As we all should know by now, backlinks are one of the most important factors that determine rankings in the search results. It’s just like in real life – the more connections you have the more likely you are to succeed. But like human relationships, these links from other websites are not all equal. For instance, if you are a business man operating in the textile industry and you happen to know the head of Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), this is a great connection that will bring you many benefits. Your classmate from high school, Jenny, on the other hand, is the owner of a small flower shop in the neighborhood. You’re still glad you have her as a connection, because she prepares lovely bouquets for special occasions, but she doesn’t do you any good when it comes to business. The same goes for links – it’s all about relevancy and authority.
Not too long ago, you could get automated software to build links for you and this could bring you thousands of links in a very short time. The sources of these links would mostly be comment spam, blogs created for the sole purpose of linking and other low quality sources. These all worked, or at least for a short while, before Google constructed algorithm updates to fight these manipulative SEO practices. You see, even back then, not all links were equal, but having thousands of links that brought you at least a little equity, summed up to better rankings and equated to a link profile with few but high quality links. As you would expect, Google did not like this and began working on changing the game, so that manipulative practices were not beneficial anymore. Then, for a while, it was the understanding of many SEO specialists that links that were coming from untrusted and low quality sources, were devalued and were simply neutral towards your rankings. After this period of neutrality, even stricter rules were introduced to tackle blackhat practices in link building. Algorithm changes made link spamming punishable. With the introduction of Penguin and the Blog Spam update of March 2012 we saw big movement in the SERPs. These changes played havoc with websites that had shady looking backlink profiles and changed link building forever. This was the end of the automated link building software and some even begun questioning link building as an SEO practice.
Truth be told, link building is not dead, but it certainly requires more attention now. If you are doing it wrong, it could potentially hurt your domain in a way that is irreversible. So, when paying for SEO services, you better keep a close eye on what is being done and what kind of links are being created, since this is crucial to your website’s performance in search results. Always ask for a detailed report on where the links are coming from. It takes a bit of insight into SEO to know which links are considered good and which are spam. As a rule of thumb you can take this: good links are not easy to get. If you just have to subscribe or post a comment or any other action as simple as that, then everyone is doing it and it is probably considered spam or doesn’t bring you equity. Never fall into offers for thousands of links for a cheap price – you should already know that, but for those of you that are new to this, remember that not all links are equal.
So what’s Google’s current take on link building, then? Ever since link building became a popular practice to manipulate rankings, the search engines have been trying to devise an algorithm that could protect those that do not engage in this practice and only acquire links naturally. The problem that arises here is defining “natural”. And that’s where it gets tricky and explaining this in detail, or at least trying to, will be the goal of another post. What Google is trying to communicate clearly to the public is that they do not want manipulative practices to alter the quality of their results and hence they have been rolling out frequent updates, most notably the Panda algorithm update of 2011 and the Penguin 2.0 update of 2013. The latter has made it very difficult for websites with spammy-looking backlink profiles to rank well. One of the biggest changes to the way Google evaluates links is its new take on anchor text.
Anchor text is basically the visible clickable text of the hyperlink. It could be anything from “click here” to “car rental in dubai”. As you can see the second example is a search key phrase and it also gives you a hint as to what the destination page might be about. So the link itself brings you equity and the anchor text supplements this by bringing you more relevance for the key phrase and hence better rankings for it. Sounds great? This was an excellent concept but like all things good, it got overused and people could manipulate the search engines via keyword rich anchor text of their backlinks. So measures were taken and we can no longer abuse the anchor text of our backlinks as this will now result in a penalty – one imposed by the algorithm itself.
