Google has over 200 ranking signals that are factored into search engine placement. In reality, it is not quite possible to optimize for all of them. We have compiled a much smaller and more manageable list of relevant Ranking signals for SEO. We have compiled a manageable list of relevant Google Ranking Signals for SEO. An easy rule is to match the search intent on Google. The more relevant factors you take into account, the better rankings you will see.
Even if someone does not create quality content, they know that they totally should, because it is obvious that people come to your site for the things they search for. Keeping this thing in mind, also take into account the following factors when you create content for your site:
Keyword research is not obsolete but keyword stuffing is. The exact keyword matching is not that important due to the flourishing existence of semantic search. However, keywords are absolutely necessary. They are beacons for your visitors. They guide them to your site. The thing is, the research methods, as well as keyword implementation, is more sophisticated.
One of the best strategies in the SEO world is to peek at your competitors for some inspiration. The same goes for keyword research. A great thing is that you can do it with the help of Rank Tracker‘s new research method that reveals the competitors’ best keywords. Just run the tool, open your project or create a new one, and go to Keyword Research > Ranking Keywords. Paste your competitor’s site in the search box, and in a few moments, there is a list of keywords with all their performance metrics. Do not forget that Rank Tracker’s Keyword Research module has 20 keyword research methods that may help you reveal lots of priceless keyword ideas.
With the exponential growth of mobile use, voice search is a real thing now. A trick here is that keyword research for voice differs quite a lot from the traditional search. When a person speaks their query, they tend to form it as naturally sounding questions, as if speaking to a real person. In such a situation, you have to optimize for long-tail conversational keywords and questions that people are likely to ask. It is easy to do with Rank Tracker’s Related Questions research method. Go to Keyword Research > Related Questions, paste in your keywords: After you have a nice list of questions, you should further build your content around them.
Featured snippets occupy so-called “position zero” — an above-all-the-results chunk of the SERP space with a box that contains a short answer to the query and a link to the source. It is considered to be a perfect opportunity for better visibility and its consequential perks. When it comes to mobile search, the visibility gets even higher, as a featured snippet occupies almost the whole screen space. With voice search, a featured snippet box will be the first and only that will be read to users in case they have no possibility to look on the screen.
- Experiment with queries with your target keywords and check whether any of them pull a snippet. If yes, see what kind of information Google considers to be the best answer to the query. Plus, check whether there are any gaps in the provided information that you can fill in with the help of your content.
- Make your content snippable by means of the inverted pyramid formula to structure the data: 1. Most important info -> 2. Important details -> 3. Background info
- Optimize the format to make it easier for Google to spot and retrieve your data for a featured snippet. The most popular formats for position zero are:
- paragraphs (an HTML tag <p>);
- tables (an HTML <table> tag);
- lists (HTML header tags h1 or h2).
Google takes search intent very seriously. When someone searches for Marks & Spencer, the search engine assumes that they need a store nearest to them. As a result, the search listings are shaped this way. Plus, if the searcher is not quite satisfied with search listings, Google serves some further ideas in Related Searches. Following Google’s lead, you have to do the same, i.e. understand your audience to give them the best results. Fortunately, you do not have to actually guess, search intent is segmentable, and there are a few sure ways to check what people are looking for. There are two case scenarios when working at search intent makes sense:
- You are doing keyword research, and you are planning which keywords you should target. In this case, you already have a list of keywords that you fancy targeting. All you need at this point is dig deeper to understand which content you have to create for these keywords. Be a smart one here and use Google’s ranking mechanism per se to help you understand search intent. Experiment with queries that, in your opinion, should bring visitors to your site. Type one of them in the search box, study the first page of search listings, and try to figure out search intent using:
related searches. For example, if I paste “vector images”, I will see that a number of pages offer me sites where I can download or buy vector images. However, a smaller number of links suggest some tools which I can edit or convert vector images with. Thus, I see two different intents under one query. The same two intents I see in the related searches. Following this procedure, check which intent ranks near the top of search results. If you see that your intent is not quite like this one, it means that, if possible, you have to re-shape your content strategy (like including this top intent or targeting different queries). Plus, this kind of analysis may reveal some gaps in serving a particular kind of intent that you can fill and yield ranking opportunities.
