I generally take the view that search engine algorithms are written to approximate human perception of relevance. They are also structured in such a way as to apply value to their ranking factors based on generalisations of human behaviour. In theory, a website that better reflects human behaviour will be one that receives better search engine rankings.
No one is going to argue that link building is not a massive part of any SEO campaign (OK, some people will…). You need links to increase authority, you need links to build PageRank, and for many industries they’re not easy to come by, so you get webmasters of relevant sites to put a text link to your site on theirs. I’ve heard that on occasions money can change hands to cover any costs incurred, but that’s a debate for another day.
When an SEO person requests a link, they will generally specify the anchor text that they want to be used to link to the relevant page. This is because, as everyone knows, a link that uses descriptive anchor text is better for SEO, and will help your site to rank for your chosen keyword, and make you pots of cash.
If you were building links for a site that sold something like car insurance, you might end up with a distribution of anchor text that looks something like this:
As an SEO, you’d be really proud of your great work in getting loads of (in this case 6) amazingly relevant links, and you’d expect to see some great improvements in ranking off the back of them.
This method seems to totally ignore the way that real people behave when sharing content. If you go back 5 years or so, the barrier to entry to publishing on the web was much higher than today. Before Facebook or Twitter, you needed to have a website, which meant you needed to know some HTML, which meant that you were fairly web savvy, which in turn meant that you would probably have heard of accessibility, and would use reasonably helpful anchor text for links. You would also probably link from a web page that contained all your other “useful resources”.
It’s now 2011. There are 750 million people on Facebook and 200 million or so on Twitter. There are more people sharing content now than ever before, and lets be honest, they don’t behave like web masters on the internet of yore. I was running a training course on SEO for WebCredible yesterday, and I asked the attendees how they would link out from a blog. This is the distribution of link anchor text that they said they’d use:
Notice the difference?
Under a paradigm where links are predominantly given by real people rather than incentivised web masters, the distribution of anchor text that is used is significantly different from that which we would choose our selves. That’s hugely important, because if we also believe that the search engines are basing their relevance on the behavioural norms of “now”, a site that is adhering to the old ways of linking will quickly become obsolete from a user centric set of algorithmic rules, and be consigned to the lower reaches – because it is no longer demonstrably relevant to the users it is purporting to target.
If you come at this from the Vince Update angle that Google rewards brands, then the value of branded links is underlined, in red ink.
Internal Anchor Text
A quick note on internal anchor text. This is the area that you have complete control over, and this does need to remain relevant to pages that are being linked to.