, then:
Step 4: Hit your site with another exact match anchor (if necessary)
Repeat this process over-and-over until you rank.
The entire point of using anchor cycling is to build a diverse and natural anchor profile.
Do you want to know the secret to a “natural” anchor profile?
The key is to be random and to avoid patterns.
Take a look at these two examples:
Site #1 is the typical link profile you’ll see when someone is spamming anchor text.
Google’s algorithm can easily conclude that this site is building artificial links. A manual reviewer wouldn’t even be necessary.
Site #2 has a natural and diverse anchor profile.
It will outrank Site #1 with fewer backlinks and less keyword-rich anchor text.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing black, grey, or white hat SEO, this concept still applies to you.
Now that you understand how to cycle your anchors, let me show you WHERE to place your anchors.
Where to Place Your Anchor Text
Every link opportunity requires a unique anchor text strategy.
This is by far the biggest misstep I see people make.
They apply anchor text ratios and use cycling, but they place their anchor text the wrong way.
I would argue that this section is the most important part for you to understand.
Here is a list of every link type and exact anchor text you should use:
Exact & Partial Match Anchors
Concentrate your exact and partial match anchor text on your best link opportunities. “Best” link opportunities are often those that are difficult and expensive to get.
Here are some examples:
1. Niche Relevant Guest Posts
If you can score a link in the body of the content, then use a keyword-rich anchor. But if you can only get an author bio link, then use a branded (or unoptimized) anchor text.
Google cracked down on spammy guest posting practices a long-time ago. One consistent footprint is when people jam keyword-rich anchors in author bios. Don’t do this.
2. Resource Pages
Resource pages are great opportunities to place exact or partial match anchors.
Using the title of your resource is an effective (and safe) route as well.
3. Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
I don’t mess around with PBNs anymore, but you should use exact and partial match anchors. You invested money to buy the expired domain, so you should try to get the most out of it.
Where to Place Unoptimized Anchors
All foundational (non-editorial) links should use unoptimized anchor text.
Some examples include:
- Paid Directories
- Traditional Directories
- Business Citations
- Press Releases
- Niche Relevant Blog Comments
- Web 2.0s
- Forum Signatures
- Site-Wide Sidebar or Footer Links
- Profile Links
- Social Bookmarks
Only use branded, naked, or generic anchor text on these link types.
Now let me show you how to handle anchor text whenever you’re using 301 redirects.
How to Handle Anchor Text from a 301 Redirect
A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect. All of the anchor text from the page or website being redirected gets transferred to the new page.
Why does this matter?
It matters because the spammy links and aggressive anchor text will transfer to your new page or domain.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Avoid redirecting any garbage to your website
- Build unoptimized anchors to the new website
This will help combat anchor text over-optimization issues when you redirect.
How to Optimize Tier Two and Tier Three Anchor Text
You can be more liberal with your keyword-rich anchors on tier two and three.
Just don’t go crazy.
Here are the tier two ratios that I stick to:
- Naked links: 40%
- Generic: 30%
- LSI, Partial-Match: 25%
- Exact Match: 5%
The same principles explained above apply here.
Concentrate your keyword-rich anchors on your best opportunities.
Here are my tier three ratios:
- Naked links: 10%
- Generic: 10%
- LSI, Partial-Match: 50%
- Exact Match: 30%
How to Optimize Anchor Text for Exact & Partial Match Domains
I always tell beginners to avoid exact or partial match domains. Why? Because they are super easy to over-optimize.
But if you already have one, let me show you how to optimize your anchor text the right way.
Here are the ratios I aim for with an exact match domain:
- Naked Links: 70%
- Generic: 20%
- LSI: 5%
- Partial Match: 1-5%
- Branded / Exact Match Anchors: 1-5%
You’ll notice a few different things here.
First, I reduce the “Branded” anchor text percentages.
Because EMDs aren’t actually branded. They’re just keywords in a domain.
I also increase the amount of naked and generic anchor text. This helps combat over-optimization.
But there’s one thing you can do to make your life a lot easier.
Even if your domain is “exactmatchanchortext.com”, you can still create a brand name. So although your domain is “exactmatchanchortext.com”, your brand name could be “Growth Crew”.
