Google's Anchor Text Updates: Much Ado About Nothing (for the good guys)

by Andy Crestodina, strategic director of Chicago web design company Orbit Media.

Each time Google alters the language in its Webmaster Guidelines, I get questions.

A new round came last month, when Google updated its Webmaster Guidelines page with new language under its section on "Link Schemes." Google says that "links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites" are unnatural links, and thus do not pass on value and could get you penalized.

Of course, this spurred a flurry of blog posts and forum rants in response, with some even speculating that we would see the "death of PR."

But this update, in my opinion, was all much ado about nothing. I never believed that press releases had any SEO value. If they did, the web would be a very spammy place. They're useful for plenty of other reasons, but SEO juice isn't one of them.

I think of it this way: anything that's easy isn't effective. I could write a press release in 10 minutes, fill it with links and submit it to the online newswires. But why would that help my rankings? It breaks two of of the most important SEO best practices:

- It's duplicate content (it appears in many places in the same form)
- It's a sudden spike in links (all those pages have links and appear all at once, which looks unnatural).

So in essence, nothing has changed with this update to Google's guidelines. This is always how links worked in Google. Optimizing anchor text in press releases was always a spammy way to build links and I doubt that it ever worked.

There remain just three primary ethical link building approaches: networking with fellow bloggers, guest blogging ,and creating link magnets. That's it! Everything else is devalued, unethical or even risky.


What about anchor text in guest posts?

What was more noteworthy in the update, but less-discussed, was a note about keyword optimized anchor text in guest posts.

The bad practices in the guidelines were updated to include "Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links."

As someone who guest posts often and teaches others how to use guest-blogging to build links, I naturally received a number of emails about this one.

My response? Ethical content strategists and SEO pros shouldn't have to worry about this either, though it's at least worth making a note of.

Some people are abusing this strategy, and Google may devalue certain links. But a high-quality guest post is hard to fake, so great guest posts and the links within them are great marketing and probably always will be.

What Google is after are large-volume, low-value guest posts. Think off-shore content farms or content spinners that submit the same article, slightly tweaked, to several, maybe dozens of websites. There are also software programs that regurgitate articles in huge volumes. These are the crappy posts that bait you with a good headline, then you read one line and slap yourself for falling for it.

These make the Internet a worse place, and Google doesn't want that.

Here's the smell test: anything you do strictly for SEO reasons is likely to be devalued or even penalized eventually. But if you focus on humans first, and SEO a close second, quality posts will be valued more over time.

To put it another way, always focus on the people but be smart about search. After all, that's what Google is asking you to do.

Guest posting takes a lot of hands-on work and relationship building. If it's not work, it's probably bad practice.


What it means for author bios

One other area worth noting is how this impacts your author bios. It has become regular practice to optimize the anchor text in bios, which usually appear at the bottom of the post. It's, after all, probably the easiest optimized link to place.

I recommend using the brand as the anchor text (in my case, Orbit Media) and not the homepage target phrase (such as "Chicago web developer"). I only use keywords in links with the post to other blog posts, and only if I believe those posts are relevant and add to the discussion.

Whatever you do, as always, don't overdo it! Google is like a cute girl, if you try too hard, you're not going to get very far. Be genuine, not clever!

About the Author: Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media a web design company in Chicago. You can find Andy on Google+ and Twitter.