- You are already ranking for a number of keywords, but you are not sure that the content matches search intent. In this case, try to take the following measures:
- In Google Search Console, look through your keywords that are ranking already, but which have a low CTR.
- Pay attention to your bounce rates. Though not every bounce is a cause for concern, high bounce rates need some checking. In your Rank Tracker project, after you have done your keyword research, you should already have a number of target keywords and your site’s pages that rank for these keywords. Add the Page Bounce Rate (GA) column to your Rank Tracking dashboard.Note that there will be some cases when traffic comes to one and the same page from different queries. And it will be quite cumbersome to understand which query exactly it bounces from, as Google Analytics does not provide keywords.Once you’ve got an idea where the problem lies, i.e. the keywords that match wrong search intent, you can do the following. You can either re-write your ranking page in order to match search intent much better. Or create a brand new page which targets those particular keywords and that particular intent. Meanwhile, you can use the current page for other queries. Just make sure to optimize it so that it does not cannibalize your other pages.
Many things change and transform in SEO, but backlinks stay one of the most important ranking signals for Google. It is true that you cannot earn high positions in SERPs by link schemes — Google is not amused by them at all. However, a quality link profile works really fine for any site. Sometimes, only this factor is enough for out-SERPing better-optimized sites.
The problem is, it is quite hard to build quality links as well as do it in a short period of time. Making people link to you is a particular kind of high art.
The number of backlinks and linking domains
Though now Google preaches quality before quantity, the number of pages and domains linking to a site still has a massive impact on rankings.
In a few of its patents, Google says that an overall link score of a site is made up by individual quality scores passed on to it by every incoming link. You can read it like that: more links result in a higher score (providing they are not link schemes).
Note that links coming from the same domain (especially site-wide links) carry little weight; Google will often only count one of those links when evaluating your link profile.
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In order to understand what link scores you compete against, peek at your competitors’ link profiles first.
Run SEO SpyGlass and create a project for your site. Go to the Domain Comparison module and add the domains of your major competitors, one by one, and see how you compare to competitors’ link profiles. Total Backlinks and Total Linking Domains should give you a good idea on how much improvement your link profile may need, quantity-wise.
If you see that your link profile needs some push, try to find quality link prospects yourself. To do that, launch LinkAssistant and create a project. Click Look for prospects and select a search method you’d like to use (you can repeat the process with as many methods as you like). Once you’re done with prospect research, you will have a list of potential link partners in your project along with their email addresses for outreach.
Analyze this list and select those prospects that are most likely to link to you. A great thing is that you can reach them right from the tool. Right-click a contact (or several contacts, if you’ll be sending them a similar message), and click Send email to selected prospects. In your email, feel free to either put up a message of your own or use some of the ready-made email templates, depending on the link building technique you’re using. You can check for replies and manage your correspondence with prospects in the Email module.
As I’ve mentioned in the previous point, whatever links you have, they, as one of the strongest ranking signals, have to be of good quality. Otherwise, lower quality backlinks can get your site gravely penalized.
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Regular audits can help you avoid possible problems connected with Google penalties. To check links for their quality, launch SEO SpyGlass and create a project for your site.
Once you have a list of your site’s backlinks, go to the Backlinks dashboard, select all the links, and click Update Factors. Navigate to the Link penalty risk tab and click on the header of the Penalty Risk column (this will sort the links by penalty risk).
All links with a penalty risk above 30% are worth looking into — these can potentially be low-quality links. All links with a penalty risk over 60% need your immediate attention, as they are the ones that might get your link score below Google’s low-quality threshold, and have your site penalized as a result.
You can contact the owner of the site where your poor quality links come from and ask them to take down these links. If it is not an option, you can disavow those spammy links. To disavow backlinks, you’d need to put up a disavow file following certain syntax and formatting rules, and upload the file to Google Search Console.
You can create a disavow file right in SEO SpyGlass in a few clicks. To do that, select the links you’d like to disavow, right-click the selection, and hit Disavow backlinks. Most of the time, you’d want to disavow links on the domain level; so make sure you select Entire domain under Disavow mode.
Then, go to Preferences -> Disavow/Blacklist backlinks and hit Export to save the disavow file to your computer, and upload it to Google Search Console.
