(Updated for 2018)
Hands down, the most important skill you can have when it comes to offsite SEO is anchor text selection.
Having the correct anchor text distribution can make you (or break you) in the SERPs. If you do it right, you’ll find yourself at the top of page 1 and you’ll do it with less links than your competitors.
If you do it wrong, say hello to Penguin.
Not surprisingly, the most common question I get from link customers is: What anchor text should I use?
While I’d love to be able to answer this for everyone, but there simply isn’t a 5 minute answer.
Selecting the right anchor text takes analysis and practice, but there is indeed a methodical and repeatable process that you can use over and over to correctly optimize your site.
This is a skill that you want to craft for yourself, rather than rely on others for, so take the time to master it.
But let me just say… once you get this down, it’s like graduating to the next level of SEO.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- How to find the optimum anchor text ratio to send to your specific site
- 13 anchor text selection tricks that will give you an edge over your competition
- How to balance internal anchor text ratios
- 1 What is Anchor Text?
- 2 Why Do You Need to Care About it?
- 3 External Anchor Text Optimization
- 3.1 Determining Your Niche-Specific Target Anchor Text
- 3.2 Find the Average Anchor Text Distribution of the Top 5 Rankers
- 3.2.1 Step 1) Download the Ahrefs Anchor Text data for the site in position #1
- 3.2.2 Step 2) Categorize all of the anchors by type
- 3.2.3 Step 3) Find the anchor text distribution for this URL by creating a pie chart.
- 3.2.4 Step 4) Repeat for Sites in Positions #2-5
- 3.2.5 Step 5) Your Niche-specific Target Anchor Text Distribution = The Average of the Top 5 Sites
- 3.2.6 Step 6) Record and Implement
- 3.2.7 Frequently Asked Questions
- 3.3 Mastering Anchor Text Selection
- 3.3.1 13 Pro-level Anchor Text Selection Tricks
- 188.8.131.52 1. Never use the same target anchor text more than once
- 184.108.40.206 2. Utilize Your SEO Title Tag as an anchor
- 220.127.116.11 3. The Anchor Should Suit the Link Type
- 18.104.22.168 4. Use the website persona’s name as an anchor
- 22.214.171.124 5. When stuck, break up your keyword phrase
- 126.96.36.199 6. Brand + target anchors
- 188.8.131.52 7. Optimize in relation to your URL
- 184.108.40.206 8. Vary your URL anchors
- 220.127.116.11 9. Long Phrases
- 18.104.22.168 10. Write anchors in English, not SEO-ese
- 22.214.171.124 11. Use Synonyms
- 126.96.36.199 12. Surround your anchor text with related keywords or synonyms
- 188.8.131.52 13. What to do if you’ve messed up
- 3.3.1 13 Pro-level Anchor Text Selection Tricks
- 3.4 Anchor Text for Tiered Link Building
- 4 Internal Anchor Text Optimization
- 5 Conclusion
What is Anchor Text?
Quite simply, anchor text is the clickable text in a link.
In HTML it looks like this:
And on your webpage it comes out like this: Awesome SEO Blog.
In this example “Awesome SEO Blog” is considered to be the anchor text.
Why Do You Need to Care About it?
Anchor text is one of the indicators that Google uses to determine relevance.
For example, if a website is constantly getting links with the anchor text “dog collar”, Google is eventually going to determine that your site is about dog collars.
Back in the day, to get websites ranking, all you’d need to do to rank is send enough links with the anchor text exactly matching the keyword you want to rank for.
Ah… the good old days.
And then Penguin Came Around
The Penguin algorithm (April 24, 2012) targets backlink manipulation.
It looks at the quality of the links your site is getting and, you guessed it, the anchor text pointing to your site.
If the anchor text distribution doesn’t look realistic, then you get penalized.
Sending anchor text with your keywords in it gets the ranking needle moving, but overdo it to the point that it doesn’t look realistic, and you’re going to be headed south very soon.
Now the question is, what is realistic for Google?
