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Should We Stop Focusing On Keyword Driven Anchors?

With the rush to move sites up to the top of the SERPs, all of my clients want keyword-rich text links. It makes sense, as if you’re trying to rank number one for the phrase “cheap environmental home design” you’re obviously going to want that in your anchor text. However, there’s much more to the general link health of a site than loads of properly keyword-ized text links, and, in fact, we’re occasionally seeing that having too few non-keyword based links can actually be a detriment.

Having a good link profile is really no different than any of the other basic SEO ideas. You want your efforts to enable the site to continually perform well online, even with major algorithmic shifts. You also want what you’ve done to be adaptable in order to update it to match what’s newly favored in the major search engines without harming it in others. This is why SEO is an ongoing process, just like link building.

Also, just as any new “trick” is abused in order to make you rank higher, so is a mostly keyword driven link approach. Last year, for example, one of our clients was ranking in the top 3 positions in Google for our two desired terms. Our efforts had been focused on building inbound links with this exact anchor text, and it worked.

As this client works in a highly competitive industry, the only way that we could successfully compete was to keep building more and more links with the phrase as anchor text. Then one day, we noticed the rankings dropping, but we were still cranking out the links. We saw a ripple effect with most of our clients, with phrases that had been ranking very well suddenly starting to drop while we were continuing our efforts. Once a link building tactic becomes the sole focus, it usually stops working so well.

Since we like to think about what a natural link profile looks like and use that as a guideline when building new links, we need to really think about how people link. Do they use cleverly optimized anchor text? Sometimes, yes. Many more times, though, they link with brand text, site name text, or URL text. They link with all sorts of crazy noise anchors too.

As we’ve been trying to achieve the highest rankings for competitive keywords, we’ve caused link profiles to look fairly unnatural though. If you see a link profile that is 95% optimized anchor text, it’s a bit odd isn’t it? Before, we’d see a link profile that was mostly brand and URL anchors and think that we needed to switch it up with some targeted anchors, but it seems that in some cases, we’ve gone so far the other way that the balance of power has shifted. Again. Lesson learned.

I guess this just goes to show you that no matter what unnatural methods you employ (and which ones are natural anyway?), you’ll be changing them up again the moment everyone else follows suit and algorithms change to reflect the manipulation. However, with the emphasis on backlink anchor text, how are you expected to rank a site in a highly competitive niche without building loads of keyword driven anchor text links? It’s frustrating.

It’s why clients want specific anchor text, and they want it now. Links have been such a fast way to move a site up in the rankings, and everyone knows it. Clients who would happily wait 6 months to see the results of changes made to their site’s structure will fuss like mad if your links don’t rank them in the top ten the first month. This is partially our fault as salespeople, of course, but it’s a big, big issue.

When it comes down to it, there are definitely some basic principles of SEO. One of them, relevant here, is that brand/URL links do happen naturally. We put brands in our title tags, in our meta descriptions, and in our content, simply because that’s the most natural thing to do when describing our sites. Keywords are definitely important, but overemphasizing them can make it so obvious that you’re trying to manipulate the SERPs. I think it’s completely natural that people will indeed link to you using keywords…they just might not always be your optimum choices, and they won’t usually fall into the 95% range.

One final thought…if you think about social media, and how we’re told to promote ourselves and our companies through it. It’s about building a community around a brand, so why not apply that mentality to link building?

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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