I had a client who came to me with a real hatred of backlinks.
He wanted SEO for his law firm. But he wanted me to stay FAR away from anything with “link” in the name.
Why? Because he had just seen all his page one rankings evaporate — right after doing a new PR link campaign.
I wanted to respect what he was asking me. I really did. But I had to investigate.
So, I started playing around with some SEO tools. He had indeed done an incredible PR campaign.
He had a high-profile case that involved a well-known auto manufacturer. He won. And he sent out a press release with a link back to his site.
It got syndicated to hundreds of websites. And dozens of high-authority news sites picked it up.
That’s all great news — exactly what you want to see happen with a PR link building campaign.
So, what went wrong?
I found the problem in the original press release he sent out. In the press release, he linked back to a blog post about the case on his website. That link used the name of the auto manufacturer and the word “vehicles.”
For anonymity’s sake, let’s say the auto manufacturer was Nissan (it wasn’t). The anchor text used in the press release link to his blog would have been “Nissan vehicles.”
Overnight, that anchor text with that link showed up on hundreds of websites. Even some of the news outlets that wrote original stories (in other words, they didn’t copy the press release) used the same anchor text to link to my client’s site.
It was a disaster. Can you guess why?
Because the anchor text was irrelevant to what my client did. He was a personal injury lawyer. Google suddenly saw a bunch of new links with anchor text about a particular brand of vehicle.
And Google got confused. Was this a law firm website or a website that sold cars?
Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite right for my client’s site to rank for law-related keywords — not if he was selling cars, anyway.
In other words:
Google no longer understood what his site was really about. And his rankings suffered (dearly) as a result.
Now, I love a story with a happy ending. And that’s why I’m telling you this one.
Once we knew what the problem was, we went to work building links with more relevant anchor text.
We also optimized his internal anchor text to make sure Google couldn’t misunderstand what any page of his site was about.
Over time, his rankings started to come back. Slowly at first, and then quickly. Everyone was happy, but I’m pretty sure he never wrote another press release after that.
That brings me to the reason you’re here: anchor text.
As the story above illustrates, it’s critically important. If you want to succeed in SEO, you need to understand it fully.
You’re in the right place. Read on.
Anchor text is the clickable text that accompanies a hyperlink. Like this.
It’s a part of the <a> attribute in HTML code. And it usually changes the color of the text in question, along with making it clickable and linking it to a particular website URL.
That definition is pretty simple as far as code and the internet goes. So, why all the fuss about anchor text?
Because it influences how search engines understand the links on other websites that point to yours (backlinks) and the links on one page of your website linking to another (internal links).
Think of it like this:
A regular hyperlink — like https://website.com/ — is like a window.
Google, which crawls all the links on the internet to understand and index much of the world’s content, is like a light.
When it hits that naked link, the light shines through. Google passes from the site where it found the link to the site indicated by the link itself.
Adding anchor text to that equation is like holding up colored glass in front of the window. Suddenly the light passing through the window is a different color.
The window (the link) is still there. The light (Google) is still shining through. But the colored glass (anchor text) is influencing how that light looks.
The ability to influence how Google passes through and understands your website is powerful. And when you control and carefully curate your anchor text, you can do exactly that.
Really, anchor text is anchor text — whether it’s on an internal link or a backlink. But it’s important to consider anchor text as it relates to both types of links.
Let’s start with internal links (links from one page of your website to another).
When Google crawls your website, it’s going to follow pretty much every internal link you’ve included in your content.
You’re in TOTAL control of the anchor text on your internal links. Your website is an owned channel — meaning nobody but you can dictate what you put on it.
That means you need to pay extra attention to your internal link anchor text.
We’ll get more into the specifics of how to do that later, but one of the most important parts of this is directing internal links from blog posts about various topics to your “money” pages (product or service pages) using rich anchor text.
In other words, many of your blog posts need to include internal links to your most important pages. And the anchor text for those links, at least sometimes, needs to include the keywords for which you would like those important pages to rank.
Let’s stick with the law firm example.
You’re a personal injury law firm, and you’re publishing a blog post titled “What to Do After a Car Accident.”
Somewhere in that blog post, you should include an internal link to your practice area page for car accident lawsuits.