You see, the existence and impact of the term “natural looking anchor text profile” is something you should be aware of and take seriously. If most of your backlinks have a keyword anchor text then you should be concerned as this has probably already triggered a red flag at Google because it is considered unnatural. What’s considered natural these days is having mostly branded anchor texts, neutral phrases such as “click here”, names of company representatives or simply the destination URL. It seems as though Google now has better ways of determining the topic of your pages and does not want to see keywords in anchor text, or at least not as many as before. Let’s say you have “car rental” for 80% of your backlink anchor texts, then chances are that you will not be ranking for that key phrase. Or at least this is true for Google. Other search engines still treat anchor text as a strong signal for ranking for particular keywords. So if you’re overusing a key phrase in your backlink anchor texts, you may be ranking somewhere beyond the first 10 pages in Google, but at the same time be number 1 on Bing or Yahoo. Here is an example I came across:
Our example website has an unnatural looking anchor text profile – as you can see key phrase “house cleaning frisco tx” is overused:
Here are its rankings in Google – result 83, page 9:
And here is the results on Bing – #1!
The opposite may not be true though – if you’re not ranking well in Bing or Yahoo, there is very little chance you’re ranking well on Google.
Sometimes people may not have a distinguishable brand name and pick a domain that coincides with a money keyword – e.g. http://www.smartphone-accessories.com. In these cases of exact match domain names that overlap with the targeted key phrase, Google will probably not punish you for having many anchor texts which use that key phrase since it also happens to be your brand name. So yes, there might be a loophole and a way to trick the system but tread carefully when taking on that path. Google has become increasingly intelligent over the past few years and probably has better ways of determining your brand name other than just looking at your domain name. So your domain name could be “plumbernewyork.com”, but if you run a local business and your official company name is something different (e.g. Universal Plumbing Co.), you would probably have a lot of citations across the net, which also use the official company name. So Google, the smart cookie that it is, will not have trouble putting two and two together and figuring out that your anchor text profile, consisting of mostly “plumber new York” is unnatural.
So let’s summarize what your backlink profile should normally look like to be on the safe side and not have trouble with almighty G.
Rule number one – diversity
Always diversify the sources of links. I’m talking about the types of sites they come from (directories, blogs, news, PR sites, eCommerce, regular company or personal sites, .edu domains, etc.). The placement of the links is also important and should normally be diverse as well. Mix in contextual, footer, sidebar, and whatever other type of links that you may think of; some might be more valuable than the other but still – have a good mix of them.
Rule number two – aim for relevancy and authority
Links coming from authoritative sites are worth much more than links coming from low quality sources. If you combine authority with relevance, you get a very powerful link.
Rule number three – branded anchor text
Once you get your link building strategy up and running and you have picked diverse targets, which are authoritative and relevant to your niche, carefully plan your anchor text strategy. Diversity is key here as well, especially for the long tail key phrases that will inevitably be present but should never be in abundance. What works now is branded anchor text – different versions of your brand, domain name, company name, etc. For those of you who are starting fresh with a new website, I advise you to opt for branded and “destination URL” type backlink anchor texts in the beginning. Only after you build some authority can you throw into the mix some long tail key phrase anchors. Keep in mind that you should keep these to a minimum and also go for long tail phrases which give you the opportunity to diversify, as opposed to specific high search volume keywords.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really saying that at this point key phrases should be completely excluded from anchor text. It’s just that ever since the Penguin update of 2013 it is very likely that your link profile will get scrutinized more closely if you have too many inbound links with the exact same keyword-rich anchor text. A situation like that could substantially increase the threat of a penalty.
Like everything concerning SEO and ranking factors, it is not possible to give a magic formula for the optimal backlink and anchor text profile. The abovementioned tips are merely guidelines upon which you can build your strategies for optimizing your website. Probably there are some examples out there that contradict my recommendations and this is based on the fact that there are over two hundred ranking factors. So testing with backlinks can never be performed “in a perfect vacuum”.
One thing is clear though – Google has set on a path of devaluing anchor text because of manipulative practices and overuse. The trend will probably continue, and webmasters will be forced to disavow many of links until they achieve what’s considered a natural backlink profile. Eventually the dust will settle and low quality backlinks will have whittled away and this will give a better chance of ranking for websites that have not engaged in purposeful link building and those that are new to the web.
What do you think – share your thoughts on what works for you!