Assessing Link Signals in 2012 – Has Exact Anchor Text Had Its Day?

Well it’s been a whirlwind start to 2012, Google Panda continues to roll out and reshape the web and only a week ago Google announced 40 changes to search quality signals.

The SEO world was particularly interested in the turning off of a link evaluation signal Google have been using for the past 7 years. As usual Google didn’t give anything away and since then SEO’s have been digging around their data trying to understand what the change was and how they need to change their link building efforts accordingly.

For purposes of clarity, here is what Google have said:

we often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.

We have seen some significant movements across the verticals we work in and I have had discussions with others in the industry concerning:

> Link networks being devalued
> Anchor text being devalued
> General link devaluation
> Link page relevance

I haven’t seen anything concrete yet, and probably won’t given the fact there are so many signals to account for, however I naturally wanted to check some correlation data across 20 of the verticals I currently work within, including SEO, finance, tech and fashion. I checked the SERP’s across 20 core keywords, trying to establish what these changes might have been.

Before I go into the data, let me stress that these were fairly competitive terms with multiple brands attempting to rank, also just to make it clear this is correlation, not causation. 🙂

First let me apologise for not putting this in originally, it was a trend I spotted and wanted published asap. See below for full details of the test, some of the specifics have been left out due to client confidentiality.

The test was based on Data pulled from SEOmoz & Open Site Explorer, it was a comparison of the top ten sites across 20 core terms we currently track. The following metrics were compared;

Brand Anchor Text

We wanted to understand what percentage of brand anchor text the top ten sites had in their link profile, both in terms of the exact brand phrase and brand + keyword. e.g. SEOmoz + inbound marketing 🙂

Keyword Anchor Text

Again the idea was to find out how the top sites for these keywords were using exact and variations of the exact ranking term within their link profiles. e.g. what percentage of their link profile was made up of variations of the ranking keyword and what percentage was made up of the exact keyword.

In this instance I didn’t look at the amount of variety, but I think this would be a good metric to check in another post.

Domain Authority/Page Authority

Again very simple piece of correlation, what is the average domain/page authority of sites in the top 10 rankings.

Unique Domains, Average Authority of Linking Domains

We all know the number of unique domains is heavily correlated with high rankings, however I also wanted to see how well the average domain authority of the top 10 links correlated. This was based on the fact that were seeing lots of sites ranking with very few links and almost no anchor text.

Social Signals

I didn’t think it would be complete without looking into social signals. How are tweets, facebook likes and google + shares affecting rankings.

I can’t share the keywords used as it is business sensitive, however they are all competitive and in the finance, tech, SEO and dating industries.

Brand Anchor Text

The main change I have noticed across the industries I work within, is that sites seem to be rankings with very few links, and almost no anchor text. Seems strange, but some massively competitive terms seem to be dominated by sites that historically would never have stood a chance of ranking.

brand anchor text signals

The chart shows the percentage of anchor text that includes a reference to the ‘Brand’, I believe building links with your brand name in the anchor text is great for future proofing your link building efforts and although not a direct factor, in my opinion, it does seem like a lot of top ranking sites have a good percentage of links including the brand name. Plus, using brand + keyword in your anchor text gives you the opportunity to optimise for your chosen keyword without risking any filters.

Keyword Rich Anchor Text

Something that I have personally seen happening over the past 12 months, is the devaluation of exact match anchor text.

anchor text signals

Both exact anchor text and variations correlate with rankings, however notice the significantly low percentages of exact match anchor text, 80% of the websites in question have less than 20% exact match anchor text. I ran a similar test a couple of years ago, albeit across different keywords, however the average exact anchor text result in the top 10 was around 38%.

Taking these results into account and the changes I have seen in the SERP’s, I would say now is the time to worry less about exact match anchor text, instead focus on natural signals including lots of variation and Brand based anchor text.

Whilst I was on with this Data I also decided to check out a few more factors:

Domain/Page Authority

It may seem obvious that page authority and domain authority are closely correlated with rankings, however the results we’re still interesting:

authority signals

As you can see there is a massive jump in order to get into the top 3 of Google, and ranking in the top 3 for highly competitive terms is what it’s all about.

When you look at unique domains, and the average page authority of the top 10 linking domains, we see a similar trend.

domain signals

It goes without saying that to get good domain/page authority you need to have links from authoritative pages. If you’re in extremely competitive verticals you have to source links from the best sites in order to rank highly, they seem to be the difference, bombing your profile with exact match anchor text doesn’t seem to work anymore.