If you’d like that page to rank for “car accident lawyer,” the anchor text you might use for that internal link on your new blog post would be “car accident lawyer.”
Anchor text for backlinks is a whole different game.
The main difference is that you’re so rarely in control of the exact anchor text used with a backlink, while you’re always in control of the anchor text used with an internal link.
Backlinks that allow you to choose the anchor text are the holy grail of link building. But that means they’re very rare and very expensive in most cases.
Despite your relative lack of control over the anchor text for backlinks, you still need to:
One thing that many link builders and business owners forget:
Sometimes, you CAN control the anchor text of a backlink. All you have to do is ask nicely. Many website owners will be willing to work with you.
But in many cases, you’re swimming upstream as you try to control the anchors coming from the backlinks you’re building. It’s a part of the game, but it can be frustrating.
Learn more about our Link Building Service.
How do internal anchor text and backlink anchor text work together in your link building strategy?
You have to take a holistic approach. That means zooming out a bit and looking at the bigger picture.
Here’s what I mean:
If you have a particular blog post that’s generating a lot of great backlinks, that’s fantastic. That blog post will rank well for its keywords, no doubt.
But you have to take it a step further.
Google is following those inbound backlinks and hitting your blog post. With smart internal linking (and smart internal anchor text choices), you can direct that link juice to the more valuable pages of your site.
And because you control the anchor text of internal links, you can add your own influence to the link power Google is now going to pass from that blog post to other pages of your website.
So, if the fictional blog post I referenced above was getting a bunch of semi-relevant or branded anchors on all the backlinks it was generating, you could add a smart internal link to that post with keyword-rich anchor text pointing directly at one of your money pages.
Suddenly, you’ve added a valuable keyword to the ranking discussion. And you’re influencing how Google interprets the page you’ve just built a smart internal link to.
That’s holistic link building 101, and anchor text is a HUGE part of it.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty. There are some recognized types of anchor text that you need to be aware of. They’re listed below.
Exact match anchor text uses the EXACT keyword you want the DESTINATION page to rank for.
It’s NOT the keyword you want the page where the link originates to rank for.
So, if you’ve got a Wisconsin family law firm and you’re building backlinks to your “Milwaukee Divorce Lawyer” practice area page, you’d use the anchor text “Milwaukee divorce lawyer” if you wanted to build an exact match anchor to that page.
Partial match refers to anchor text that contains just part of the keyword you would like the destination page to rank for.
It’s not the whole keyword — just part of it.
Stick with the “Milwaukee divorce lawyer” anchor text.
In whole, that’s an exact match anchor. But partial match anchor text might look like the following:
People often mix up partial match anchor text and keyword variation anchor text. They’re closely related but not the same thing.
While partial match anchors use part of the EXACT keyword you’re targeting, keyword variation anchors use a synonym or other phrase that’s closely related to your exact keyword.
So, for our “Milwaukee divorce lawyer” exact match anchor text, keyword variation anchor text might look like the following:
As you can see, keyword variations can vary pretty widely. And they all fall under the umbrella of “keyword variation” anchor text.
Branded anchor text is some of the simplest anchor text. It’s just the name of your business or brand.
So, every company has its own version of branded anchor text. If you’re Costco, your branded anchor text is “Costco.”
If you’re a law firm with a bunch of partner names in the firm name, those partner names are your branded anchor text.
One thing to keep in mind:
Branded anchor text might also include very close variations on your business name.
While it’s best practice to keep any mentions of your business consistent in spelling and formatting across the internet, inevitably, you will rack up some branded anchor text that’s slightly different from your official business name.
Naked URL anchor text is just the URL of the page it links to. It’s really simple.
So, if Google wanted to build a backlink to its search engine homepage and use naked URL anchor text, that anchor text would look like this:
Not everyone calls this type of anchor text “cover” anchor text, but I like to. It’s also called generic anchor text in some circles.
Here’s what it looks like:
Why cover? Because it’s a super natural-looking anchor text that can help you cover up your link building strategy.
Google doesn’t want us to build backlinks meant to manipulate search rankings. Everyone does it, but it’s Google’s policy to forbid it.
So, you have to cover up your efforts. And generic anchors like those listed above don’t contain keywords, meaning they don’t look like they’re meant to game the system.
