Last week I covered the importance of anchor text and the dangers of using keyword rich anchor text in your backlink profile.

So what about your internal linking strategy? Should you be careful using keywords within your anchor text on your internal links? Can you go too far?

keyword rich anchor text internal links

It’s an important question with some debate surrounding this issue. Myth or reality? I’ll try to answer that today.

What are internal links and Anchor text?

Internal links are links to other pages of your website. The anchor text of your internal links is the text you use to link with. It is the same idea as  backlinks, but you have complete control over the anchor text of your internal links:

anchor text example

The Power of internal links

Internal linking transfers link equity

Internal linking, especially on authoritative sites can have a dramatic impact on your rankings. This is because of the way Google uses PageRank.

I don’t really like to talk about PageRank anymore because Google stopped updating the public PageRank metrics in 2014 I believe. So when people talk about High PR Sites I usually just roll my eyes.

You shouldn’t be judging a site based on its PageRank. Instead, you should be using a variety of other metrics like PA, DA, DR, UR, TF, CF, etc.

However, Pagerank is still used internally by Google. Of course, it is much more advanced now than the PR we were used to back in the day.

And if you have a high authoritative site (maybe it’s high DA or High DR), then Google will still be measuring that internally through their PageRank metrics along with many others.

This gives authoritative site owners a chance to use internal linking to pass more of that PageRank (link equity) to other internal pages. Don’t get too caught up on a number of links or anything like that. Just link in a natural way, and link to landing pages you want to rank more than other pages. Or link from your highest PA pages to your landing pages.

For example, say you wanted to rank a deeper page that wasn’t doing as well in the search engines as you wanted. Maybe you decide to start using internal linking from many of your other pages, which happen to have a lot of backlinks pointing to them.

After using an internal linking strategy that is helpful to users, and helps transfer some of that link equity to certain landing pages, you may see a jump in rankings for those pages.

It can actually have a pretty powerful effect if done correctly, and with user experience in mind.

Keyword rich anchor text increases relevancy

Keyword rich anchor text – both exact match and partial match, can play an important role in your internal linking strategy.

But why? One word. Relevancy

Google looks at the content on your page to decipher what your content is about. They look at all the keywords and associated keywords. Google’s ability to know what your content is about, has gotten pretty advanced over the years.

Google will also look at all the keywords in all the anchor text pointing to your page. This includes both onsite and offsite links (backlinks). It does this to get further clues to what a webpage is about.

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

large scale hypertextual web search engine

Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page created a paper called The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine. In it, they explain the importance of anchor text:

2.2 Anchor Text

The text of links is treated in a special way in our search engine. Most search engines associate the text of a link with the page that the link is on. In addition, we associate it with the page the link points to. This has several advantages. First, anchors often provide more accurate descriptions of web pages than the pages themselves. Second, anchors may exist for documents which cannot be indexed by a text-based search engine, such as images, programs, and databases. This makes it possible to return web pages which have not actually been crawled. Note that pages that have not been crawled can cause problems, since they are never checked for validity before being returned to the user. In this case, the search engine can even return a page that never actually existed, but had hyperlinks pointing to it. However, it is possible to sort the results, so that this particular problem rarely happens.

This idea of propagating anchor text to the page it refers to was implemented in the World Wide Web Worm [McBryan 94] especially because it helps search non-text information, and expands the search coverage with fewer downloaded documents. We use anchor propagation mostly because anchor text can help provide better quality results. Using anchor text efficiently is technically difficult because of the large amounts of data which must be processed. In our current crawl of 24 million pages, we had over 259 million anchors which we indexed.

I believe Google still adds a lot of weight to keywords in your internal anchor text. I believe the same is true with your backlink anchor text profile. However, when using keyword rich anchor text with your backlinks, you need to use keywords modestly and with caution.

Google takes many things into account. Why not make it easier for them to decide what your content is about? Give them a piece to the puzzle with your internal links.

Should you use keywords in your anchor text in your internal links?

Short answer: Absolutely! Just don’t keyword stuff and vary your anchor text.

I don’t see a lot of great answers to this issue, and I see a lot of contradictory advice. So I decided to cover this to see give my take on it:

Over-optimization, as it applies to your on-page SEO is optimizing your site so much, to the point where it is causing a bad user experience.

That’s it. I don’t think it goes much further than that. I am not talking about all aspects of over-optimization, I am talking about the keyword rich anchor text aspect.

