How to Unnaturally Naturally Vary Your Anchor Text

by on March 2, 2011 | posted in SEO Theory

Something you’ve undoubtedly heard, if you’ve done SEO, if you’ve built a link, if you have a pulse – is that you should naturally vary your anchor text.

I hate this, and I hate it because it’s unhelpful and ambiguous. It’s like telling a fat person “eat healthy”. Yes, fat person, eat healthy, but if you only eat carrots and lettuce, you probably couldn’t lift a fly, and your diet will be so deficient in other areas you’ll likely develop fatigue, smug SEO consulting skills, or some other insidious combination of those and other negative characteristics.

My point is that naturally varying your anchor text isn’t enough. So, I’m here to help – first, to say why everyone says “naturally vary your anchor text”, and that’s it, and how we can get past that – helpfully – without ever saying “combinatorially, 93.99485% of your anchor text combinations should be your primary keyword”.

If All Things Were Equal..

We never, ever get past “naturally vary your anchor text”, mostly because SEOs are afraid. They’re afraid to say that 60% of the time you should say “Peas”, 30% “Good Peas”, and 10% “Green Peas”.

The reason for that is because anchor text variation, more than any other factor in SEO, is practically impossible to test – all of us, the SEOs, only have personal inferences into what moves the needle and what doesn’t in this regard. And also, it’s hard to hold that one variable static while accurately – or even with 51% accuracy – holding everything else in place. We know more indications of an anchor text mean a higher probability of ranking for a given keyword, but we also know that at a certain, high distribution diminishing returns occur, to the point where a penalty is possible.

Where do we draw the line? Where do rankings peak? At the same threshold, one must consider that even if rankings are optimized for a keyword at a given anchor text distribution, if a website was given a manual review, would it still pass the same sniff tests? Almost assuredly not – or we wouldn’t see constant manual tweaks to the rankings – since a absence of this would mean that Google believes their algorithm is perfect.

So where do we go from here? This post isn’t to give you reiterate “naturally vary your anchor text” like other parenthetical, useless, incorrect SEO phrases like paid links are bad, or content is king. The point of this post is to be like Stephen King’s “On Writing” – which states that there is no science to the craft, but there is a path.

“Naturally vary your anchor text” says throw shit on the wall, hang around your keyword, and hopefully you’ll rank. Obviously, this is useless. There’s a better process. There’s unnaturally natural variance.

Using Excel to Divide Anchor Text Distribution

After I’ve created a given keyword focus based on a set of URLs, I draft up an Excel sheet. Along the top row, I paste the URL of each keyword that will be targeted in each column (and sometimes, the keywords cross URLs – and thus, columns).  Once I’ve done that, I give each column a color code based on how heavy I want the URL to be focused on in link building. For ease of use, I put URLs that are focused on more heavily in darker colors.

From there, I freeze the top pane by going into the “View” tab in Excel 2007, hitting the Freeze Pannes dropdown, and clicking “Freeze Top Row”. This may different depending on the age and type of Excel program you use.

Within each URL column are the appropriate keywords, which, most obviously, inform which keywords are focused upon the most. Below each column header, I begin filling in the keywords for each URL, based on whatever I deem appropriate for my “unnatural natural” variation. When a link goes live based on my specifications (or without), I modify and/or fill in the column cell of the anchor text that went live to yellow, to indicate that a link had been achieved for that anchor text.

Given this data, I can make deeper inferences into why certain keywords are moving, why others aren’t, and what my next anchor text and URL should be.

Although tools like Raven let you add links and observe tools like this, I prefer this as a process as it’s easy, and makes visualizing your focus and anchor text distribution a straightforward and simple process. When the cells fill up with yellow side by side, you’ll begin to notice when one URL hasn’t been hit enough, you’ve hit one anchor text too much, or what links and combinatory distribution seems most beneficial to your niche and rankings. When you’ve done this enough, you’ll begin to make your own, more accurate estimates about the right mix of anchor text for your keywords, content and vertical.

And most importantly, you’ll stop having coffee with business people while muttering penetrating sayings like “naturally vary your anchor text”.

And Then, Actual Suggestions

Although I’m not going to make the bold move that means suggesting an exact anchor text distribution that’s optimal to rankings, I am willing to offer certain anchor-text-specific details I’ve found cogent in my career, and moreso, are overall paths to best current (and future) anchor text practices.