Anchor text isn’t something you should just let happen. You need to exercise as much control over the anchor text used with your backlinks as possible.
Remember — anchor text is about rankings. It’s a primary key to ranking for the keywords you want to rank for.
So, how do you “optimize” anchor text to get better rankings for the keywords you want to rank for?
It’s all about appearing “natural” to Google while working your keywords into your anchor text profile as much as possible.
What do I mean by natural?
I mean your anchor text profile — the sum of the anchor text pointing to your website — needs to look like it happened naturally, without your influence and without the intention to manipulate Google search rankings.
Sometimes, your target keywords might look natural to Google. But if you ONLY have your primary keyword as anchor text on your inbound links, that looks very, very unnatural.
It’s actually a pretty logical exercise. Think about what people naturally use when they create in-text links.
If they’re linking to a website’s homepage, they’re probably going to use that website’s brand name.
If they’re linking to a “how to” blog post, they might use the exact title of the blog post.
If they’re linking to a product or service page, they might use part of the primary keyword that describes that product or service.
If it appears natural, you need to have it in your anchor text profile.
But what about your keywords?
They need to find their way into your well-developed anchor text profile as much as possible without setting off any alarm bells.
Use your exact match keywords as anchors — definitely do that. But don’t do it all the time. And balance it with partial match, branded, variation, URL and cover anchor text.
And as you build out your anchor text profile (and optimize it), don’t forget to track your progress.
How else will you remember how many times you’ve used an exact match anchor (or any other kind of anchor text) for a specific page?
Before you start making major changes to your anchor text strategy, you need to know where you’re starting from.
To do that, you’re going to need to use a tool.
Google Search Console provides some data about the links pointing to your site, as well as the accompanying anchor text. It’s free to use, but it’s pretty limited.
That’s why I recommend using a paid SEO tool like Ahrefs, Semrush or similar.
Here’s how to analyze your current anchor text profile using Semrush:
1. Plug your domain into the top search bar.
2. Scroll down to the backlink analytics section.
3. Find the anchor text section and check it out.
For easier sorting and data management, export the results to a spreadsheet and manage them (and update them) there.
With the basics out of the way, we’re ready to dive into the best practices. Here’s what you need to know to sharpen your anchor text game:
Variety is the spice of a great anchor text strategy.
You may be tempted to hammer your keywords, and I get that. But you need to mix it up.
And it’s not just about avoiding suspicion from Google. It’s also about capturing the semantics of search.
Fact is: People enter queries into Google in different ways. With slightly different spellings or words in slightly differing orders.
If you have anchor text that matches all those versions of your keyword (pointing to the appropriate page on your site, of course), you’re more likely to rank highly for all of those versions in Google.
There is, of course, the chief concern of not getting a manual action on your site with spammy anchor text. But think of the higher rankings for keyword variations as a bonus on top of that.
Remember those types of anchor text we talked about? You can actually combine them sometimes.
This works pretty well with branded anchor text and partial keyword anchor text. It’s something that comes up naturally in anchor text profiles for a lot of businesses (meaning you should target it, too).
Here’s what it can look like:
Your business is a criminal defense law firm called Busted Handcuffs. You do criminal defense for a lot of people charged with DUI.
Your branded + partial keyword anchor text might be: “Busted Handcuffs DUI defense.”
This is both natural-looking and a great way to boost your brand’s association with a particular product or service.
If you are a small business owner, it’s only natural that SOME of the links you get are going to come with anchor text that is simply your name.
This is especially common for attorneys and similar professionals whose businesses revolve heavily around them and their individual achievements.
So, when you can control anchor text, it’s a good idea to use your own name as anchor text (sometimes, not always).
For example, if your business is called The Law Office of John R. Smith, “John Smith” is a good anchor to have in your anchor text profile.
Even if your name isn’t a part of your business name, you’ll still want to do this on occasion.
For instance, if you’re an accountant named Sandra Surname and your business name is No-Sweat Bookkeeping, “Sandra Surname” would be a good anchor to use every so often.
Not sure which synonyms to use when you’re trying to build out the keyword variations in your anchor text profile?
There’s a simple solution. Just ask Google what it thinks is a synonym for your keyword.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Google your primary, most important keyword.