A piece of kind advice: The most compelling content to link to multiple times is different kinds of infographics, case studies, surveys, tutorials, etc. So, if it is possible to provide this kind of content on your site, I beg you, use this opportunity.
Link Anchor Text
Surely, anchor text has lost some of its importance (yes, like most things we talk about here). Still, keyword-rich (not over-optimized!) anchor text still sends a strong relevance signal to Google. Here the concept of relevance is tightly linked to that of diversity. While your backlinks are expected to be semantically relevant to the topic of your page, it’s important to note that too similar anchor texts can get you under Google’s Penguin penalty. Understandably, there’s no universally right ratio of different kinds of anchor text in your link profile. However, below you can find some averages to give you an idea of what a natural link profile typically looks like. Check & Improve
But just as it is with about anything in SEO, it’s best to rely on the link profiles of your top ranking competitors instead of the overall averages. In the SEO SpyGlass‘s project for your site, go to Backlink profile > Summary to get to know the most commonly used anchors (and keywords within those anchors). Do the same for the projects you’ve created for your top ranking competitors (you’ll find them in the Project drop-down menu) to spot areas for improvement in terms of your links’ anchors. If you are not quite happy with your backlinks’ current anchors, you will need to reach out to webmasters that link to your site, and request a change. To speed up the process, export your links from SEO SpyGlass by going to File > Export, and then import them to LinkAssistant‘s project in another click-through File > Import. Now, select the backlinks you’ve imported and hit Update > Get Contact Email. This way, you’ll be able to reach out to webmasters right from LinkAssistant and ask them to make any changes to the links’ anchor texts.
I’m judging from my own experience. When I cannot find something on the site or get confused by inconvenient navigation, I explode with uncontrollable fury. Gods forbid if a page loads for a few seconds! At the same time, I experience aesthetic delight at visually rich sites and intuitive navigation. It seems that I’m not standalone in this situation. Today we get quite picky when it comes to UX, both on desktop and mobile. In the light of this, let’s talk about those signals that SEO-ers consider important to Google.
Click Through Rate
A click-through rate, or CTR, is a ratio of the number of times a given search result was clicked on to the number of times it was displayed to searchers. Google only implies in its numerous patents that SERP CTRs have a massive impact on rankings, but those implications are pretty clear. SearchMetrics’ ranking factors study even found that CTR has the highest correlation with rankings out of all factors examined. Yes, I hear you screaming that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. However, real-time experiments showed that an increase in CTR can literally boost a site’s rank in real time, thus, it is more than likely that Google uses a click-through rate as a factor in its ranking also. For every query, Google expects a CTR in a certain range for each of the listings (e.g. for branded keywords, the CTR of No.1 result is around 50%; for non-branded queries, the top result gets around 33% of clicks). If a given listing gets a CTR that is seriously above (or below) that range, Google can re-rank the result accordingly.
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To check your snippets’ current click-through rates, log in to Google Search Console and go to the Search Analytics report. Select Clicks, Impressions, CTR, and Position to be displayed. While CTR values for different positions in Google SERPs can vary depending on the type of the query, on average, you can expect at least 30% of clicks for a No.1 result, 15% for a No.2 result, and 10% for a No.3 result. If the CTR for some of your listings is seriously below these averages, these could be the problem listings you’d want to focus on in the first place. The major focus should be on making your listings appealing and click-worthy.
- Use descriptive URLs. A study by Microsoft has found that descriptive URLs get 25% more clicks than “generic” URLs.
- Write snippet titles according to the magic formula: format + emotion + content type + subject.
- Write the description of your snippet as if it is an ad for your content.
- Use structured data. By using a special markup, you can add elements to your HTML that will make your snippets look more appealing to users. For example, they can be adorned with star ratings, customer ratings, images, additional product information, etc. Thanks to Google, you don’t have to be a web developer if you need to mark up the structured data on a website. You can use Structured Data Markup Helper. Before adding the schema markup chunk of HTML to your pages, remember to preview your snippets by copying and pasting your page’s source code into Google’s Testing Tool.
Keeping all these things in mind, you can edit and preview your Google snippet in Content Analysis > Content Editor in WebSite Auditor, under the Title & Meta tags tab. Once you’re happy with your snippet, hit Save page to save the upload-ready HTML file to your hard drive.