Social Signals

This little test wouldn’t be complete without some social signals, after all Google could be counting them towards rankings.

social signals

Even though there seems to be some pretty good correlation, the signals are far too weak to be able to establish them as a ranking factor, multiple top ranking sites were doing so without a single tweet or Facebook share/like.

So the key take away from this reinforces what I preached in 2010, build a more natural blend of anchor text incorporating brand, and worry less about bombing your link profile with lots of exact anchor text.


Tim Grice is the CEO of Branded3, a search marketing agency in the UK. Tim has over a decade of experience in search and regularly speaks at key events and conferences.

Latest posts by Tim (see all)

48 Replies to “Assessing Link Signals in 2012 – Has Exact Anchor Text Had Its Day?”

  1. Hi Tim,

    Great post overall, really like the research you have put behind it.

    I agree exact anchor text is something of the past, gone of the days where people would buy 1,000s of links with eact match anchor text to rank.
    You need to be smart abotu your link profile, you need to diversify your link building strategies.

    Kind Regards,
    James Norquay

  2. Tim,

    I’ve noticed some clients that I really pushed brand links for last year move up in the results. A couple are no longer clients and I know they are not actively linking. It’s really nice to see this happen, nice post and great information as always.


  3. Hey Tim,

    Nice test once again. I was wondering why you didn’t do the test you did a couple a years ago (using the same keywords) to get a better picture of the changes in the anchor text effect?


  4. As far as anchor text linking; it makes sense they would be devalued… Matt more or less said so at Pubcon in November. Your suggestion to focus on more natural inbound anchor text linking is a safe and productive strategy; Thanks 🙂

    Andy 🙂

  5. Thanks James,

    I am going to add a little more detail at some point, lot’s of people asking about the methodology.

  6. These results are based on very competitive industries we currently work across, we’re seeing a huge shift in the top 10 results. Authority of linked domains and a diverse back link profile seem to be the deciding factor. Either that or Google are just updating the SERP’s manually so that brands rank without any work 🙂

  7. Hi Mikael,

    Some of the keywords are the same, however there were two reasons for doing the research, 1) to share with the community and 2) to investigate SERP’s our clients compete in. We currently monitor thousands of results and the decreasing weight of exact match anchor text is obvious, whether this is because Google have decreased it or increased the weight of other signals, I’m still not sure.

  8. Hi Joseph,

    The excel data contains some client info, however I could clean it up and share, although the stuff you really want to know would have to be held back, like keywords, url’s etc…

    I am going to update the post with a little more of an explanation into how I did it and what I was looking for…

  9. Nice post. Labelling the x-axes would’ve been helpful: I had to dig around in the copy for a bit to figure out what the graphs were saying.

  10. Hi Tim
    Another top post. We have been noticing some clients in areas aswell jumping right up for quite competitive keywords with very little if any anchor text based links, they are defo making some big changes towards this.

    regarding > Link networks being devalued

    what sort of data and research have you found on this? notice quite a bit recently about certain blog networks have been outed

  11. Sorry Richard, was put up in a bit of rush yesterday, I’m going to add some more detail around the methodology.

  12. Hi Robert,

    No research on the link networks yet but have spoken to a few people around services like BMR, Linkvana and other link networks. It seems links on these sites are taking a hit, not necessarily the networks but the way in which the links appear in Googles algorithm.

  13. Hey Tim

    In terms of anchor text being devalued, this would seem to be at odds with what Will Reynolds was saying last week on SEOMoz (, which also had this response ( Also, for a lot of link profiles I have looked at, it would still seem to suggest anchor text is king in a lot of cases. However, I haven’t looked at anything since the last google update you reference above.

    Are you saying that the last pile of Google updates seemed to have devalued anchor text links. Would it be good to look at Will Reynolds post again and check over the keywords he was discussing?

    I was just pulling some of my own data together to look at in relation to this change, so nice timing on the post.



  14. Also, could your data be skewed because you are looking at competitive markets and big head keywords ? I wonder what the equivalent looks like for long tail keywords in niche sectors e.g. where brands don’t necessarily get a lot of branded links or even head keywords in these niche sectors.

  15. Hello,

    Nice article. We can now have an ideia whats happening.
    However I still have my doubts with all the Google Panda updates. I believe that only in June of this year we will have a good informations about the changes.

