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Don't be overly obsessed with anchor text

This year started out with a bash, or what should probably be characterized as a lot of bashing, specifically on Google's search quality. There's been a ton of buzz about the deteriorating quality of Google's search results over the last week:

And while much of this will be characterized as a storm in a teacup, there are certainly trends showing Google's increasing problems in search quality, specifically with thin Q&A sites, thin "how-to" content, and the garbage Demand Media expulses onto the web.

The truth is, we as Internet marketers depend on Google's quality results as much as the average user does. We make a living from them, obviously.

As an SEO Company, it's our purpose to help company's get the rankings they deserve, rather than try to force subpar content to the top of the pile. As Bruce Clay once quipped, "we can't make a pig fly" with SEO.

We shouldn't be able to, but the truth is we can, and that's what seems to be happening with the rise and seeming victory of thin content farms in Google's organic results. (Yes, I am a dyed-in-the-wool white hat SEO!)

Link Spam is a Huge Part

The buzz around Google losing its edge in quality certainly helps Bing out. Do you remember Bing? Deep pockets and some very high-quality, sophisticated search (and sure, plenty of ground to cover to catch up to Google).

While it helps Bing in the short-term for the buzz to remain anti-Google, the Google bashing is really just a function of their popularity and almost utter dominance the last few years. The bashing will chase down the popular options in search, so if Bing doesn't watch out, they'll be next.

Turns out, much of Google's problems started through link manipulation. Today Bing is where Google was a few years back: looking vulnerable to link spam. Google's gotten better, to be sure, but sadly ham-fisted link spamming approaches still work (although thankfully, their effect seems to be more and more temporal).

At Pubcon in November, Greg Boser mentioned that chasing anchor text is missing the direction search engines are moving today. If you've followed the industry long enough, you'll realize that this is nothing new -- Boser and other leading SEOs have been saying this thing for several years.
"... I do a lot of preaching about now is that whole, we call it 'the SEO nirvana' thing, it's not about chasing anchor text right now, it's really about building authority." Greg Boser, 2009

Are You Anchor Text Obsessed? Just Quit it Already

The "magic" of exact-match anchor text in links has been a false idol in SEO for far too long. Linking with an exact-match one- or two-word keyword or phrase isn't always natural.

When people (who aren't thinking about SEO) link, they do it with the brand name, or with the URL, or with "click here." They don't regularly link with "health insurance" or a perfect, money term, tidy and neat in their hrefs.

Link builders have obsessed over anchor text (with good reason) for a long time. Unfortunately, it's become another manipulated signal.

A natural link profile includes obscure or unanticipated text, along with some examples of exact-match text. It includes the brand name, and the URL.

A spammy link profile includes way too much proportionally short, perfect, matching anchor text. That just isn't normal.

Anything that gets manipulated gets modified. Anchor text joins a long list of practices SEOs have used and abused.

Although it seems to still be effective at Bing, Google has adapted and made changes to the algorithm to account for it. It just hasn't worked very well, so far.

Surely Google's foray into social media for additional signals of relevance is an attempt to dilute the over-abundance of link spam on the web, at least in part. Even a search engine as sophisticated as Google has trouble keeping the weeds at bay, because "the internet is a big place and we are far from perfect," as a Google employee recently conceded.

If you were a search engine, where would you look to combat your over-reliance on links and anchor text? Surely, on-page elements are important, useful, unique, and high quality content matter more than ever.

Look to Link Age

Link age is an important, but often overlooked, factor in search algorithms (especially Google's). Not all links are equal, no doubt, and not all links need to be aged.

Get a link from The Straits Times? Congratulations, and I'm sure you'll see the juice from that make a difference in your ranks right away.

Score five links on some random blogs that get crawled maybe once every three weeks? Those will likely need to be aged for a few months before they give you their full SEO reward.

Ranking takes time, not only because the process for growing a link profile is slow, but also because the actual scoring factors of a link (internal PageRank, anchor text, context, neighborhood, relevance, recency, transience) need to be aged and vetted over time.

Sound link building takes time. Links you secure today may not give you the full punch those same exact links give after they've been live online for 6 or 12 months. That's why pages that have earned rankings through natural, quality, and aged links always earn a sort of inertia that makes them very hard to move.

SEO work you do today should still pay dividends in two years. You may not even see results start to really kick in until four or six months after your big content and marketing work is completed.

When you introduce an artificial element (anchor text spam) to a natural signal (the link profile), you introduce irrelevance and spam in Google's index.

Instead of creating links with exact-match anchor text, you should:

  • Work hard to build great, unique content and resources that are real contributions on the web. Provide value that builds links over time based on its own merit.

  • Focus on long-term partnerships.

  • Focus on niche communities or key influencers that your message will resonate with, that your content will be relevant for.

If you do this, the changes Google is rolling out with anchor text won't matter.

The same principle can be applied to SEO at a high level. By staying true to search marketing principles, rather than chase the latest and greatest SEO fad, you will be averse to the mutability of search algorithms as they shift rapidly over time.

So Does Anchor Text Even Matter?

Anchor text matters immensely, but must not be abused and hammered on.

As SEOs, we need to get away from the fanatical obsession on exact match anchor text. It will give us an advantage against our competitors who aren't as forward-thinking, and put is in line with relevance and what Google wants in its search results. It will put us in line with where search engines are going 2011.

Yes, Google's search quality may be suffering. But it isn't deteriorating.

More than anything, it's probably due to scale. The web is just too big, too vast, with too much spam, to be modeled in the way it was even three years ago.

You can bet Google will catch up with the spammers, though. Relevance is their bread and butter.

Another bet you can make: this trend of discontent with Google is a sign of a shift taking place, a change, and that influencers and power users online will increasingly grow tired of having one solution in search. We are all hungry for real competition and real options.

It's no fun having Google dominate. We want Bing and Blekko and DuckDuckGo! We want options, and we want relevance.

As SEOs, we're in a unique position to help in that regard. Put quality out there! Help make the web a better place. And stop spamming your anchor text.