Bounce Rate and Dwell Time
These two metrics are closely connected.
Bounce rate is the percentage of single-page sessions, i.e. visitors who visit only one page on your site before leaving. It does not matter how much time visitors spend on your page, 2 seconds or 20 minutes, it is still considered a bounce.
Dwell time is the amount of time spent on a site between the click on a search result and a bounce back to SERPs. SEO-ers are skeptical about a bounce rate metric due to the fact that even a long session on a page is considered a bounce, though it is obvious that such a session is an apparent indicator of the page’s quality. So, dwell time is more reliable in terms of indicating page’s relevance. There is no definite answer whether dwell time is a ranking signal.
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As people usually do not go further than the first page of search listings, it makes sense to pay attention to dwell time when your site ranks on the first page. Though, as you will see, the recommendations for increasing dwell time are not that unique, and you should follow them anyway. Create better content – make sure that your content is: Useful — gives information, inspiration, or motivation; Entertaining — gives a laugh, takes by surprise, or visually delights; Accessible — serves all the desires of a modern user — skimmable, conversational, and well-designed.
- Use logical internal linking
It is a very nice thing to interconnect all the pages on your site that are on a particular subject or related subjects. Then, you can hook the user for much longer on your site.
- Engage users
For example, introduce content recommendations on your pages by suggesting other relevant articles for further read. The closer the recommendation is to the page that is currently viewed, the more chances are that the user will stay on your site longer.
- Introduce pageless scrolling
Remember how you spend precious time of your life scrolling and scrolling an endless newsfeed of any social media channel? Well, you can apply something similar to your site. However, in order not to harm your SEO by confusing search engine crawlers, break the page into paginated sections (each section will have a similar <title> tag, with rel=”next” and rel=”prev” values indicated in the <head> tag).
Ideal site architecture does not only allow crawlers to index more pages of your site but also allows users that have visited your site to find what they came for in the shortest period of time. It is one of the most important UX factors. Check & Improve
- Make your site structure shallow
Shallow means that any page on your site is no more than three clicks away from your homepage. Of course, it is quite hard to accomplish when you have a huge site. But if it is possible to optimize for three clicks, please do.
You can easily check your site structure with WebSite Auditor. Launch the tool, create a project for your site or open an existing one, go to Site Structure > Visualization. As a result, you will see a graph of your site’s pages and the connections between them (with a clear distinction between redirects, orphan pages, lengthy strings of links, etc.)
- Apply a user-friendly site navigation
A best-case scenario: you have a hierarchal structure of your site, and then you can make a hierarchal navigational menu with categories and subcategories. Let’s look at different ways to tackle the problem of ideal navigation:
- Use a few menus on the page: try not to cram all the categories you have in one menu. You can break them down to a few logical clusters (like more specific or more common categories; links to internal or external resources, etc.) and place them in different places on the page (like in two bars with a different background or on the top and bottom of the page);
- Make use of drop-down menus for each category;
- Try to use fewer categories and subcategories (unless you are Amazon);
- Use a site search box in a visible place on your site (it is a must for bigger sites);
- Create a FAQ page in case you receive lots of similar questions from your users.
You do not necessarily need to switch to HTTPS, as being HTTP will not harm your site. However, there have been some changes that can be worth your attention since Google does use HTTPS as a ranking signal. In January 2017, Google started to flag those sites that collected passwords or credit cards as “not secure” in the URL bar. Furthermore, the search engine announced that starting from July 2018 with the release of Chrome 68, Chrome will mark all HTTP sites as “not secure”. It seems as pretty strong advocacy for adoption of HTTPS encryption.
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The thing with switching to HTTPS (and SSL, as they work together) is that it can bring lots of canonicalizing issues if not done right. If your site already uses HTTPS encryption, you can run an audit to check whether you have any mixed-content issues. It is no sweat with WebSite Auditor. Open your project in the tool (or create a new one), go to Site Structure > Site Audit, and check for issues with mixed content:
While the technical base of your site is essential for SEO, it additionally holds a special place in the Google’s ranking mechanism. The best thing about technical SEO is that you can totally control all the factors. Let’s talk about the top two factors that matter for rankings.