Then you can build branded anchor text (“Growth Crew”) without any worries.
How to Fix Over-Optimized Anchor Text
Websites rarely get penalized for just having over-optimized anchor text.
That’s because aggressive anchor text strategies are often accompanied by other poor practices. The truth is that websites get penalized because they’re doing a lot of stuff wrong.
Google doesn’t have “Penguin” or “Panda” updates anymore.
However, these concepts still apply. You could theoretically have over-optimized anchor text and not get penalized if you’re doing everything else right.
But like I said:
This is rare.
Most websites with over-optimized anchors also have low-quality links, low-quality content, poor UX, and will often be too aggressive with on-page SEO.
You’ll need to run an SEO audit to tackle these issues.
But let’s just focus on over-optimized anchor text.
The first question is:
Should You Disavow?
I wanted to clear the air before I explain the strategies:
Disavowing is an absolute LAST resort.
There are two situations when it’s warranted:
- Your site is getting hit with negative SEO or it’s been hacked
- It’s impossible to remove the links you built
You can recover from ALL algorithmic penalties without ever needing to use this tool.
If you have a manual penalty, then it may be necessary (I’ll be addressing manual penalties after this section).
Here are 3 ways to fix over-optimized anchor text without disavowing:
3 Ways to Fix Over-Optimized Anchor Text
1. Remove Links With Commercial Anchor Text (From Spammy Sites)
Before you go buck-wild removing links, listen carefully:
If you remove any link from your profile, your site’s authority will decrease.
EVEN IF THE LINK SUCKS.
You must replace the low-quality links you removed with high-quality links.
Just removing links won’t recover your rankings.
It may hurt even more because you’re decreasing your site’s authority.
As I discussed in the section about anchor text placement, you should only use commercial / keyword-rich anchor text on “power” link sources.
If you made the unfortunate mistake of building backlinks on low-quality sources with keyword-rich anchors, then you have two options:
- Go back and delete the links.
- If you can’t delete the links, then disavow.
After you’ve done all you can do to remove keyword-rich anchors from spammy sources, then it’s time to jump into anchor text dilution.
Please notice that I said “spammy” sources.
Don’t go on a link-deleting spree because you will end up deleting links that are actually helping you.
2. Dilute Your Anchor Text
This is the most common technique and it does work in many cases.
All you are going to do is build unoptimized backlinks to your website with nothing but branded, generic, and naked link anchors.
Absolutely no keyword-rich anchors!
Use the “foundational” links I explained in the previous section to dilute your anchor text profile.
Before Penguin 3.0, you could counter over-optimized anchors by using the dilution technique.
Diluting works, but you need to consider this:
Websites aren’t just penalized because of the existence of low-quality links.
They’re penalized because the ratio of low-quality to high-quality links in their profile is off.
In other words:
You need more quality links to offset the low-quality links. That’s why some websites can “get away” with low-quality links in their profile.
Here are some link types to help you dilute your anchor text profile:
1.) Strong, Relevant Backlinks
These are the most costly but are also the best for improving your overall link profile. Get as many as you can. Relevancy is king with or without a penalty.
2.) Business Directories / Local Citations
Take the time to create business listings because it’s a perfect way to send quality link unoptimized anchors to your site. Just make sure your NAP-W information is consistent.
3.) LEGIT Social Profiles
Go out and build REAL social profiles for your website. Populate the profiles with your information, content, etc.
Only use the best sites: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.
These sites will give you a nice mix of NoFollow and Follow unoptimized anchors and will build trust for your website.
4.) High-Quality Press Release Distribution
Create a quality press release and distribute it through a quality channel. Press releases are great for quickly getting unoptimized anchors from many different IPs. You will also build diversity in your link profile because of the NoFollow / Follow mix.
3. Use the 301 Penalty Recovery Trick
Remember in an earlier section when I said that anchor text travels through a 301 to the new website?
You are going to use this to your advantage to recover from an algorithmic penalty.
There are two variations of the 301 penalty recovery trick.