External Anchor Text Optimization
Determining Your Niche-Specific Target Anchor Text
The first step in anchor text selection is to figure out what is the ideal target anchor text distribution for your niche.
Here’s how I do it, broken down to its basics:
Analyze the Competition
Many SEO’s often talk about needing a “natural” anchor text distribution. When they describe it, it typically looks something like this:
- 50% Brand/URL anchors
- For example, a branded anchor for golfgenius.com would be “Golf Genius”. Branded anchors only apply to non-EMD/PMD sites.
- URL anchors are variations of the naked URL: golfgenius.com, http://golfgenius.com, www.golfgenius.com, etc
- 25% topic anchors
- Example: “sports equipment” would be a topic anchor for the keyword “best titanium driver”
- 10% target keyword and longtail anchors
- Examples: best titanium driver, what is the top titanium driver, buy titanium driver online
- I define an anchor in this category if it has a single word of a keyword phrase you want to rank for (excluding stop words)
- 15% miscellaneous anchors
- click here, read more, go to website, etc.
We could break this down even further into categories like “Brand + target” (e.g: Golf Genius’ review of titanum drivers), but for the purposes of this exercise, its overkill. We’re looking for guidance, not supreme accuracy.
While many people stick to this idea that you need this perfect, “natural” ratio of various types of anchors, this simply isn’t the case.
You’ll learn more about this soon…
Do a search for your target keyword and toss the results into a backlink checker like Ahrefs.
Here, and only here, is where you’ll find the anchor text distribution Google is looking for.
Often this looks nothing like the cookie-cutter anchor text distribution that is supposedly “natural”.
Case in point – Keyword: “sell my car online”
Your anchor text plan often isn’t what you initially expect. I’ve been in niches where I had to consecutively hit the site with target anchors for a month straight until I was able to break into page 1. Sounds like SEO in 2005, but sometimes that’s what the niche is asking for.
Here’s an anchor text distribution that is currently going to the URL of one of my sites ranking #1 for a high-stakes affiliate keyword (It’s been ranked #1 since mid-2016).
Find the Average Anchor Text Distribution of the Top 5 Rankers
To figure out the target distribution of anchors for my particular niche, I rely on Ahrefs and Excel.
Step 1) Download the Ahrefs Anchor Text data for the site in position #1
Step 2) Categorize all of the anchors by type
I use the “Referring Domains” column so I don’t double-count anchors sent from the same domain, possibly from a site-wide link.
Step 3) Find the anchor text distribution for this URL by creating a pie chart.
Step 4) Repeat for Sites in Positions #2-5
Step 5) Your Niche-specific Target Anchor Text Distribution = The Average of the Top 5 Sites
Step 6) Record and Implement
Now that you know the anchor text ratio that Google is looking for, it’s time to begin your link building campaign whose anchors will mimic this distribution.
I first start by recording the target distribution down in a Backlink Management Template.
Once you know “where you want to be” you can start incrementally sending links until you get there.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: This is great. Do I now send these links and anchors across my whole site, such that the overall domain itself gets this distribution?
A: No. Anchor distribution ratios are determined on a per-page basis. Any anchors you send to an inner page, do not affect the ratios on the homepage for example.
Q: My page ranks for many keywords. Which one should I use for my search to pull up the competition?
A: Use the main keyword you’d like to rank for. For affiliates, this is probably “best _____”. For local seo, its probably “<city> + <industry>”.
Q: I believe my competitors are hiding their PBN backlinks. What should I do?
A: First check to see if they blocked some of the less popular crawlers like Open Link Profiler. If they didn’t block it, great.
If you still can’t find their PBNs, skip over this competitor.
Remember, we’re looking for guidance, not accuracy.
Q: One of my competitors is an authority site that ranks with only 2 backlinks. Should I add it to the analysis.
A: Skip over it as well. It’s an anomaly and will distort your result.
Q: What if one of my competitors disavowed a bunch of their links?
A: You’re getting the theme now. When in doubt, skip over the competitor.
Mastering Anchor Text Selection
At any given time, I’m conducting at least 6 single variable SEO tests. In the last few years, I’ve completed over 200. A huge chunk of them have been related to anchor text.