Google’s shifting to mobile-first indexing is coming. This means that the mobile version of websites (if available) will be indexed as opposed to the desktop version. The less obvious — but perhaps even more important — implication of this change is that Google will now also analyze mobile pages against the ranking signals to determine how a site should rank in both mobile and desktop search results. So, mobile friendliness has changed its status from “nice-to-have” to “have-or-die”.
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You should remember those times when a mobile version of your website hosted at m.URL.com was strongly recommended. Though it does not harm you now, many websites adopt responsive design instead. Even though Google has said that they do not favor any way of going mobile (responsive, dynamic, or separate URLs), they still recommend using a responsive design pattern. However, if you decide to adopt responsive design, do it thoroughly or do not do it at all. If applied recklessly, it will cause grave UX and traffic issues. There’s a bunch of documentation available on adapting the responsive design for web developers. It might take a bit of work to get every aspect right, but it’s an investment that’ll definitely keep paying off increasingly.
You can check the usability of your mobile page with the help of WebSite Auditor. In the tool, create a project for your site or open an existing one, go to Content Analysis > Page Audit, add a page you want to analyze, and enter your target keywords. When the check is done, switch to Technical factors and scroll to the Page usability (Mobile) section to see if there are any problems detected. Any factors that have a Warning or Error status call for your attention.
It is well known that page speed is used in Google’s ranking. Google also announced the Speed Update: starting from July 2018, page speed will be a ranking factor for mobile searches. Page speed can also influence your SEO indirectly, as search engines will likely crawl fewer pages if your site is slow due to the allocated crawl budget. This, in turn, could negatively affect your site’s indexation. Load time can have a massive impact on user experience, too. Slower pages tend to have higher bounce rates and lower average time on page. So what’s the page speed you should aim for? Google’s mentioned they expect pages to load in 2 seconds or less. That’s for a desktop. As for mobile, according to Google’s mobile page speed study, as page load time slows down from one second to six, the bounce rate increases by 106%. The most common culprit for slow pages is an abundance of uncompressed content on the page, such as scripts, images, or CSS files.
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In WebSite Auditor‘s Content Analysis module, switch to the Technical factors tab and take a look at the Page speed (Desktop) factors on the left. Under this section, you’ll see the exact list of speed-related factors Google’s looking for in web pages, according to their PageSpeed Insights. Go through all the factors that have a Warning or Error status. If there’re any Uncompressed images or Unminified resources on your page, you’ll see a link to a ready-made compressed version of these resources. Follow the link to download the lighter version of those, and feel free to upload them to your site right away:
For your mobile pages, you can consider applying AMP. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) is an open-source project that allows mobile site content to render almost instantly (due to a simpler, much lighter version of HTML delivered from the Google-hosted cached version). This initiative is sponsored by Google but not owned by it. And it is supported by Bing, Baidu, Twitter, Pinterest, and other parties. You can check out a couple of case studies by Stone Temple of how AMP influenced different kinds of businesses. As well as their own experiments with their own mobile site.
Once you are positive about implementing AMP, you have to remember one extremely important thing that is key to your success. It is not enough just to install a plugin and then forget about it. To get something from this project, you have to invest time to make the AMP version of your pages nearly identical to your normal responsive mobile pages. Additionally, it is really useful to track the performance of your AMP pages. You can do it either with a bonus challenge from Eric Enge (Stone Temple) of setting up the tracking of AMP pages in Google Analytics or with the help of WebSite Auditor.
Open your WebSite Auditor project, go to Site Structure > Pages, click the “+” button in the upper right corner to create a new workspace. Add a filter condition to only include the pages with AMP in their URL: Further on, add the necessary columns (canonical URLs, status codes, robots instructions, broken resources, and so on) to your workspace for a deep analysis of your AMP pages.
On-page optimization deals with the technical components that are “behind the scenes” but closely connected to user experience and indexing process.
By means of HTML tags, you can help Google understand what your page is about (as the search engine takes into consideration a combination of signals when pulling the answer to a query). It is true that over the previous years, HTML tags’ influence on rankings has been decreasing. And now webmasters can even choose not to use some tags in their HTML at all and be ok after that. However, there are still some tags that:
- Enhance user experience by providing better navigation and best match with queries;
- Give guidance to search engines on where to find the most important parts of the site or which parts to overlook;
- Make SERP snippets look more attractive and informative.
