Problems with Anchor Text as a Ranking Signal

Periodically you see articles that talk about what the most important are for search engine ranking. One of the really good ones is the SEOmoz Search Engine Ranking Factors survey. Nearly every such article identifies anchor text used in links to your page as a major ranking factor. For example, only one factor got a higher score then anchor text (Keyword use in the Title tag got a higher score).

But there is trouble in Wonderland. There are problems with placing a lot of weight on this particular signal. Here are two of them that the search engines should consider when they are using this signal:

  1. Natural linking behavior to a site places a heavy emphasis on the name of the entity owning the site, or the site name. For example, if your company is Acme Amalgamated Corporation, many of the links to your site will use the anchor text “Acme Amalgamated” or “Acme Amalgamated Corporation”. The good part of this is that it quickly makes it likely that you will rank for your own company name.The bad part is that it gives a site that uses a major keyword phrase as all or part of their company name, or their web site name, an unnatural advantage in ranking for that keyword. Other webmasters will link to the company by their name or web site name, without considering the search engine ranking impact (nor should they have to).In essence, these links help such companies rank more effectively for such major keywords then they should. In my opinion this could be a significant source of error in search engine rankings.
  2. The weighting of anchor text is one of the biggest factors that drives the paid links business. When you pay somebody for a link, you naturally expect that you will be able to control the anchor text. So here the search engines truly hurt their own cause. Want to put a dent in the paid links industry? Reduce the importance of anchor text.The challenge for the search engines may be that the use of anchor text has enough other beneficial affects that reducing the weight of anchor text may do them more harm than good.

This illustrates one of the problems with search engine ranking factors in general. I would suggest that they all have problems of one sort or another. The complexity of this is that the search engines need to cross reference different signals and use them as checks against one another to make everything work. Hopefully, they have their arms around item 1 above, but it still seems to me that I see sites ranking unnaturally high based on their site name.


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