If you are keyword stuffing where it sounds unnatural. That is over-optimization. On the same token, if you are keyword stuffing the anchor text of your internal links – to the point of reducing the flow in your writing, that is also over optimization.

This is all pretty common sense. Some SEOs tend to get over-focused on the optimizing part. We need to step back every once in a while and realize that SEO is about offering real value and communicating that value to Google’s search algorithms through our optimizations.

SEO about offering real value and communicating that value to Google’s search algorithms through our optimizationsClick To Tweet

In fact, it is completely natural to include keywords in your anchor text. It helps describe what the page is about to the user and search engine bots. You will not get penalized for keyword rich internal links if you do within reason.

You should use descriptive, keyword rich anchor text since it increases the user experience. SEO is more about the user experience these days. The AI, the UX, and even your design, all play a big role in SEO. They offer a lot of indirect benefits to SEO (i.e user behavior).

Offering value and good UX is the first priority. If your optimizations get in the way of that, your content just reads and feels spammy. So over-optimization, in my opinion, is just a word used to describe bad content and bad UX.

When keyword rich anchor text in your internal linking is spammy

Keyword Stuffing

In general, if done in a natural way, I say go ahead and use as many keywords as you want in your internal linking, as long as you vary the keywords.

There is a caveat to this and it’s an important distinction. If you are adding in anchor text in a way that keyword stuffs your content with your chosen keywords, it is probably not the best idea.

Meaning, if you add anchor text in an article that contains your keywords, and it just doesn’t sound right (you are forcing the keyword in your content), Google and your users will view your website as a little spammy.

When the anchor text doesn’t flow with the content, you may be over-optimizing. It really comes down to focusing on the user and the flow of the content, rather than a search algorithm or a certain keyword distribution.

Automation

(Using a WordPress Plugin or Bot)

If you have a WordPress plugin, for instance, that goes through your site and links to a landing page every time it finds an instance of a word – that may definitely be seen as spammy.

Even though I absolutely love automation in marketing, this is the kind of thing that can get you into trouble. You shouldn’t automate everything, and this is especially the case when it comes to SEO.

Boilerplate or sitewide links

If you have keyword rich anchor text in any of the following areas of your site, it can be risky. Though in some cases it may seem to do nothing, or even help, in my opinion, it is still risky, especially on lower authoritative sites.

Sitewide keyword anchor text over optimization:

  • Footer
  • Sidebars
  • Nav
  • Other boilerplate sections

In my mind, reading Google’s reasonable surfer patent tells me that links in the footer would not be considered part of the main content, and would thus carry less weight. However, it is a sitewide link, so that is pointing to certain pages of your website on every page.

If you are adding keyword rich anchor text in your footer for external links, it may be seen as pretty spammy (unless you nofollow). However, internal links can have the same effect, especially if you do it a lot.

Excessive Exact Match Keywords

Even if you don’t use any sort of plugin or bot to create anchor text automatically, you can still overdo it when adding keywords to anchor text manually.

If you have a lot of internal linking where the exact match keyword is used excessively, is that going to trigger an over optimization penalty? I honestly don’t think it will. If it fits in the content and flows nicely, I don’t think so.

Maybe if every single anchor text pointing to a specific page, and it was just overly aggressive to the point of being spammy – maybe then it would have a negative effect.

But I don’t really think an over optimization penalty works this way. I think it only kicks in when your content turns spammy. If your content offers a great user experience, I don’t think it will harm you.

What Other SEO Influencer say: Should you use keywords in your internal links or not?

over optimizing internal links

Over-optimization has been an SEO buzzword for a while. The concept of over optimization can cover many aspects of on-site and off-site optimizations.

Naturally, I see people asking – Is internal linking with keywords spammy? Can you use too many keywords? Is that spammy?

That’s a great question, especially considering that your internal linking strategy and the information architecture is such a foundation to good on-site optimization and user experience.

Because of this over optimization craze, there is some debate about whether keyword rich anchor text is good or bad.

School of thought: Keywords in your internal links is bad (over-optimization)

Neil Patel

There is some debate about whether you should use any keywords in your anchor text. For example, Neil Patel is under the impression that keyword rich anchor text is bad.

7 Signs That You Might Be Over-Optimizing Your Site

1. Keyword-rich anchors for internal links.

Internal linking is good. Internal linking by using keyword-rich anchor text is bad.

If I had to pick the single biggest oversight in over-optimization, this would be it.