Check & Improve
1) Optimize title and description tags to make your SERP snippet look more appealing. In your WebSite Auditor‘s project go to Content Analysis > Page Audit, in the Content optimization tab check the Title and Meta tags sections for length and keywords. Note that from time to time, Google will pull for search listings titles and descriptions different from the ones you mentioned in your tags. Usually, the search engine does that to make a better match for a query. So, it is not necessarily a bad thing.
2) Make a good use of your header tags. These tags help search engines read your content in a more efficient way. The order of your header tags (H1 to H6) shows the level of importance of each section. What’s more, when a page is level-structured, it is much easier for visitors to read it and comprehend the most important parts in a short amount of time. In the Content optimization tab check the Body section for keywords in H1 and H2-H6. It is considered to be a good practice to use one H1 per page and further break up your content logically into sections with H2. If necessary, you can further segment H2 sections with H3, H4, and so on. Plus, try to make your headings visible to visitors, as they usually convey the main points of your content.
3) Do not forget about alt attributes for your image tags. Alt text plays a major role in image optimization. It makes your images accessible both to search engines (by telling them what a particular image means) and to people (by displaying an alternative text in case a particular image cannot be loaded or helping screen readers convey images). If you want to use this additional opportunity to rank higher by means of image optimization, then, first of all, check for empty alt texts. This is where you miss this opportunity whatsoever. Open your WebSite Auditor project, go to Site Structure > Site Audit, and pay attention to the Images section. Try to optimize only use images that can be of real value to your visitors. Plus, alt texts are one more opportunity to use your target keywords.
4) Taking into account the fact that social media channels have a solid position in today’s world, it is a good thing to also pay attention to Open Graph (OG) tags. OG tags let you control how the information about your page is represented when shared via social channels. This possibility may help you enhance the performance of your links on social media, thus driving more click-throughs and increasing conversions. Here, it is wise to optimize a title, description, and images by keeping in mind that it is not that necessary to optimize for keywords but to get your potential audience hooked. Once you are done with your OG meta tags, you can check how everything looks like with the help of Open Graph Object Debugger, a tool created by Facebook.
5) One more thing to pay attention to is a canonical tag. It is more than important for SEO and helps to prevent some problems from Google. First of all, it does not only tell search engines which page out of a few similar ones is more important, it also shows them that such pages are not duplicate content. Duplicate content means penalty. Second, it prevents cannibalization that happens when pages that are less important than other similar ones get higher rankings. Open your WebSite Auditor‘s project, go to Site Structure > Site Audit, and pay attention to the On-page section, namely to Duplicate titles and Duplicate meta descriptions. In case you have a few URLs with identical content, specify an element in the page’s HTML.
The idea of an internal link is to drive visitors from one place on your site to another. Hope it is not news, internal links do not need to be scattered chaotically on your site, it is possible to actually make them work for you. Logical internal linking has a double effect on your website. On the one hand, it influences user engagement metrics, including time spent on website, page views per session, and conversion rate. On the other hand, it’s a significant ranking factor that can boost your positions in SERPs and bring additional organic traffic for free.
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It is easy to check the importance and authority of your pages within your site with the help of the WebSite Auditor‘s Visualization tool. Create a project or open an existing one, go to Site Structure > Visualization. When the graph is built, choose Internal Page Rank in a drop-down menu on the top right. Here the size of nodes reflects the value of Internal Page Rank — the indicator of how high the authority of your page is. Here you have to pay attention to whether your important pages (like a homepage or main categories) have the highest Page Rank. In order to boost the authority of a particular page, you should direct the flow from the page with a higher Page Rank value to a lower one. Plus, it is considered a good practice to use keyword-targeted anchor texts when linking internally to your other topically relevant pages. I mean, do not use hyperlinked “click here”, use “the proof on Elvis being alive”.
To audit your anchors, fire up WebSite Auditor once more. Under the Pages dashboard, click on any page. Below, click on Links from page to see every link on the page along with its anchor text, HTTP response code, and robots directives. You can also do it the other way around: switch to Links to a page to see all internal links to the page you’re examining along with the anchor text.
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