Anchor Text: Why It Matters for SEO & How to Optimize It in 2024

When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), many marketers focus heavily on creating great content, earning authoritative backlinks, and optimizing technical on-page elements like title tags and meta descriptions. But there‘s one powerful ranking factor that often gets overlooked: anchor text.

Anchor text refers to the clickable words and phrases that link one web page to another. It‘s the visible part of a hyperlink, and it plays a big role in telling search engines what the linked page is about. When used strategically, anchor text can help boost your rankings, drive more qualified traffic, and improve the user experience on your site.

Consider this: Google has stated that anchor text is "one of the strongest signals we use to understand what a linked page is about."1 A study by Ahrefs found that across 384,614 web pages, there was a clear correlation between a page‘s rankings for a keyword and how often that exact keyword appeared in its anchor text.2

In other words, if you want your web pages to rank well for your target keywords, it‘s not enough to just use those keywords on the page – you also need to optimize the anchor text of your inbound and internal links. When many links pointing to a page use a particular keyword or phrase as the anchor text, it acts as a strong relevance signal to Google.

But not all anchor text is created equal. Using the same exact match keyword every time can actually hurt your rankings, as it looks unnatural and spammy to Google. The key is to use a mix of different anchor text variations in a way that makes sense for users and search engines alike.

Types of Anchor Text

Before we dive into how to optimize your anchor text, let‘s break down the different types you‘ll typically see across the web:

Anchor Text Type Example Usage
Exact match "best dog food" Contains the target keyword verbatim
Partial match "this guide to the best dog food" Includes the keyword as part of a longer phrase
Branded "Petco" or "Petco.com" References a brand/website name with no keywords
Naked link "https://www.example.com/dog-food" Shows the full linked URL
Generic "click here" or "this website" Provides no context about the linked page
Images "alt text" Uses an image as the link anchor

Most websites will naturally attract a mix of anchor text types over time. However, actively trying to manipulate your anchor text ratios (e.g. by building lots of exact match keyword links) is a surefire way to land a Google penalty.

In a landmark 2012 algorithm update known as Penguin, Google started devaluing sites with suspiciously high percentages of exact match anchor text, especially when those links came from low-quality or irrelevant sites.3 Many brands saw their hard-earned rankings wiped out overnight.

While Google has gotten much better at understanding the context and intent behind anchor text, the dangers of over-optimized anchors are still very real today. So how can you optimize your link profile the right way? Here are some current best practices to follow.

Anchor Text Best Practices for 2024

  1. Prioritize relevance over keywords.
    Your #1 goal with anchor text should be accurately describing the page you‘re linking to. Don‘t try to cram in an exact match keyword just for the sake of optimization. Think about what makes the most sense for users and the overall context of your content.

  2. Use descriptive, natural language.
    The more useful and informative your anchor text is, the better. Avoid generic phrases like "read more" or "click here" in favor of anchors that give readers a clear sense of what they‘ll find on the linked page. Try to write your anchors as you would naturally speak or write.

  3. Incorporate semantic keywords.
    In addition to your primary target keywords, include synonyms, related terms, and long-tail variations in your anchor text when relevant. This helps you rank for a wider range of queries and makes your link profile look more natural to Google.

  4. Map anchors to buyer intent.
    Think about where readers are in their customer journey when they encounter a link, and tailor your anchors accordingly. For instance, an anchor like "what is the best dog food?" would fit an early research stage, while "buy Blue Buffalo dog food" would suit a page targeting buyers who are ready to make a purchase.

  5. Limit exact match anchors.
    Many SEOs recommend using verbatim keyword anchors for no more than 1-2% of your link profile.4 Use them very sparingly, and only when they fit naturally within the surrounding text. Remember, even a small handful of exact match anchors can still be impactful if they come from authoritative, highly relevant websites.

  6. Fix problematic links at the source.
    If you do find that your site has a high number of suspicious keyword anchors, avoid the temptation to simply disavow them all. Instead, try to get the links removed or updated at the source by contacting webmasters directly. Only disavow links as a last resort, as this can inadvertently remove valuable links too.