  16. I have noticed that there are many sites ranking today that really do not have links (just as you stated above). This along with the lack of anchor text optimization is changing up the SERPS in my industry greatly.

  17. Thanks for another great post, recently i did some experiments for my clients in uk and us market and got to know that having lots of unique root domains is the dominating factor.About anchor text variation,I have noticed that in competitive niches targeting exact anchor hurts but in less competitive markets it doesn’t have such impact.One more thing i observed during last 2 moths, i tested private network bmr and it seemed not working now as it used to be in 2011, it pushed my ranking backward from 1st page to 3rd page, even free web 2.0 blogs are working really well when i tried to target exact anchor text with both( bmr vs free mini blogs).

  18. It seems that way, not saying the networks are an issue but maybe the way the links look to Google, are an issue.

  19. Hi Kieran,

    I think just for clarity, I’m referring specifically to exact match anchor text, using variations of your target term still seems to be a dominant factor.

    I think Will’s post was comparing anchor text, or the manipulation of it, to genuine social signals and subscriber numbers. “Why can’t Google work out who the genuine resource is” etc….

    Anchor text is still a big factor, but we are seeing a genuine distrust for exact match anchor text. Out of the 20 keywords tested 80% of the sites had 20% exact match anchor text or less, this a huge difference compared to what we were seeing just a year or two ago.

    Maybe more people are future proofing their link profiles and this is just a symptom, maybe Google are putting more weight on other factors. However, I personally think anchor text manipulation is too obvious, and Google are decreasing the weight on the exact term and instead extracting relevance from the overall profile and the different ways people are linking back.

    Like 2 scores, this is the pagerank we give pages based on all these links, and here is score we give the site based on the overall feel of the link profile. Just a theory, but would make sense judging by the SERP’s we are seeing.

  20. It could be that all the brands ranking for these keywords is polluting the results, but presuming Google judges sites based on the same factors, this shouldn’t matter. Plus our research suggests that brands can get away with far more aggressive link building strategies then the average site, so the results should still be anchor text heavy.

    It would be interesting to see the results of some longtail terms in these industries, however EMD’s will no doubt create a problem.

  21. Thanks for the input, I have heard a few complaints about these link networks.

    Less competitive industries are likely to have less brand signals, less authority and less links, therefore exact match anchor text may well still dominate these industries.

  22. interesting read timbo.

    rankings this end are flying in… and all we do is build links – so yer – not exactly devalued them if you ask me…

    We’ve noticed that the crawl and the index are somewhat separate these days, “freshness” update relying on xml and pings to tell G when site updated – thus not much need to index the homepage of your standard “wordpress homepage” where content is changing – waiting for crawl, crawls, indexed – and thee we seeing kick-up couple of days later…

    PFFFT – re. SEO MOZ domain authority – I mean who cares about some made up metric? dont waste your time lad!

    Agreed on – single anchor text somewhat “limiting” the links – thus – you’ll only rank for your anchor texted shizzle – brand link et al and then your idea of proximity text… yer nice. relies on the IA of your On Page… hence google does something…

    So what i take from here is that to you – its amazing that google have spend millions of bucks and man hours developing an algo to understand the topic of a linked to page and then u have 20 people in an office making exact, researched keyword links to tell this smart algo that this is what we want to rank for -i mean heck – make them work for it man… cant give it to it on a plate forever right!?

    Social signals – this end none existent – yet we have first places all over the board.

    Def – they are punishing networks – seen a few slaps this last week on some competitors – but heck – spam a site over dropped domains and what you expect – gotta love these kind of fools – heck knows who that “agency” is but its making us look good!

    New sites are ranking diff – there is no sandbox on new sites if you ask me – thats whats changed in my opinion – buy yourself some low volume Exact Match Domain that would suit a wp install – make a directory link and boom – were are hitting pg top 3s n that one – dont update site/ content – it drops off…. update it – ranks page 1 again, leave it – drops off and so on… build anchor texty links – site goes away – but build brand links – site stays… so yer – be careful still with brand new sites – but im thinking thats been turned down… new site sandbox.

    so yer – interesting read – but no evidence that anything is new this end – our link mixes are still working beyond belief – ranks are up fella and like i say – all we do is anchor links day in and out.

    top link building tip = make google work for it, it aint meant to be easy.

  23. So it looks like you can now start to sabotage the rankings of your competitors by sending hundreds of BMR links to them that are perfectly anchored. I’m off to sign up to BMR!

