My anchor text strategy

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I’ve read a couple of interesting posts in the last week which make opposing claims about what link factors seem to be the most powerful at the moment.

Tim from seowizz did some good research and concluded that anchor text is less important now than trust while The main takeaway from this post by Glen was that anchor text still seems to trump link quality. Both posts have their merits and are worth a read.

Now I don’t have the time or inclination to do any research for myself but the hypothesis I’m working to right now goes something like this:

The longer the query the greater the significance of anchor text as a ranking factor

Or to put it another way:

Anchor text still works real good if you’re taking on a longer (3 words or more) research query like ‘learn to play guitar’ but for a shorter search query like ‘car insurance’ or ‘holidays’ anchor text, while still important, isn’t enough to rank a page alone.

Now to be clear I’m not talking long and short tail keywords here, I’m talking about query length – the number of individual words used in the query. See my last post if you think these are the same thing!

Coming back to the two posts I mentioned at the start what I suspect caused the polar differences between the findings of each were the types of keywords those guys were looking at. Glen choose longer queries like ‘forex trading software’. Tim didn’t include the keywords he was looking at in his post but I assume he’s looked at high traffic terms which are more likely to be 1-2 word queries.

So why is this happening?

Well let me start by saying I’ve been seeing some weird stuff happening with the SERPs at the moment in general (in Google UK at least). I’ve seen big shake ups in some of the high traffic gambling, finance and travel terms I’m tracking. I just think Google’s doing a load more live testing than they used to. I’m not sure I’ve fully got my head around the anchor text/ length of search query issue but what I assume is that Google finds it pretty easy to work out what a 1 or 2 word query is about and what the searcher is looking for rather than just what they’ve typed in. As queries get longer it’s harder to work out the meaning behind the search so the engines more likely to return what looks like the best keyword match i.e best onpage optimisation and most relevant anchor text.

To explain it another way imagine Google 2004 (dumb Google) and Google 2010 (smart Google) looking at the same webpage. Dumb Google looks at the keywords which are used most on the page, the number and PageRank of links and the anchor text of links. Dumb Google is easy to game by increasing any of these 4 elements.

Now smart Google looks at the same page. They don’t just look at the keywords on the page they look at search usage data, related keywords, the contextual relevance and position of backlinks on linking pages, LDA.

Okay not LDA! but the point is they do lots of clever stuff to try to understand what the page is about and how likely it is that, beyond using a certain keyword, the site is actually relevant to that keyword and a good match for a query.

Right now I think smart Google is pretty good at working out the context of short queries, but as queries get physically longer the processing power required to do the clever stuff has got to increase incrementally so dumb Google comes into play and goes back to looking at stuff like anchor text signals and onpage factors to match a query.

I think Google would love to drop anchor text entirely as a ranking factor but the truth is right now I think a large part of the algorithm is still reliant on it.

Similarly I’ve seen loads of short keyword based exact match domains disappear over the last few years while the best way to rank for a longer query is still just buy up www.the-keyword-rich-domain.com. I think this is tied into the same issue.

Just look at the content farm debate that’s going on at the moment. Those sites which are doing big content well are cashing in on this longer query phenomenon- most ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ type queries are going to be at least 4 words long. Google can’t do the clever stuff with those queries so they just return the best keyword match on the strongest domain (a lot of the time at least).

How to use anchor text in 2010

So if you’re still following and you’re buying my completely untested theories what can you do about it? Well here’s how I use anchor text to take on big traffic, short query search terms systematically. I’ll explain with a hypothetical example…

Say I’m an upcoming brand with a newish site and I really want to rank for ‘holidays’- now I could just go and buy up a bunch of links with ‘holidays’ in the anchor text but as we’ve discussed, that probably won’t work these days. Realisticallys its probably going to take 18 months of work before I can seriously start thinking about ranking top 10 for such a short tail, single word query.

Instead I elongate the keyword and build a bunch of longer queries around it so…

  • holidays
  • cheap holidays
  • cheap package holidays
  • cheap all inclusive package holidays

Then I start at the bottom and work up. So first I concentrate on ranking for ‘cheap all inclusive package holidays’. The sort of query where some heavy anchor text manipulation should still deliver a fast result.

Once I’m ranking for that term I shorten the anchor text and start building anchor text links for ‘cheap package holidays’. Then ‘cheap holidays’ and eventually when I come to take on ‘holidays’ I’ve already got hundreds of links with ‘holidays’ somewhere in the anchor text so I should need far less exact match ‘holidays’ anchor text links to rank for that term now.

There’s another very good reason to build anchor text in this way. The more keywords in your anchor the more support that link is going to give you for related queries so to come back to the example having 10 anchors for ‘cheap all inclusive package holidays’ will go a long way to helping you rank for related terms like ‘all inclusive package holiday deals’ or ‘last minute all inclusive package holidays’. Whereas a lot of links just with ‘holidays’ as anchor text won’t do much to help you rank for these longer terms. In essence…

The longer the anchor the better!

So anchor text is still useful. Very useful in fact. It’s just the way you use it needs to change. Start by using anchor text links to rank for longer queries and drill down to target those shorter queries over time when you’ve got more trust and you should in theory need less exact match anchors to take the top positions.

10 Comments My anchor text strategy

  1. Eric

    Very interesting article. I have made observations that it’s beneficial to have anchor text diversity. This is probably because it looks more natural to Google if some links contain anchors such as “read here”, “good article”, “at http://www.url.com” and are coming from articles containing the keyword and possibly some LSI keywords, preferably bold and next to the link.

    Reply
  2. Dee

    When you say shorten, do you mean changing the anchor text in the existing internal links — or building new links with shorter anchor text?

    Reply
  3. Nabil

    I f*cking love you, John. I’ve always been telling people to build links with a long-tail anchor text, just to make it look natural. But they never listen.

    Will be referring to this post in the future whenever someone doubts what I have to say :)

    /Nabil.

    Reply
  4. Albin

    Tru dat John! Variation and long-tail is really awesome SEO nowadays. I’ve found variation of achor text very helpful in on-page SEO.

    Awesome post btw.

    Reply
  5. Alexander

    I completely agree that it all has to be natural, because in the end it’s always about the user experience not having as many keywords in your anchortext as possible.

    Great post by the way, kepp up the good work

    Reply
  6. LBrown

    He’s not talking about diversifying anchor text to make it look natural. That is a completely different elephant. He is talking about how long tail anchor texts have more POWER. I completely agree and I utilize this strategy in a number of ways. This post gave a bit more clarity to my thought process so thanks.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Optimising Internal Link Anchor Text with Wordpress Menus

  8. Michael Nguyen

    Hi John

    What a great post! When I first started SEO I would always start with the main term, and in all that time, I should have been targeting the variations.

    Instead of ranking for the main term and lots of variations,
    I’m only ranking for the main term and little variations and this could all be avoided If I went with your approach, it probably would have taken the same
    amount of time.

    My question is: Do you believe this strategy still applies in 2012 and what changes would you make?

    Best regards
    Michael

    Reply
    1. John McElborough

      Yep more so than ever. Having some exact match anchor text is still important (and don’t believe anyone who tells you “anchor text doesn’t work as well as it used to” etc) but as Google serps become more erratic its more important than ever to be targeting a range of keywords rather than focusing on a single head term.

      Reply

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