What the Experts Are Saying

"I‘m a big believer in making your anchor text contextually relevant. Think about how the sentence reads, how useful it is to a user, and whether it makes sense if the link didn‘t exist. At the end of the day, if it doesn‘t provide value to your readers, it likely doesn‘t provide value to Google either."

  • Rand Fishkin, SparkToro5

"With internal links, the main thing is to have a consistent and clear structure. If you have an authoritative page and you link to it from a relevant page with descriptive anchor text, that helps Google a lot with understanding what that linked page is about."

  • John Mueller, Google Search Advocate6

Advanced Anchor Text Techniques

Once you‘ve mastered the basics, try experimenting with these more advanced anchor text optimization techniques:

  • Use Google Search Console data to identify opportunities.
    Look for pages that rank on the first few pages of Google for relevant keywords but don‘t yet have many inbound links with those keywords in the anchor text. Adding more keyword-rich internal links to those pages can help them climb even higher.

  • Create a topical map of your link profile.
    Group your site‘s pages into topical "hubs" and ensure each hub links out to the others with relevant, descriptive anchor text. This helps establish your site‘s topical authority and makes it easier for both users and crawlers to find related content.

  • Track anchor text trends over time.
    Keep an eye on how your anchor text distribution changes over weeks and months using your favorite SEO tools. Look for any major swings in exact match or low-quality anchors that could put you at risk of a penalty. Catching and fixing potential issues early is key to staying on Google‘s good side.

Case Study: HubSpot

To see these techniques in action, let‘s take a look at how HubSpot approaches anchor text internally. The popular marketing software brand regularly publishes in-depth, authoritative blog content on topics like "email marketing tips."

HubSpot ranks #1 for email marketing tips

Not only does their core guide on the topic thoroughly cover the subject matter with useful tips, but it also strategically links to several other related HubSpot blog posts using keyword-rich anchor text:

  • "your email marketing strategy"
  • "best email marketing services"
  • "email marketing examples"
  • "email marketing benchmarks"

By linking to these topically relevant guides with descriptive anchors, HubSpot strengthens its overall authority on the subject and provides readers with a wealth of additional resources. It‘s no wonder they consistently rank on the first page for many competitive email marketing keywords.

The Future of Anchor Text

As Google‘s algorithms continue to evolve, some SEO experts believe anchor text is becoming less important as an isolated ranking factor. While using keyword-rich anchors can still help – especially for internal links – the focus is shifting towards evaluating links based on their overall context and usefulness.

In particular, advancements in natural language processing have enabled Google to better understand a linked page‘s topic without relying solely on the verbatim anchor text. In the coming years, we may see factors like a site‘s brand authority, topical relevance, and user engagement signals play a bigger role in determining how much weight a link carries.

However, that doesn‘t mean you can neglect anchor text optimization altogether. Using clear, descriptive anchors will always be a win-win for your users and your rankings. By keeping the big picture in mind and avoiding spammy tactics, you can future-proof your link building strategy and drive sustainable organic growth.

Key Takeaways

Ultimately, anchor text is just one small (but mighty) piece of the larger SEO puzzle. As with any optimization technique, the key is to use it in moderation and in service of your human readers first.

To recap, here are the most important things to keep in mind when optimizing your anchor text in 2024 and beyond:

  1. Use anchor text that accurately reflects the content of the linked page
  2. Include relevant keywords naturally, but don‘t go overboard with exact match anchors
  3. Aim for a diverse mix of anchor text types to keep your link profile looking natural
  4. Prioritize internal linking between semantically related content
  5. Monitor your anchor text distribution and proactively fix any over-optimized links
  6. Stay focused on creating valuable content that other authoritative sites will want to link to

By following these guidelines, you can harness the power of anchor text to drive more qualified organic traffic, build topical authority, and provide a better experience for your website visitors. Just remember – at the end of the day, your ultimate goal should always be providing value to your audience.