Get a pen and paper handy because I’m about to reveal 13 anchor text selection tricks that will allow you to blow past your competition’s amateur SEO efforts.
13 Pro-level Anchor Text Selection Tricks
1. Never use the same target anchor text more than once
Whenever I make any SEO decision, I ask myself the question: “Does what I’m about to do look natural?” Anchor text selection is no different.
Back in the earlier days of SEO when you could pretty much get away with anything, people that wanted to rank for “dog training” would simply send all their anchors as “dog training”.
Clearly this doesn’t work anymore but I still see it quite often. Money sites will have a balanced anchor text distribution (50% brand and URL, 10% misc, etc), but all 20 of their target anchors will be the same (dog training, dog training, dog training, …)
What are the odds of this happening naturally? The probability of 20 independent websites all linking to another website using the exact same target anchor text is pretty slim. If you have 500 backlinks it might move into the realm of “remotely possible”.
Instead, never use the same target anchor more than once and mix up your keywords by throwing in filler words. Not only does it look more natural, but it actually gets a better result with fewer links.
So in a nutshell, don’t repeat anchors, except in some cases like…
2. Utilize Your SEO Title Tag as an anchor
It essentially determines how your page’s title is displayed in the SERP result listing.
Statistically speaking, this anchor text naturally occurs quite frequently. In fact, forums (for example), will even re-write your anchor text and default to the title tag when you link to an external site.
Just check out how often various sites have repeated title tags as anchors on some of my articles.
The great thing about the using the title tag as an anchor is that if you’re optimizing it correctly, it should be full of keywords. So when you reference it, these keywords get a lot of love and you can get away with it because statistically its a common anchor.
To learn more about how to optimize your title tags, check this out:
3. The Anchor Should Suit the Link Type
Links can come from multiple categories of sources. Just to name a few:
- Blog articles
- Link lists
Again, statistically speaking, certain anchor types are used more often with various link types.
This usually results in a target anchor text. Scroll up to the first link I created in this article for an example.
On the other hand, when people create a list of links, they tend to either use branded or URL anchors.
For example: Here’s a list of my top 3 favorite SEO tools…
And how about sidebar links? 90% of the time people use images for their sidebar links. And what do “normal people” use as their alt tags (image equivalent of an anchor text)?
Usually they simply describe what the picture is about…. or here’s the kicker… nothing at all.
Many people don’t know what an alt tag is, so they’re left blank. And that’s how you end up with so many empty anchor texts.
So use sidebar image alt tags for some general misc pillow link anchors (e.g.: product in blue packaging) or empty anchors.
In forums, people usually link with the URL or the SEO title tag as you learned before.
Lastly, with blog comments, people mostly use a name as an anchor.
4. Use the website persona’s name as an anchor
If your website has any type of persona associated with it, sprinkle in some links with that persona’s name as the anchor.
It occurs naturally and frequently. In fact, “matt diggity” is the most common anchor that I have going to my site.
These days, as I teach in The Lab, I create a persona for each and every one of my affiliate sites.
This persona remains consistent across my hosting records, whois, social profiles and about page. It adds another level of “completeness” to the site.
5. When stuck, break up your keyword phrase
Let’s say your keyword is “plumber new york”. If you’re stuck in the rankings and simply aren’t getting any movement no matter how many links you throw at it, try sending just the word “plumber” or just the word “New York”.
I’m not exactly sure why, but it works. Likely because it just looks more natural. It’s completely possible that a New York newspaper writes an article about home maintenance companies in the area. They wouldn’t be making anchors like “New York plumber” because it’s already implied, being that they’re a New York newspaper.
I can’t count how many times this technique has gotten me out of a rut. Give it a shot.
6. Brand + target anchors
Another anchor type that appears frequently (especially in physical product niches where Amazon is present) is a combination of target keywords with Brand or URL.
Here’s an example in the essential oil diffuser niche. Notice how often Amazon and target anchors come in pairs:
This is great for us, because its an easy way to sneak in more target anchors while reducing the risk of penalty, simply because they’re paired with branded/URL terms.
