Anchor text distribution for optimal SEO

Anchor text distribution

The anchor text is the clickable part of a link and is one of the factors used by search engines to determine what keywords a specific page is about.

In the html code, it looks like this:

<a href="http://www.example.com">anchor text</a>

This article looks specifically at backlinks from other websites, when linking to other pages of your site, we typically recommend that you use relevant or keyword rich anchor text.  See our guide on inserting anchor text using a CMS.

Once upon a time if you had a lot of backlinks using the anchor text hotels in France, for example, then you would appear higher when people searched for this specific search term.  Google realised that some SEO companies were using this excessively and with the Google Penguin algorithm update, and more recently, Google RankBrain, their artificial intelligence algorithm, they started to penalise websites that have an unnaturally high volume of keyword rich anchor texts going to them.

Why are backlinks important to Google?  It’s partly because larger companies are more likely to promote themselves (and they place some value on this), however they’re also looking for evidence that a site is attractive to its visitors and they measure this in a range of ways – how long visitors spend on your site, what your bounce rate is, if you’re shared on social media and crucially – backlinks!

The more organic incoming links you have, the better an indication that other people love your website.

This is one reason Wikipedia ranks on the first page for so many different keywords, because it receives more than ten million new backlinks every day!

 

Should you use keyword rich anchors?

Imagine that you’re Google and you have 3 websites that are otherwise equivalent:

  • Website 1 has 100 backlinks that all use keyword rich anchor texts (e.g. “Paris Hotel”, “French hotel”, “Hotel in France”, etc.)
  • Website 2 has 100 backlinks with no keyword rich anchors.  All the links are generic or branded, e.g. “example.com”, “visit site”, “more info”, etc.
  • Website 3 has 100 backlinks with a mixture of keyword rich anchors, branded anchors, naked URLs (where it’s just the web address) and generic anchors.

Which would you rank highest for that keyword?

  • Website 1 looks suspicious, it seems very unlikely that 100 different webmasters would all spontaneously link to a site with similar keyword rich phrases.  You would probably therefore rule it out, if looking for effectively a ‘vote’ from the World Wide Web at large.
  • Website 2 looks natural, but there’s no indication at all on what the topic of the website is, or why the webmasters think you should visit the site.  You’d therefore include it, but would be unlikely to rank it well.
  • All other factors being equal, Website 3 is the clear winner – the best website is one with a variety of anchor texts.

This is the same logic as Google applies.

 

What distribution is best for SEO?

There’s a range of different types of link:

  • Keyword rich – The link just contains relevant keywords.
  • Branded – It uses the company or author’s name.
  • Naked URL – It just uses the web address (with or without the http / https)
  • Generic – Phrases like ‘click here’.
  • Image – An image, rather than text is used in the link.

Many social media sites and directories don’t let you choose the anchor text, for example Facebook doesn’t let you insert a keyword rich text, you have to use the URL and it then shows a previous of the page with an image.  In this situation, that’s absolutely fine as that link will be natural.

 

Ahrefs study

Ahrefs conducted a study of 51 keywords with large search volumes and found that the following percentage of backlinks had exact match anchor text, depending on what position they ranked for that keyword in Google:
 

Position

Average

Median

1

7.64%

1.96%

2

8.67%

0.85%

3

6.77%

0%

4

5.75%

0.10%

5

4.24%

0%


The average is skewed by some that had a very high percentage of exact match links, the median (around 2% of exact match anchors for 1st position rankings) is a more accurate indicator.

Looking at keyword phrases, they found that the top ranked website used around 1 in 3 backlinks that mentioned a keyword as part of a phrase.

 

SEMRush study

In a SEMRush study looking at many different factors for 600,000 keywords, they found that there was a significant correlation between the total number of anchor texts and the Google ranking.  This means that using lots of variety in your anchor texts will help you rank higher, than using a small number of keyword rich links.

 

Our recommendations

We recommend using as wide a variety in anchor text variations as possible, with around 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 backlinks containing any keyword and the others being the naked URL, your brand name or (more rarely) a phrase like ‘click here’.

Based on Google’s current algorithm, we’ve found that this provides a good balance for SEO.  This is a rough guide, as Google look at over 200 SEO factors, and the anchor text distribution is just one of many SEO factors.  The quality of the content on the page linking to you, and the quality of the site the link is on are both more important than the actual anchors, provided you don't over-optimize them.