Penguins, Anchor Text and Headaches: What Do We Do Now?

As a link builder, what particularly interested/scared me most about the Penguin update was the part which penalised the use of over-optimised anchor text. I must’ve read 10 blog posts about it but still, in amongst the bumph remains my biggest question; what anchor text am I supposed to use now? I’m not going to focus on the Penguin update as a whole, instead I’m going to delve into the world of exact match anchor texts, and try to work out exactly what us link builders are supposed to do now that the Penguins are in force.

Before the Penguins Hatched

To me, even before the Penguin update, it was important that the anchor text didn’t stand out like a sore thumb, instantly putting off the web-editor and ruining my chances of obtaining a quality link for my client’s site. It’s certainly a challenging task but, nevertheless, brings an element of excitement and creativity to the job (wow that’s geeky!) However, as much as I’ve always been conscientious about my use of anchor text, for anybody who has ever been commissioned to carry out any link building will know, exact match anchor text, with your ‘money keyword’, is the Holy Grail of link building, at least it was until recently.

What the Penguins Say – A Step Backwards?

In a nutshell, if 60-65% of your anchor text uses exact match keywords, such as ‘care hire London, then your site is likely to be punished by Google’s pesky penguins.

What was once considered a “must do” SEO practice is now deemed as “over optimisation”, and highly-punishable in Google’s eyes. Respected SEOs across the web are telling us that; to beat the Penguin we need to use more varied anchor texts which look authentic, that means using things like ‘click here’ and ‘read more’ – isn’t that a step backwards? Isn’t it strange that in an attempt to look ‘more natural’ we are being encouraged to us less descriptive anchor texts which offer even less relevance for the user? I thought it was all about boosting relevance and focusing on the user. Have I missed something? You can read more about this here, there, here and here, or simply click ‘here’.

Problems and Discrepancies

My boss, Lisa Myers, and I were talking about how difficult it would be for Google to distinguish between an exact anchor text, and a brand. Obviously, a completely natural link profile would include a shed load of brand term keywords such as “Nike” or “Microsoft”, but what if your brand name is your main keyword? When the internet boomed, many companies adopted names that would capitalise on industry keywords i.e. whose branded anchor text may legitimately read something like; “Find out more about London SEO Company“. Boom, there you’ve used your company/brand name, which could also happen when sites naturally link to them. Are they now going to be punished for using their company’s name as anchor text? Is Matt Cutts’ personal website suddenly going to be penalised because of the thousands of sites that link to it with the anchor text ‘Matt Cutts?’ This is madness!

Using Anchor Text Post Penguin

At the end of the day we can all sit around disagreeing with Google until the cows come home, but ultimately, what they say is gospel. If Google want a more varied use of anchor text, that’s what we need to give them, or suffer the consequences. But surely we can do better than ‘click here’ or ‘read more’! Remember, your anchor text can be made up of as many words as you want and you should use that to your advantage. By all means get your keywords into the anchor text, just make sure you mix it up.

Basically, the NEW ‘Holy Grail’ of anchor text is variation. If your primary keyword is ‘running shoes’ and your brand is ‘Nike’, for example, you could use;

Read more about running shoes from Nike

Find out more about Nike Running Shoes

Modern running shoes from Nike

New Nike running shoes

And so on…..

What Google are saying, more or less, is that if 60-65% of your links all contain the exact same keywords, they’ll consider it as over-optimisation. This doesn’t mean that we can’t use the same keyword more than once, it simply means that we cannot use the exact same keyword in every single link building exercise we carry out. If you are going to use ‘click here’, ask yourself what further information you could use to inspire your reader to click. I.E. “Click here to see more Nike running shoes”. Apparently, “normal” users link to sites with the use of “click here” and “read more here”, so we should consider using these terms as well as our core keywords.