I completely disagree with this.

I know, I know. Neil Patel is a well-known SEO expert, right? Well, I think he may be more of an expert content marketer, that teaches SEO.

But we can’t fault him. I don’t agree with what he says, but I have a lot of respect for him. There’s a lesson in here though: the “gurus” don’t always get it right. You have to think for yourself and question the status quo.

If you begin to think about this subject and correlate what is happening in reality (i.e look at other successful sites), you’ll see that many successful websites still use keyword rich anchor text heavily. Also, from my personal experience, it just plain works.

Note: SEO is all about pivoting, and I constantly pivot my views and strategies as Google evolves or when I learn something new. I’ll be the first to admit I probably say things that are plain wrong, or I’ll have outdated articles that I haven’t gotten a chance to update. But, I’ll adjust my views.

So let’s just give Neil the benefit of the doubt. It’s an older article. Or maybe its one of his ghostwriters who got it wrong. I don’t know. But he does redeem himself a little here on his personal blog:

The days of keyword stuffing anchor texts are long gone. But, there is value in having that anchor text. Anchor text that flows well with the overall content, versus over-optimized anchor text, is best.

I’d get behind that notion.

Of course, you should make your content flow naturally, for the sake of user experience. If you are stuffing your keywords in your internal links, and it doesn’t flow very well when reading, that is over optimization.

Or rather, it’s just bad writing. So stop doing that.

But if it naturally flows, don’t be afraid to use keywords in your internal links. You can’t really over-optimize your internal links, as long as it gives a good user experience. This assumes you naturally add the anchor text within the flow of your content – which would naturally vary your anchor text keywords & phrasing.

SEMrush

Note: just because a writer wrote something, it may not represent SEMrush’s views.

Even SEMrush has an article saying keyword rich anchors are bad for internal links:

4. Keyword-rich anchors for internal links

Internal linking is good; however, internal linking by using keyword-rich anchor text is bad. Anchors that use the exact URL of the destination or anchors that use keywords are a red flag in Google’s eyes. The occasional anchor that matches the URL exactly may contribute to positive SEO, but if you start doing this too much, you’re setting yourself up for penalization.

Hmm “Internal linking is good; however, internal linking by using keyword-rich anchor text is bad.” That sounds a bit familiar (see Neil’s quote). Sounds like somebody stole from someone 🙂

But hey, we all love SEMrush, we can’t fault them. That could have just been that particular writer. All the major SEO tool companies tend to pump out great content on their blogs (ahrefs, semrush, majestic, etc), so I definitely recommend following SEMrush. They have some great articles.

School of thought: Keywords in internal links are okay (even good) when used within reason

Yoast

Joost at Yoast has a middle-of-the-road approach, that I like:

If you over-optimize anchor text you might hurt your website. And by over-optimizing, we mean keyword stuffing. Previously, you could give all anchor texts the same keyword and Google made your website rank higher for that keyword. Nowadays, Google is smart enough to understand that the content around the anchor text says more about the relevancy of a keyword than the anchor text itself. So make sure the anchor text looks natural in your copy: it’s fine to use keywords but don’t add the exact same keywords to each and every one of your anchor texts.

Search Engine Land

I think search engine land nailed it with this bit of advice:

While you want to use the terms that will indicate to the engines what the subject of the target page is, you don’t want to overdo it…The goal is to use your anchor text when appropriate. Use verbiage that includes your keywords when possible and will also be descriptive to your human visitors.

Search Engine Journal

Search engine journal notes that as long as you don’t keyword stuff you should be good:

Here’s the part where we talk about anchor text! When you attach an internal link to a valuable string of anchor text, you improve the value of said link and make it easier for your readers to navigate through your site and find other content they deem valuable. While it’s true that keyword-stuffed anchor text won’t do you any good, anchor text itself is still useful, and it can help both Google’s bots and your readers make sense of your pages.

Moz (Rand Fishkin)

There is a good Whiteboard Friday that covers internal linking:

In the comments section, someone asked to clarify on the internal linking issue and Rand Fishkin had a good reply:

Basically, if you have internal links that are heavily anchor-text focused, there’s lots of them, they’re often sitewide, and they live in nav elements or in the footer, and add little to no value for users (they’re just trying to pump up your rankings in Google), then Google might take action against your site. We’ve seen plenty of examples of this, and when the manipulative internal link blocks are removed, rankings suddenly go back up. It seems Google has a pretty smart and pretty immediate filter for this type of thing.