7. Optimize in relation to your URL
Over-optimization isn’t just a function of your niche-specific target anchor text distribution. It also depends on the URL that you’re linking to. If your URL has your keywords already in it, you’ll have less room to send in anchor with those same keywords.
In example URL #1 above, the word plumber isn’t used at all, so you have the highest degree of freedom when it comes to sending anchors with the word “plumber”. URL #3 uses a variation of “plumber” twice, which really limits you in how many target anchors you can send to this URL. I would be extremely careful about over-optimization if you’re in the same boat as URL #3.
URL #2 is what most people are probably working with. In that case, stick to the niche-specific target anchor text and you should be fine. URL #2’s configuration is also what I recommend in my free Onsite SEO guide (found below).
8. Vary your URL anchors
Always remember, when building your own links, the goal is to try to mimic the anchor text profile that would have been created naturally… as if you weren’t building your own links.
This is why you should create a diverse profile of various anchor categories as according to the niche average. Categories such as branded, URL, target, misc, topic, etc.
Amateur SEOs might do well at varying up their target anchors (as in trick #1), but will use the same exact anchor over-and-over when they’re creating URL anchors.
There’s 64 variations (that I can think of) for URL anchors. Here’s a few.
- https://www.website.com (standard)
- https://www.website.com/ (backslash at the end)
- https://website.com (missing www)
- www.website.com (missing http)
- website.com (missing http and www)
Combo them together. Vary them up.
Another outside-the-box URL anchor is sending a homepage anchor to an inner page URL.
It’s pretty rare, but it happens.
Here’s one going to an inner page on Ahrefs.
9. Long Phrases
As SEO’s we often think, for lack of a better word… as SEOs.
- “I need a target anchor. So I’ll send this exact match anchor.”
- “Time for a miscellaneous anchor? Ok, ‘click here’ it is.”
But always remember, anchors for contextual links (i.e.: in the body of the article) naturally are trying to describe what they’re linking to. Sometimes that can be done with one word, sometimes it takes 10.
Mix in some longer phrase anchor texts now and then.
Scroll up to the last link I created in this article for an example.
10. Write anchors in English, not SEO-ese
When people are trying to rank for local terms, such as “plumber chicago”, what they typically do is create backlinks with the anchor “plumber chicago”.
But how does this look in an article?
“Most families in the area prefer to visit Dr. John Smith, whom is the top-rated plumber chicago.”
Our number one job as SEO’s is to make it seem like we’re not doing our own SEO, and to make it appear that people are linking to our sites on their own accord. Now looking back at the example anchor, no natural website would ever link like this.
Instead, just use “plumber in Chicago”. You’re still getting credit for “plumber chicago”, but you look natural while doing it, which results in a better ranking boost.
Note: this isn’t based on just theory. This is based on actual test results.
11. Use Synonyms
This handy trick is used to get credit for your keyword, while avoiding over-optimization. Google has built in an extensive amount of latent semantic indexing (LSI) and synonym matching into its algorithm. You see this on a daily basis but you might not notice it.
When you search for “how to sell automobile online” you’ll see that Google actually bolds the keywords that match your search terms. The word automobile has 4 synonyms (car, cars, auto, vehicle) that you can use instead. And this is just what’s shown on page 1.
When you’re reaching your limit on how many times you can use your target keywords, start to throw in synonyms instead. You’ll get the ranking boost while dodging Penguin over-optimization.
I do the same synonym replacement strategy when optimizing keyword density. You can read more about that here:
It’s common industry assumption that if you surround your anchor text with adjacent keywords, longtails, and synoynms, that may help increase the relevance of that link.
For example, if your anchor text is “click here” then it really doesn’t provide any topical value.
But if you were to put it in a sentance like “To learn more about garcinia cambogia’s benefits, click here”, then the assumption is that the link will transfer more topical relevance.
I said “assumption” twice. Not because I don’t think its true, but just because I haven’t tested it myself, so I hesistate to stand by it.
The test is in the queue.