In a way what Google have done with the Penguin update is encourage us to be more creative with our use of anchor text. Naturally, as with all things Google, it’s hard to say whether or not this update will provide a better quality search engine. Perhaps it’s a step forward, perhaps a giant leap backwards – but one thing’s for certain; like it or not, it’s happened and until there is a search engine to rival the Mighty G, these are the rules of the game. It’s time to get creative and add variety!

About Ben Holbrook

Ben Holbrook is Head of Content at Verve Search and has a particular interest in content marketing and developing sustainable link development strategies.

29 thoughts on “Penguins, Anchor Text and Headaches: What Do We Do Now?

  1. Solid analysis, Ben. Despite some heavy anchor text optimisation on my client sites none of them have been hit by the Penguin (so far – touch wood). I think this is because we tend to focus on a range of keywords instead of a small amount of core keywords. That automatically results in more variation in the backlink profile, especially when combined with other tactics we tend to employ such as press releases which nearly always feature branded or domain name anchors.

    In fact these days when an opportunity to place a link on a high value site comes along, I almost always recommend it be a branded link. High value branded links supplemented with low value keyword-rich anchor texts seems to do the trick.

    1. Thanks Barry. I agree. It seems a lot of SEOs are moving towards branded anchor text, and I think it makes sense. We should be building brands, it’s good for our clients and the search engines clearly want to see more of it. 

    2. 65% of number of links with exact match anchor is not the same as a weighted calculation of 65% of the total backlink DA with exact match anchor, right? besides who knows what that 65% threshold really is? is it relative to the query universe, the vertical or the whole index? 

    3.  “Despite some heavy anchor text optimisation on my client sites none of
      them have been hit by the Penguin (so far – touch wood). I think this is
      because we tend to focus on a range of keywords instead of a small
      amount of core keywords.”

      Same here, no problems with Penguin… But I’am making a few little adjustments in my strategies. Just to be sure 🙂

  2. Haven’t we got this backwards? Instead of artificially aiming for some abstract percentage (you *know* people are going to debate to death weather it is 80%, 59% or 76%).
    How about we trust on the people placing the link to tag it to their liking? That would generate a distribution that would be as natural as they come.

    And to work around the strawman of “what if your brand is your keyword”, there are plenty of brands that, if 60-65% of their backlinks were exact anchor matches for their top products/keyphrases, that they truly should have fired their linkbuilders for incompetency.

    1. Very good points, Sabine. I like the idea of letting the person placing the link decide what the anchor text should be – that way it would always be different.

  3. When using anchor text links, link to different pages of the site.  Each page should have a different set of keywords that is targeted.  This will keep the linking portfolio diverse and will drive traffic to different pages of the site, not just the homepage.  

  4. So that´s why I found thousands of comments spams with anchors like “homepage” and “click here” in my akismet spam folders all over my Blogs 🙂
    Usually there were “buy viagra online” and “car insurance”

  5. Great post Ben, I feel your frustrations too, must be down to passion about SEO 🙂  

    Social (business social) is all about connecting with a Brand, stating the obvious. With the ever increasing move towards Social Search (e.g. Google’s Search, Plus Your World), it figures that Google would once again change the goal posts and put more emphasis on a variety of anchor-text inbound links, particularly around Brand links. 

    I feel they have over-done the devaluing of existing links, all very well changing the rules but surely it’s the honorable thing to do to honor existing good practice, just put a line under those and apply the new rules from then forwards.  Am sure they employ enough brainy boffins to be able to have made that work!

    Anyway, probably a change for the better in the mid-term, just annoying that they so often change their minds and the rules of the game, this will likely all change again once they realise that Google+ isn’t going to be the success they’d hoped for and then place more emphasis back on natural search with less Social emphasis.

    1. Thanks Simon. I agree, they shouldn’t have devalued existing links, but I guess they do as they please. Keeping us on our toes is what they like best, obviously!

