The last time I was at SES Chicago I really enjoyed it, especially the link building session with Erin Everhart and Katherine Watier. (Some even called it the best SES session in 10 years!)
But I was surprised to hear a number of arguments in favor of exact match anchor text link building. Most of those arguments were tempered with caution and balance – don’t do it much, make it a small percentage of your link building effort, don’t ask link partners for specific links on the first date, etc. But the arguments were still there.
I was surprised because even though getting exact match links may still work, they are not going to work much longer, and the risk that Google will “turn up the dial” on that type of link building to hurt your rankings in the future is ever present. On the other hand, natural, organic link development works great and is only going to work better and better in times to come.
Here’s the reality: Panda (or Penguin) will kill exact match links completely, eventually. And eventually, exact match links will probably hurt you, even in small amounts.
Exact match link building is the practice of building links to your website, from other websites, with anchor text that matches your target keyword exactly. If you are selling pink widgets, that means you would be trying to get links that say “pink widgets” pointing directly to your pink widgets landing page.
There’s partial match links as well, which have part of your keyword in the link or some additional words in the link text, such as “check out pink widgets” etc.
For the sake of discussion, when I talk about “exact match links” in this post, I’m actually referring to any link with the keyword in it (both exact and partial).
I’ve developed a simple analogy to describe the mechanics of the Panda update. It’s probably not 100% accurate, but it’s a decent illustration, I think. It’s important to grasp the enormity of what this machine learning algorithm actually does because, frankly, we need to have a healthy fear of what Google is becoming. So here goes.
Imagine an enormous control room in a nuclear power plant where all of the walls are covered with dials, buttons, knobs, and blinking lights. Now imagine each and every one of those dials as just one of the ranking factors in Google’s core algorithm that determines search results. One is your influence on Twitter, another is the # of relevant links to a particular page, another is the use of semantic keywords, another is the volume of exact match external links, another is the amount of content vs. ads above the fold… and the list goes on and on.
In the past, each algorithm update consisted of a team of engineers examining one, two or several of those dials and making a few changes. They would adjust a few settings, test it carefully, and then release those results in an update. Many of these minor updates we don’t even know about.
Panda was the first major update completely based on machine learning. The Panda algorithm itself is completely separate from the core Google algorithm. It actually takes the Panda algorithm weeks to run, which is extremely slow compared to the speed of a regular Google search. So Panda runs in the background to make the core algorithm better.
Instead of a team of engineers examining a few dials at a time, the Panda algorithm looks at every single dial on that huge board of factors in Google’s core algorithm. Panda examines potential adjustments to the core algorithm by considering various website quality indicators. Panda is thinking, “If I turn this dial up, that dial down, another dial sideways, will that lead to better search results?” Only multiply that by the hundreds of ranking factors available.
Panda then makes a recommendation to some real human engineers at Google who review the changes Panda recommends before committing those changes to the live core algorithm. When those changes go live, that’s another Panda update (Panda 1.0, Panda 3.2, etc.).
What’s scary is that Panda is making changes to a whole lot of dials. In the past, when engineers make those changes manually, they changed a couple dials at a time to improve search results. Now, Panda could theoretically make changes to every single one of those dials in a single update.
A common argument against black hat SEO is that by practicing it, you are essentially trying to outsmart a whole lot of very smart Ph.D’s at the Googleplex. The same could be said for continuing to use exact match anchor text.
But now it’s even scarier. You are not only trying to outsmart some incredibly intelligent search engineers. Your are also trying to outsmart the really huge machine learning algorithm that runs 24/7 for weeks on end to make sure black hat SEO doesn’t work and give users better quality search results.
I hate to be blunt but somebody has to say it: You’re not that smart.
My guess is that every time Panda runs (remember it still takes several weeks just to think about each update), the core algorithm gives less and less weight to exact match anchor text. Why? Because “real,” editorially given exact match links are very rare, and the ones SEOs manipulate out of link partners do not add value to real users. Eventually, a Panda update will ignore exact match anchor text for good, and we probably won’t even know about it.
Sometime later, future Panda or Penguin updates will go full circle and cause most (not all, but most) exact match anchor text links to actually hurt your rankings.
It might not be for several months, or even a few years. Who knows? Exact match anchor links could already be ignored completely. Or they might already be doing nothing but harm.
On the other hand, natural links will always help your rankings. There is nothing questionable about links that people give to you authentically. There’s no pattern or footprint for Google to look for and filter out. Future Zoo updates will never identify and ignore a collection of natural links to your site to ignore them or penalize you for them.
Again and again, Profound Strategy has seen the impact that natural links can have on a site’s ranking and organic traffic. Even a small number of high-quality, natural links can significantly boost an SEO campaign. Doing it the right way is now the only way to go.
In fact, the more that unnatural links are ineffective and even harmful, the more impactful natural links are becoming. With every update, natural links have a greater positive impact on search rankings while unnatural links have a smaller or more harmful impact.
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