2. Look at the search results and note which words Google has bolded in the meta descriptions.
3. Any bolded words that are NOT a part of the keyword you Googled are words Google considers to be synonyms.
Use those bolded words in your anchor text strategy to boost your keyword variation game.
As you’ve probably picked up by now, a lot of the concerns around anchor text are about appearing natural. And to be natural, you have to create anchors that look like everyday people (not professional SEOs) created them.
One smart way to do that is to use different versions of your URLs. This can refer to both the URLs you build links to and the URLs you use when you build links with naked URL anchor text.
What do I mean by “different” versions of your URL?
Why does this matter? Because you’re going to use the most precise and SEO-friendly version of your URL every time if you’re trying to build SERP-manipulating backlinks.
But if you’re just a website owner with nothing to hide — which is what you want Google to think — you’re going to get all kinds of versions of your website in your backlink and anchor text profiles.
Here’s the thing: Over-optimization is a big concern when you’re thinking about anchor text.
Go too heavy on your keywords, and you might catch the attention of a grumpy manual reviewer at Google HQ.
But you shouldn’t think about anchor text optimization in a vacuum. You need to also consider your URLs.
More specifically, how optimized your URLs are.
Let’s stick with the law firm example. Say you’re a family law firm in Minneapolis. You’re building backlinks to this URL on your website:
That’s a pretty optimized URL. In this case, you would want to be fairly cautious about over-optimizing your anchor text. In other words, use the keyword (and variations) of “Minneapolis divorce lawyer” more sparingly in your anchor text profile.
What if the URL was less optimized? If it was a random string of numbers (not ideal for other reasons) or something like /divorce/, you could go a bit heavier on the keyword “Minneapolis divorce lawyer” in your anchor text profile.
Your title tag is the title you set for a webpage that appears in Google search results. It looks like this:
If you want your anchor text profile to look natural (you definitely do), you need to use the target page’s title tag at least once.
Why? Because this is a common, naturally occurring anchor text.
It happens when your URLs get posted in forums and similar places online, where the automatically created anchor is the title tag of the page.
So, work that for every page you’re building backlinks to at least once. It may feel awkward, but this is one of the best ways to appear natural to Google.
Certain types of anchor text are more likely to be used with certain types of links.
And while you don’t ALWAYS have to match those types perfectly, it’s a good idea to match the anchor text to the link types as much as possible.
What do I mean by that? Here are a few examples:
To appear natural to Google, your anchor text profile should match the link type in many instances. Not always, of course — but often.
The best practice for anchor text length is around five words or less. That’s SEO 101.
But again, is it always going to look natural to have short, tidy anchor text in your backlink profile? Definitely not.
That’s why it’s perfectly OK to use longer, more descriptive anchor text as you build backlinks sometimes.
It looks really natural — like someone who doesn’t know or care about SEO created it. And that’s what you’re going for.
It’s tempting to create anchor text for Google. I get it. But you need to remember the humans who are going to see it.
Why? Because Google employs humans who are looking for spam link building and shady anchor text practices.
Let me give you an example:
You may know that “injury attorney Chicago” gets searched a lot in Google. But should that ALWAYS be your anchor text?
No. Because that’s not how people write and speak. It looks unnatural in a paragraph inside a blog post.
Consider this sentence: “Contact John R. Smith, an injury attorney Chicago.”
Versus this sentence: “Contact John R. Smith, an injury attorney in Chicago.”
The second one is MUCH more natural. And trust me — you’re still getting credit for the keyword.
If you’re ever facing some sort of Google penalty or feeling afraid that some Google update is going to downgrade your site in search, hold steady.
DO NOT go into your backlink profile and start burning down all your links and anchors. That doesn’t look natural.
That’s a dead giveaway that you’re trying to hide something.
Hold steady, watch for changes and test small adjustments. Over time, you’ll figure out what works.
Anchor text shouldn’t be an afterthought. In fact, it should be a primary consideration in your SEO strategy.
Get it right, and you’ll rank well. Get it wrong, and you won’t.
After all these years, I still see business owners and even professional SEOs ignoring anchor text optimization as a ranking strategy.
It makes me sad, really. But it’s also an opportunity. If you take control of your anchor text, you get an edge over your competitors who haven’t yet seen the light.