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Google Changes Link Guidelines

linkingLast week, Google continued their attack against manipulative link-building strategies by updating their webmaster guidelines [1].  The updates call out various link-building tactics that SEOs use to manipulate search engines but which Google warns “can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”   Most of the changes were both warranted and expected.  The most jarring update, however, discourages the use of “links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites,”  suggesting that websites will suffer in the rankings if they are using “optimized” anchor text in distributed content that links back to their sites.

This new guideline would be less of a discussion point if it didn’t directly contradict advice Google has provided in their Search Engine Optimization Guide [2].  This guide explains that anchor text “should provide at least a basic idea of what the page linked to is about” – definitively supporting the value of writing descriptive anchor text.   It seems that, in Google’s attempt to slay the many-headed Hydra of manipulative link schemes, Google became a two-headed monster itself.  How can we describe a link’s content without raising the ire (and penalty) of Google’s web spam team?

The answer materializes through hairsplitting of the word “optimized,” which Google seems to distinguish from “optimal”.  Google’s goal is to accurately rank sites based on the quality & relevance of the content they then present to human visitors in a curated (most relevant) order. “Optimal” anchor text is written with the human visitor in mind to communicate concisely what is being linked to and what would be expected post-click. Ideally, Google wants anchor text that is designed with the user in mind AND that enables the search bots to accurately assess the linked page’s content.  This sort of anchor text, which Google encourages in their SEO guide, is what Google would consider “optimal.”

Conversely, Google sees the use of “optimized” anchor text as a tactic to manipulate search engine results in anchor text by:

Embedding keyword-focused links in distributed content has been a link builder’s go-to tactic for a long time. In publishing updated guidelines that highlight these violations and their potential negative impact, Google creates a line in the sand which link builders cannot cross without consequences.

High-quality links are still one of the major factors Google uses to rank sites in the organic searches, so how can webmasters manage to build links without resorting to manipulative, “optimized” tactics?  The answer is fairly obvious: Google has tirelessly underscored that “the best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.”  That being said, maybe it’s time to put optimized anchor text to rest and just focus on producing better content?

SEO folk… what are your thoughts? BS or 2013 ‘must do’?