  • Using Tildes (~) as a methodology to find the most semantically linked keywords to vary your anchor text with. Tildes, when placed before your keyword, return other keywords, in bold, that Google sees as extremely linked to the right-adjacent query. Sometimes, there won’t be any additional keywords Google seems to seem as extremely semantically linked, but it doesn’t mean they see any. Anyways, if you can determine other keywords that are strongly linked to your keyword focus, it seems likely that they would do the biggest benefit to your primary keyword when you vary your anchor text. In example, Google sees terms like airline tickets and flights as closely linked to the term [airfare].
  • Including domain/brand names in anchor text. Occasionally including the domain name in the anchor text is just one way Google might interpret your website as a brand. I’m not sure that a certain ratio indicates brand to Google, but it would make sense that a given number, at scale, would show that the site is a brand in a given vertical.
  • Indicating exact match domains are brands, and not keyword spam, by capitalizing anchor text. Brands are nouns. Keywords like “cheap flights” are not. I go more in depth on this on my post on how Google might devalue exact match domains, but my overall thought is that capitalization in anchor text, over a broad enough linkset, is a strong indicator of a brand rather over a spammy exact-match domain that manipulatively retrieves links with “cheap flights” into the domain “cheap-flights.info”. Shoes.com and CheapFlights.com are frequently capitalized, after all – because they are brands. If you look into the backlink profile of cheap-flights.info – I’m pretty certain they don’t share the same characteristics.
  • Varying emphasized keywords with other long tail versions of the same keywords. I would love to see a citation of a high value keyword that does not have other long tail versions of the same keyword – that can’t be hit on the same URL. Sometimes this takes some nice information architecture, but if you can’t find SOME long tail keyword to hit on one of the primary URLs you’re linkbuilding for, you’re doing the link building, keyword research, or information architecture wrong. Seriously.
  • If you hear “naturally vary your anchor text” too much, you’ll eventually start believing it. At times early in my career, I would start hitting my main keywords one out of six links, even though the all the variations were really close to the main iteration. Even though the other five were derivatives of the 1st, this ratio was too thin to make a real impact on competitive keywords. “Vary” does not mean go on a marathon jog away from your starting keyword. Run up the stairs to your room, come back, and use the keyword again.

Anchor text isn’t an exact science. Just kidding – anchor text IS an exact science, and that’s the problem. We’ll never know for sure where it’s going, or what the ideal variation is because of the hundreds of variables we can never truly control. With enough rationale, experience and “feel” that comes with a experience and time with keyword set with it’s own unique semantic closeness – you might just get a good feel for a near-ideal percentage to maximize rankings for a given keyword.

I wouldn’t ever come out and say it, though. These things will never stay stable, and they’ll never be provable. So just know that you should use one anchor text 100% of the time, and not 0% of the time, either. That much we know for sure. ;)

  • http://www.johnfdoherty.com John

    Ross –
    Great post here. It reminds me a lot of the book I’m currently reading called “Switch”.

    I like how you organize your keywords and the actionable takeaways from your explanation of your process. I still find myself wanting a “Use Keyword Phrase A 50% of the time, Keyword Phrase B 20%, and the other 4 30% of the time”, but this isn’t actionable, specific, or possible.

    I also like your quote at the end, “anchor text IS an exact science, and that’s the problem”. Pretty much sums up my observations about linkbuilding!

    John
    @dohertyjf

    • Ross Hudgens

      I mean, it is possible, but the foundational and bad thing about doing it (or recommending it), is that it almsot undoubtedbly wrong. It’s probably very close, but it’s wrong, and giving advice in %s that are wrong is not a good thing to do. I think every anchor text/URL combination is different, based on things like the semantic closeness of the keywords you’re focusing on the page, and how Google individually connects each of those keywords.

      For example, if you were trying to hit Cat Insurance and Cat Insurance Companies on the same page, I’m pretty certain Big G doesn’t see that as super semantically linked – as compared to something like Feline Insurance that you could use instead (but might have absolutely no search volume – dilemma!).

      Thanks for the comment John!

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  • http://www.undergroundelephant.com Mark Simon

    Love the tilde recommendation; going to start employing that more

  • http://jeffsoukotta.com Jeff

    Good post Ross. The tilde thing is a good pointer, I need to use it more.
    I think to mix things right up there need to be the usual phrases as well, like the ubiquitous “click here” etc

    • Ross Hudgens

      Jeff, that’s one thing I disagree about. There’s no way, in my opinion, that Google gives some positive boost to websites that have “click here” in their anchor text. It just doesn’t make algorithmic sense to me. Do I believe you should do “junk” anchor text? Yes – but junk anchor text that has the potential maximum benefit, like using words with strong semantic connection.

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  • http://sailra.ca Fiji

    A young boy and his dad went out fishing one fine morning. After a few quiet hours out in the boat, the boy became curious about the world around him. He looked up at his father and asked “How do fish breath under water?” His dad thought about it for a moment, then answered “I really don’t know, son.” The boy sat quietly from another moment, then asked his dad again, “How does our boat float on the water?” Once again his dad answered, “Don’t know, son.” Reflecting his thoughts again, a little while later, the boy asks “Why is the sky blue?” Again, his father answered, “Don’t know, son.” The inquisitive boy, worried he was disturbing his dad, asks this time “Dad, do you mind that I’m asking you all of these questions?” “Of course not son”, replied his dad, “How else are you ever going to learn anything?”
    I sometimes feel that some posts and whole web sites are much alike this story…

  • http://alanbleiweiss.com Alan Bleiweiss

    Ross,

    Glad to see an article on varying anchor text. With so many aspects of SEO to focus on, I don’t personally have an “exact science” recommendation, though I admit I do recommend percentages as a “broad guideline” because I don’t want clients expending so much energy on getting it exactly right as much as I do on their need to understand diversity is important. And I agree – straying too far from the primary topic or primary phrase is going to be harmful – it’s going to dilute the topical focus signals for sure.