 

Matt Cutts

In this Matt Cutts video about keyword rich anchor text, someone asked:

Do internal website links with exact match keyword anchor text hurt a website? These links help our users navigate our website properly. Are too many internal links with the same anchor text likely to result in a ranking downgrade because of Penguin?

Matt Cutts responds:

My answer is, typically not.

He says typically not because he meant it will not harm your site if you have a real site. If you have a normal site and you aren’t being overly aggressive with the internal linking using keyword rich anchor text, and it offers a good user experience, you are good to go.

Note: this video is from 2013 – a year after Matt Cutts declared that they were working on something to address the over optimization. So this tells me something. Everyone who lumped in the “internal linking anchor text” into this over optimization craze may be wrong. Matt himself is saying that it’s okay, even after he talked about Google’s new over-optimization penalty.

Okay, so I’m showing a video of Matt Cutts… from 2013. Many people would dismiss it because it is 4 years old at this point in writing (2017).

The thing about white hat SEO is that it doesn’t change as much as you think, and definitely not as much as black hat. The foundations are pretty stable.

So a lot of Matt Cutts early videos from are still very applicable to this day. Sure, you may want to take what he says with a grain of salt since he was a Google employee.

But you can still learn a lot based on what he suggests, especially if you are new to SEO and want to follow the white hat approach. Even experienced SEOs may be able to get some value out of his videos. I highly recommend checking them out.

Note: If you want more current advice straight from the horse’s mouth, follow Gary Illyes on Twitter. He always gives fantastic advice.

John Mueller

John Mueller answers a similar question in a 2015 video:

Question:

How important is the anchor text for internal links? Should that be keyword rich? Is it a ranking signal?

John Mueller’s response:

We do use internal links to better understand the context of content of your sites. So if we see a link that’s saying like red cars pointing to a page about red cars, that helps us to better understand that.

But it’s not something that you need to keyword stuff in any way because what generally happens when people start focusing too much on the internal linking is that they have a collection of internal links that all say like 4-5 words in them, and then suddenly when we look at that pages we see this big collection of links on the page, and that’s also text on the page, so it’s looking like keyword stuffed text.

So I try to just link naturally within your website. And make sure that you kind of have that organic structure that gives us just a little bit of context, but not that you’re keyword stuffing every anchor text.

Real World Evidence That Keyword Rich Anchor Text Is (Still) A Good Thing

Real world internal anchor text example: Wikipedia

So does Wikipedia over optimize their internal link’s anchor text?

No way!

They do a great job with their internal linking, which is beneficial both for bots and human beings.

wikipedia internal anchor text example

wikipedia internal anchor text example result

Do you know how many keywords Wikipedia ranks for? A LOT.

Of course Wikipedia is a very popular site with millions of backlinks, but still. Their internal linking thought their whole site using keyword rich anchor text, I would say is helping, not hindering their success.

They don’t do anything special with their internal linking, besides doing it a lot, doing it naturally and including relevant keywords (many of them are exact match)

Real world internal anchor text example: Dr. Axe

Dr. Axe is killing it right now in the natural health field, which is highly competitive. His articles are filled with exact match anchor text. According to some people, Dr. Axe doesn’t have the best SEO because he is over-optimizating…

Hardly, just take a look at his growth over just two years:

dr axe organic traffic

dr axe referring domains 1

dr axe referring domains 2

His content is amazing, their SEO is on point, and they receive a healthy growth of links over time, so they are doing quite well in a competitive field.

Especially considering the time period that they achieved all that success. It took about 2 years to go from 1,500 backlinks to 20,000. That is quite a big jump in a short period of time. Needless, I have a lot of respect for their marketing team.

With that amount of growth in (natural) backlinks, they know what they are doing. That includes their on-page SEO and keyword rich internal linking.

For example, they have many pages that use candida related keywords, many of them are exact match keywords

dr axe candida anchor text example

They happen to be ranking #1 for Candida. Which, ranking for a head term like candida, is very tough:

dr axe candida anchor text example result

So why is he doing so good? Is it his internal linking?

Of course not. But with SEO, all parts equal the whole. The micro enables the macro.

If I were to give one reason they are doing so well, it’d be great content marketing and building his brand. Great content marketing is really the new SEO since it takes care of two 80/20 activities in SEO: great content and great outreach, which results in links and good user behavior signals on site.