13. What to do if you’ve messed up
Now that you have this information, you don’t necessarily need to go in and fix all your anchor text to be perfect. However, if you realized you’ve really screwed yourself, then I highly recommend that you don’t change your anchor text on existing links, but instead delete links and replace them with new links using the anchor text that you want.
Remember, the name of the game is to look natural. What kind of business owner would have the ability to contact all the ‘web developers’ who naturally built links to his site? Only an SEO.
If you’re already ranking decently, don’t change a thing. Simply use these techniques going forward when you build links and get a ton of additional value out of them.
Anchor Text for Tiered Link Building
A lot of questions come up regarding what anchor text to choose when you’re building links to a tier.
What is tiered link building?
It’s when you have links going to your money site (tier 1), and then you link to these links with a tier 2. Or you might link to the tier 2 as well.
Historically, tiered link building came about when Google started penalizing people that were spamming backlinks with automated software directly to their money site.
So what did blackhat SEOs decide to do instead?
Create a tier of web2.0s with high authority, link them to their sites, and spam the web2.0s instead.
Some fancier examples of this are:
So what kind of anchor text should be used to send to tiers?
The Alternation Technique
These days I’m not doing much tiered link building except for the occasional powering up of guest posts with PBNs.
This tactic was developed back in the day based on a lot of testing with tools like GSA and FCS.
I’ve had discussions with Colby Wren (master of spam when it was still working) and Mark Luckenbaugh (fellow teacher at The Lab), and they do the same thing.
- If your tier 1 link to your money site is a target anchor text, then link to it with a branded/URL/longtail mix.
- If your tier 1 link to your money site is a non-target anchor text, then link to it with target anchor text blend.
This applies down into tiers 2, 3, etc.
As you’ve noticed, each tier will alternate between agressive and non-agressive anchors.
Tiered link building, by definition, comes with its own risks. People who employ it as a practice are doing so because they’re masking spammy links with a tier of more trusted ones.
That said, aside from these risks, this anchor strategy is optimal from both a safely perspective and a effectiveness perspective.
Internal Anchor Text Optimization
So now that you’ve mastered the art of external anchor optimization, guess what, the show’s not over.
There are still rules for the links you send internally, from one page of your site to another.
It was a cold evening on November 2, 2012.
Matthew Diggity, amateur SEO, is sitting in his office with grand schemes.
Black Friday is just around the corner and Matthew wants to take his “Best Ergonomic Chair” website to the stratosphere.
Review every single ergonomic chair in existance, link them back to the ergonomic chair review homepage, increasing the topical relevance, and then rank #1 for ALL THE THINGS!
Idiot-Matthew indeed reviewed every single ergonomic chair listed on Amazon. He created beautiful standalone pages for each of these. And he linked all of them back to the homepage with “best ergonomic chair”.
What happened to the rankings?
Tanked the day before Black Friday.
Balancing Internal Anchor Text
The above is, sadly, a true story.
Eventually I figured out what I did wrong. I had assumed that internal anchor text for a website was a non-factor.
Once I adjusted the internal anchor text to be more balanced, rankings recovered… unfortunately after the holiday season.
This story sits with me as a harsh lesson to this day and is the reason why I’m so particular about getting internal anchor text ratios correct.
From page-to-page, anchor distributions do indeed need to be distributed, but they can be a lot more aggressive than external.
Here’s the distribution that I typically follow now:
Internal Anchor Distribution Recommendation
Based on recent tests, this distribution is indeed on the conservative side. I’ve gotten away with a lot worse.
That said, it will keep you safe.
Internal and external anchor ratios do indeed interact together, so if you mistakenly over-optimize externally, this conservative internal ratio will give you some padding.
Thanks for taking a nerdy walk with me down Anchor Text Lane.
Let’s sum up what you’ve learned:
You’ve learned how to find the niche-specific target anchor text that your page needs.
You’ve learned how to make individual anchor text decisions that are going to set you apart from your competition by looking more natural, while still being effective.
You’ve learned how to balance internal anchor text.
If this has helped you or if you have any questions, please leave so in the comments below.