  24. Howdy,

    Exact anchor text seems to have lost value, lots of variation and brand still seem to be a big factor, having said that these were particularly competitive industries.

    DA and PA, I could be worse, I could have used tool bar PR 🙂

    Some of the link networks seem to have taken a hit, not sure on the exact details but quite a few complaints flying around. Having said that others think this is an industry based update. We see some new sites ranking well within weeks but they definitely drop off eventually, even with good link building, maybe its google testing CTR, maybe 🙂

    Anchor links are still cool, just mix them up, I’d look to keep exact below 20% based on this data.

  25. Hi Jim,

    I think ‘exact anchor text’ may have been devalued, I still don’t think you can hurt a competitor that’s making all the right noises.

  26. CTR – mmm – good point… or ppc send!? rolf

    I guess 20% is a good base figure – use them in the right places i guess…

    ;-0 TBPR sign me up! loving the speed of the updates, i can feel one in the air already!

    re. here in DA.

    “When you look at unique domains, and the average page authority of the top 10 linking domains, we see a similar trend.” is that not because you are anaylsing a factor that compiles DA… thus – you are going to see a trend here. DA will be say this plus that minus the and time 100… just rubbish…

    The hyper competitive niches are i guess, separate, well slower, but heck spread your strategy wide enough and play the long game… no matter what… you gonna need some juice, lower your ppc send, help google base… heck – build them links bouys!

    Buzzin post mind tim!

  27. Thanks James,

    Although going viral means you have to take a fair amount of criticism, people read the title and think I am claiming the end of anchor text. Great link bait though, 25 links and counting 🙂

  28. hahah^^^


    rock on!

    3 out n counting this end ay lad ;-p

    this is good from the source – “Disabling two old fresh query classifiers. [launch codename “Mango”, project codename “Freshness”] As search evolves and new signals and classifiers are applied to rank search results, sometimes old algorithms get outdated. This improvement disables two old classifiers related to query freshness.”

    followed by

    “Improvements to freshness. [launch codename “iotfreshweb”, project codename “Freshness”] We’ve applied new signals which help us surface fresh content in our results even more quickly than before.”

    that i ponder ^^ now

  29. I agree with your observation that over the past year + we’ve seen a continual decline in the apparent benefit of exact match for a lot of competitive phrases – in fact we’ve seen more than a few drops when we were too anchor heavy – but for longtail stuff, the three, four and five+ word phrases, even in competitive spaces, don’t you find that exact match still seems to work very well?

  30. I’ve not checked long tail, but you may well be right. Long tail searches are lots less competitive therefore having exact anchor text may play more of an influence compared to those SERP’s with brands ranking who are heavily investing in online PR + social and viral campaigns.

  31. Exactly as i have also observed that after the last panda update google make use of social media also to provide results. And as many unique domains you have that much of the traffic and better position you can get for your site. As an instance, make some of the domains that contains blogs and target them to your site. And thanks for sharing such nice analysation detail with us.

  32. We have seen some amazing movements with most markets, sites with high numbers of ULD’s, even thematic ULD’s have been given 10 point penalties, seems to us branded links are needed if you want to get a client sorted…

  33. The results that you have in your data gathering looks the same in my experience. I have two competitive keywords, brands, and tested them with different approach. One with exact match anchor and another with different keyword permutations like word + ekw+ word and the results are opposites, the ekw linking dropped and the variation linking went up. The test may just be coincidental but based on what data you got, my experience and your data results may confirm things on my end.

  34. Thanks for the input Mark. We are seeing it more and more, I am convinced that exact match anchor text is causing issues, more so than it has done in the past.

  35. I hope this is a trend that going to happen. In my industry, somewhat competitive, sites with exact kw anchors still thrive.

  36. Hey tim, did you notics recently all blog networks have been hammered by Google, I am sure now serps are more cleaner:D, i guess spam commenting will be Google’s next target..

  37. I don’t think Using the exact anchor text doesn’t work, instead you should use keywords for example, If your main keyword is “Miami Hotels” you should also use “Hotels in Miami” and “Hotels Miami”. This technique would definitely bring good results. Thanks

  38. This might explain why people who have used blog networks etc have suffered to a far greater extent than would be expected if these links were discounted.

    Using networks can help create a link profile with a high percentage of your links having the same anchor text.

    It would also explain why some people have had ALN links etc but been relatively unaffected.

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