With that said, I think their internal linking and on page SEO strategy is helping their rankings by adding relevancy signals to those pages.

How to add keywords in your anchor text for internal links – the right way

Internal linking with keywords is still one of the best ways you can optimize your website for increased rankings.

Why? Because you have complete control. You can help shape the relevance and context that Google perceives.

And the fact of the matter is, there is still a lot of power that internal links have when you use descriptive words. This is one way Google deciphers what a page is about – all the keywords in the anchor text that you link to on your page.

But there is also another factor. And that is how often you link to your page. So keep that in mind as well

add keyword anchor text

1. Make the content flow naturally

This is the most important factor. If your content flows naturally and the anchor text doesn’t feel inherently spammy, you should be good to go.

My take is you shouldn’t worry too much about the over optimization, as long as you content flows and you are varying the keywords of your internal anchor text, in a natural way, that fits into the content.

2. Think about Co-Occurrence

Joost at Yoast brings up a great point about co-occurrence:

If you over-optimize anchor text you might hurt your website. And by over-optimizing, we mean keyword stuffing. Previously, you could give all anchor texts the same keyword and Google made your website rank higher for that keyword. Nowadays, Google is smart enough to understand that the content around the anchor text says more about the relevancy of a keyword than the anchor text itself. So make sure the anchor text looks natural in your copy: it’s fine to use keywords but don’t add the exact same keywords to each and every one of your anchor texts.

3. Think about the click worthiness

After reading about Google’s reasonable surfer patent, I realized that all links (both internal and external links) – their strength of the link is based on the probability that someone would click on it.

So making your links stand out to visitors – the click worthiness of the link, the difference in color, etc. should all help.

4. Link to other pages naturally

I say link to whatever page you want, however, you want, as long as you are doing it naturally and in the benefit of the user. So this means sometimes I will include longer anchor text phrases (i.e larger part of a sentence) into the internal link’s anchor text. This allows me to add internal links without changing the flow of the content.

5. Vary your anchor text

When you focus on user experience and add in anchor text naturally in your content, the content still flows nicely.

However, if you try to stuff keywords, and the same keyword over and over, it may reduce the quality of your writing.

When you add in keyword rich anchor text that is natural (i.e you didn’t have to rewrite a sentence), it will naturally vary your keywords in the internal links.

You can manually change your keywords to try to target certain keywords, but just do with care and make sure that the content flows.

6. Use LSI and keyword variations

Using keyword variations, synonyms and LSI keywords has the advantage of topical modeling and helps you rank your pages for a variety of keywords.

Boost your rankings by incorporating LSI & Keyword Variations to the Anchor Text

If I want to rank one of my pages for “white hat link building guide” for example, instead of linking 30 of my internal pages with the anchor text of white hat link building guide, I would choose a variety of keywords.

Why? Because if I kept using white hat link building guide as my anchor text, it may sound unnatural. It may not always work. You may just have more general terms like white hat link building, white hat links, white hat SEO, etc.

Assuming I am not doing it on the fly, I may create a prior keyword rich anchor text strategy for a really important page.

For this example, I may choose the following anchor text throughout other pages, to link back to my main landing page about white hat link building:

Exact match and Partial Match anchor text with your internal linking:

  • White hat link building guide (exact match anchor text)
  • White hat link building tutorial
  • Guide to building white hat links
  • Link Building Guide

LSI keywords or related keywords in your internal linking

  • How to build natural links
  • white hat link building
  • white hat SEO
  • white hat backlink
  • whitehat backlinks
  • white hat backlinks
  • white hat techniques
  • white hat link building techniques
  • link building techniques
  • Longer phrases that include descriptive anchor text

Google will see all these keywords and the algo may decide my page is relevant to the main theme of “white hat link building.” If so, I would likely rank for many “white hat link building” keywords, assuming the article offers immense value and I get a lot of links to it. This example needs lots of links since SEO topics like this are very competitive.

So what if, instead of varying the keywords like my above example, you only used the exact match anchor text of “white hat link building guide” throughout all your pages?

I think this scenario is still okay, assuming the content still flows. Obviously, if you take anything to the extreme and it takes away from the user experience, anything can be bad. However, if you are natural with your internal linking, you should have no worries about it causing harm to your site.

With that said, it is optimal to vary your internal linking with LSI keywords. This allows you to have content that flows more naturally without keyword stuffing your content. It also potentially allows you to show relevance for a wider variety of keywords.

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