Variation #1: Expired Domain > Penalized Domain
For the first variation, you will need to find quality expired domains through a service like Freshdrop. Make sure the anchor profile is clean and has very little keyword-rich anchors.
Look for a domain with branded, generic, and naked link anchors or what some people may refer to as a “natural” anchor profile.
Although you are not necessary using this expired domain for ranking purposes, it’s not a bad idea to find one with solid metrics.
Preferably DR 20 +, DA 20 +, and a Trust Flow of 10 +.
If you can find a domain that is relevant to yours, it will work even better.
Then just 301 redirect the expired domain to your penalized site and track the results.
Variation #2: Links > Penalized Site > New Website
For variation two, you are going to start fresh with a new website, but you are going to piggyback off the authority of your penalized domain (hopefully it has some).
Step 1: Buy a new BRANDED website (avoid EMD, PMD)
Step 2: Build high-quality branded backlinks to your new website
Use business directories, quality paid directories, niche relevant blog comments, press releases, etc. Only use branded anchor text.
Step 3: Build unoptimized backlinks to your penalized domain
The goal is to decrease the percentage of keyword-rich anchors. The percentage all depends on the severity of your particular situation.
If you have 70% keyword-rich anchor text, then you will need to get that down to at least 30% or less. If you have 30% keyword-rich anchors, then you will want to get it down to 10% or less.
Step 4: Check your anchor profile with Ahrefs, Majestic, or Open Site Explorer.
Step 5: If you have cut your keyword-rich anchors in half, then it’s time to redirect your penalized site to the new domain.
This works because, A) you are using a new branded website with an established branded text anchor profile, B) you have improved the anchor profile of the penalized website, and C) you have transferred authority to a new domain.
Frequently Asked Questions About Anchor Text
What About Manual Penalties?
It’s less of a headache and much more cost-effective to just start a new website than to try to get out of a manual penalty.
Like I always tell my clients, getting a manual penalty is like going to prison for a felony.
Although you may get out of prison one day, you are still always going to have the felony on your record.
Do you really think Google wipes the slate clean for a website that was previously given a manual penalty?
Even if you do get the penalty lifted, ranking your site will never be easy and it’s always going to feel like “something is holding you back”.
Changing Anchor Text: Red Flag?
I’ve heard this question a lot and I’ve actually done this many times.
The answer is: sometimes.
I know it’s an annoying answer.
If you want to raise a red flag, then change a non-keyword-rich anchor to a keyword-rich anchor. Google may or may not devalue a link when this happens, but it’s definitely not worth it.
Just leave the link how it is, and go acquire a link somewhere else.
Situations that won’t throw up a red flag:
1. Changing a keyword-rich anchor to a non-optimized anchor – going back and decreasing your amount of commercial anchor text can often increase your rankings. If your exact match anchors or keyword-rich anchors are above 25%, then you may want to consider unoptimizing some of those.
2. Deleting an anchor and placing it within a different part of the article – if you decide to change an anchor, you should always place the new one in a different part of the article. When you do this, it makes the anchor/link “new” in Google’s eyes.
You will be losing an aged link, but in theory, starting with a fresh link.
IMPORTANT: You should only change anchor text under extreme circumstances.
Most over-optimized anchor text issues can be solved with the techniques I listed in the penalty recovery section.
Anchor Text Tracking: Don’t Shoot Blindly at the Target
Tracking your anchor text is absolutely critical if you are building backlinks.
If you aren’t, you are basically shooting at a target blindfolded.
There are two ways to track:
1. Manually input every anchor text into a Google Sheet or Excel file
2. Use a tool like Linkio to streamline your anchor text monitoring and optimization.
I used to track my anchor text manually, but Linkio streamlines the entire process.
They pull anchor text from Ahrefs, Moz, and Google Search Console, which makes life a lot easier.
You need to be tracking your anchor text and optimizing throughout the entire link building process.
Last Word About Anchor Text
Anchor text is one very small piece of the SEO puzzle. Most websites are littered with on-site SEO, SEO content, and backlink quality issues.
These areas need to be tackled first. Once you’ve optimized those well, then dive into anchor text optimization. It can give you the edge you need to dominate your competitors.