Does Google Use Virtual Anchor Text for Ranking?
Google’s John Mueller recently answered a question about whether anchor text was still a ranking factor. Mueller’s answer focused on anchor text within your own site linking out to other pages internally and externally.
Although he did affirm that Google uses anchor text, he didn’t say it in the context of a ranking factor for inbound links. He emphasized it in the context of internal links.
Is Anchor Text a Ranking Factor?
The question posed to John Mueller was specifically about the anchor text on inbound links. There are many views on how Google uses it, with the dominant theory since 2013 being that too many anchor text can result in a manual action or lower rankings.
Here is the question:
“Is anchor text still an important ranking factor in 2019? Lots of companies have made studies that they pointed out there’s no correlation. So I don’t know, and there’s a link to a Google patent.”
John Mueller Confirms Usefulness of Anchor Text… Sort Of.
Mueller’s answer begins by confirming that Google uses anchor text but he stops short of commenting on its use as a ranking factor for inbound links.
“With regards to anchor text in general we do use it… It’s something that we do pick up. It’s a great way to give us context about a link. In particular within your website.”
See what I mean? He doesn’t directly answer the question about inbound links. He answers with an emphasis on internal links.
A question about anchor text within the context of ranking factors? Kind of seems the question is about inbound links.
Mueller then continues his answer in the context of anchor text on internal links:
“I would continue to look at the anchor text that you use, especially internally within your website and try to make sure that you’re providing anchor text in a way that is really useful, provides context to what is linked of the other page.”
He goes on to discuss linking to products within a website and so on. Clearly his answer about anchor text is predominantly about internal links.
I’m not saying his answer stopped short of answering the question or that he is wrong. John Mueller is 100% correct.
The important takeaway is that Google is doesn’t directly reveal much about anchor text for rankings.
However, Bill Slawski may have discovered an interesting clue. More about that further down.
Breaking the Anchor Text Paradigm
There are several competing ideas about what to do about anchor text. Most articles state that using anchor text is potentially dangerous. But they recommend using anchor text anyway.
A recent article recommends against using anchor text in bulk. It recommends a modest use of anchor text in relation to branded anchor text.
Another article I read recommends making your anchor text look “natural” by studying what the anchor text distribution of your competitors are.
Both kinds of articles acknowledge that using anchor text for inbound links has potential for danger. Yet both explicitly recommend the use of anchor text.
Neither kind of article suggests an alternative to the anchor text paradigm. They both affirm it. It’s as if the SEO industry is locked into this anchor text box and they are afraid of letting it go.
Virtual Anchor Text
The role of anchor text has always been about understanding what a page is about. But nowadays, so is the content, perhaps to a greater degree.
Bill Slawski recently noticed that an older anchor text patent had something new added to it. What was added seems to be a way to create a virtual anchor text.
Bill and the patent calls it Annotation Text.
But the way it’s described, it works like a virtual anchor text. It’s not anchor text, but it works like anchor text.
What the patent does is to associate the surrounding text that is located within a certain distance of the anchor text, with the outbound link. So instead of using the anchor text itself (which may be “click here” the algorithm could use surrounding text.
The keywords chosen from the surrounding text is described in the patent as text that is relevant to what the page is about and to what the page being linked to is about.
Thus, there’s a relevance match between the page that is linking, to the text that surrounds the outbound link, to the page that is being linked to and also to the search query.
Here’s the section of the patent that Bill noticed was added to the original patent:
“…identifying, in the source document, annotation text, the annotation text being text within a predetermined distance of an outbound link to a target document and the annotation text including at least one term…”
The above means identifying text that is a certain distance away from an outbound link. The word annotation means descriptive text clarifies a text. That could be a reference to title that is added to a link. Or it could be a reference to the words that directly precede or follow the anchor text.
Here is where the patent discusses the distance of the descriptive text from the anchor text.
“Identifying text in the page that’s located within a set distance from an outbound link that contains at least one keyword that is relevant to the page that is linking out and also relevant to the page being linked to.”
Then this part of the patent describes how this keyword is relevant to the page and to the page that is being linked to:
“storing in the index an association between the term and the source document, storing in the index, responsive to identifying the annotation text, an association between the term and the target document”
Now this part is about making a connection between a search query and a page that is relevant to that query because the query appears near a link to that page from another page that is relevant for the topic.
“identifying, responsive to receiving a query that includes the term, the source document and the target document as associated with the term in the index…”
This is the entire paragraph:
“…identifying, in the source document, annotation text, the annotation text being text within a predetermined distance of an outbound link to a target document and the annotation text including at least one term, storing in the index an association between the term and the source document, storing in the index, responsive to identifying the annotation text, an association between the term and the target document, identifying, responsive to receiving a query that includes the term, the source document and the target document as associated with the term in the index, responsive to identifying the associations, including the source document and the target document in a list of documents responsive to the query, and returning the list of documents responsive to the query as a search result for the query.”
Is Surrounding Text a Virtual Anchor Text?
It’s important to point out that just because something is patented does not mean it is being used by Google.
One reason why Google might use this kind of analysis is because people frequently link with click here. The sentences immediately preceding or following the “click here” anchor text can often provide meaningful context to that link. So it kind of makes sense for Google to use surrounding text as a virtual version of anchor text.