    As for the boy and his dad in the boat, all I can say is WTF? :-)

  • http://www.7cardstudstrategy.com/ Josh

    Great article. I have a follow-up question. Is it counter-productive if you use anchors that don’t make much sense and/or that are not in the content on my page? Here is an example. My main KW is “red apple” and I use the anchor “apple red” every now and then. Is that a waste since the term “apple red” is not in my content or is it a good way to vary KW’s?

    • Ross Hudgens

      I can’t say for sure, of course, but I would recommend against this. It doesn’t make much sense in context, and if Google is smart enough to differentiate that removing an s can make a huge difference in the meaning of a word, they know that flipping it completely changes it. I would recommend choosing a positive adjective instead, like “great red apple”. I’m not sure Google is using this as a signal, but it seems like positive adjectives in anchor text would make sense to look at to judge “red apples” overall, and definitely, they can tell you’re talking about red apples in that instance.

  • http://www.cl-webservice.de Poseodon

    Hi Ross,

    like to you read your posts everytime. Regards from Germany!

  • http://www.legraindeweb.fr Marco

    Geat Post !

    I always find it reassuring when straight and simple methods are use in SEO (far away from the vary anchor spirit linked to the idea that good SEO will naturally know, by experiences, how to correctly vary anchors text). The Excel approach is definitly a good one.

    Also, i would like to say that i ranked a web site on one specific expression with 95% of his anchor text being that exact same expression. That worked, and if it is worth it in term of ROI, why not do so ?

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  • http://tiskarna.kostomaj.si Tiskarna Kostomaj

    I believe the max % of same keyword occurrence at the present time does not really matter. This part of the algorithm can and will be changed at any time. Thanks for the ~ advice.

  • http://www.businesspropulsion.com.au Peter

    Nice tip on the ~
    Have been finding different tools for my team to find related keywords.
    Will add this to our arsenal!

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  • http://www.linkworxseo.com Ty Whalin

    I have found several techniques to work accordingly for anchor text choices. I try using a variety of anchor text links to target specific niches, but found using your anchor text for your chosen keywords should be used the highest percentage of the time. I myself use the same layout for maintaining my keywords. Excel spread sheet on SkyDrive. Once I determine the tile for my page, I then create every variation possible from those set of keywords and then create separate descriptions for each keyword or phrase and then take it a step further by implementing tags with multiple variations for each keyword or keyword phrases. As I think you had mentioned using your main keyword (s) 90% of the time is correct, but once you reach the top spot that keyword (s) only then has to be maintained. Afterwards, you can then focus on a new set of keywords. That seem to be the case for me in most of my campaigns thus far. Great post.

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  • http://www.iomundo.com/ IOmundo

    well, while I agree about varying the anchor text (not only to get better rankings, but also to avoid spam), I think if you have less than 50% of the anchor text from different linking root domains different than your exact match targeted phrase, then you’re doing it the wrong way. I usually suggest keeping the exact match anchor text somewhere around 50-60%, about 10-15 for branding and the other 20-25% with various related anchor texts

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  • http://ulasglobal.co Ulas Global

    I am a SEO Expert
    And were looking for SEO Articles and Found yours. Its really helpful man. Thanks for your great tips. I like it and will try to do it my self.

  • http://www.dreamonlinemoney.com Henry

    when it comes to SEO, there is a lot of variables involve and so it can never be an exact science. Different things will work for different people. As for varying anchor text, I have found success with having most of the anchor text the kexword I’m targeting. I really hate wasting hard-earned backlinks.

  • http://www.chrisfaron.com/blog/about/ chris faron

    Informative post, I prefer using a 1-10 scale rather than colour coding the urls, this allows me to “order by” or if I would like to import this data into a db.

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  • http://www.aranzamendezdesign.com Justin Brooks

    Hi Ross! I like your keyword strategy by varying it specifically. Your post gives me a lot more information to avoid penguin update by doing natural anchor text as your backlink..

  • airahbrown

    thank you for this tips. keep posting more.. Seattle Divorce Attorney

  • Blog Tips and Trick

    I still have some questions on anchor text and Google Penguin, I hope that you or someone can reply…

    One of my targeted keywords is blog tips. I vary it with blogging tips, blog tips and tricks, blogging tips and tricks, blog guides, blogging guides, blogging tutorials, blog tutorials, etc. (I am not listing my long-tail keywords)

    Will Google penalize me for this, are they not varied enough? Also, will the anchor text blogging tutorials help me rank for the blogging tips keyword?

    Thanks for your time and any answers…

    Blog Tips Tricks and Tutorials

  • http://www.smile2cloud.com/ Smile2cloud

    Thanks Ross, if found your article helpful.

  • http://www.linkworxseo.com Ty Whalin

    I found this one to be fantastic as well. A lot of detail in the article. The informational graphics were a plus as well. Ross put a ton of time into this article and should be commended for the great effort. Keep them coming.

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