  6. Hello,

    Thanks for sharing the such a great information. This is really very informative to me and it helps me a lot. I am working on a site and it lose its all ranking. Can you tell me that my primary keyword is latest camera. Can i never use it as anchor text?



  7. I’ve a feeling Google’s going to have to allow exact match domains to work – have a look at the backlink portfolio for Tesco, Sainsburys or even the BBC – they’re each perilously close to 50% brand based links. Eric Shmidt said, in 2009, that brands were the solution and I think Google has to assume that domain name = brand. By my reading of this (and there’s far too little data at the moment for it to be anything but a gut feeling) exact match domains are actually going to become MORE important/annoying.

      1. Branded as far as Google’s concerned – not necessarily the actual brand. For example if I owned buynewwindows [dot] com and my brand name was James’ Famous Windows it would be very difficult for Google to penalise me for building ‘Buy New Windows’ links as that’s my domain name. If anything I’d be more likely to get a penalty if I build lots of ‘James’ Famous Windows’ links (i.e. my actual brand) as Google will see me ‘over-optimising’ for that term and has no way to realise that it’s my brand (as far as I’m aware).

  8. “It’s time to get creative and add variety!” This is the game of search engine optimization from the beginning. The biggest problem is hundreds of smart people were trying to cross that bridge and became greedy with building anchor text. These people wanted more attention and they chose to do it by performing the illegal ways of optimizing.

    Building and circulating anchor texts are common sense. It’s like creating a house (creating anchor texts) and you invite people to visit your house for party (encouraging people to click your anchor texts). In fact, when you invite people, it’s not necessary to force them (using illegal ways of SEO), you simply give them the reason to attend and let them decide to come or not, right? 

    1. I guess it all depends on what kinds of parties you’re into! haha! But this is another nice little way of looking at it. Thanks for your comment. 

    2. I disagee! I see nothing wrong with a furniture company, for example, using ‘sofa beds’ as anchor text on a page relating to that topic.A company that only sells sofa beds can use little else! So rather than link the text in an article explaining the benefits of sofa beds, must they now put ‘Click Here for Great Sofa beds!’? Seems nonsense to me!

  9. Good article James 
    I agree with variation on anchor text its seems that the evidence suggests Google’s Panda update is trying to prevent over-optimization of links in terms of anchor text use and valuating links from relevant sites higher than links from non-relevant sites.
    Although it is early days in terms of gathering evidence on Penguins effect the best data set analysis seems to come from Micro-site-masters chart data who conclude the two points below
    1: Make sure 10% of your links come from sites with relevant page content to yours.2: Ideally less than 60% (but at worst no more than 90%) of your links should have money keywords (i.e keywords that rank in position 5 to 15 on Google) anchor text with recorded search volumes
    Hence I would say as you point out James vary your anchor text away from just money keywords such as using anchor text variations on your URL & your sites brand name
    But most importantly get a few back links from pages with relevant content to your site topic
    Chris Billingham – Page One Web Design –

  10. Luckily I’ve been using ‘click here to find out more about keyphrase’ just from past feedback that a scary number of users don’t see links unless it says ‘click here’ 🙂

  11. I guess bookkeeping rogers, bookkeeping bentonville, bookkeeping springdale and bookkeeping fayetteville might be frowned upon by the might G 🙂

  12. Basically, the NEW ‘Holy Grail’ of anchor text is variation. Have you tested this and do you include primary keyword in all of these random phrases?

  13. It’s difficult to get the balance right for link builders, I don’t see how big brands can avoid this though. I think a load of links saying click here look really spammy though.

  14. Hey Ben, thanks for the post. I’ve referred back to it several times since I first read it a few weeks ago. I was wondering, would Google consider “ + keyword” a branded term or does that look to unnatural?

  15. Good day very cool blog!! Guy .. Beautiful .
    . Amazing .. I’ll bookmark your blog and take the feeds additionally? I am glad to seek out numerous helpful info right here within the publish, we want develop more techniques on this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

Comments are closed.