I am a bit surprised I am writing this but yes, anchor text is a signal Google uses for ranking purposes. Yes, Google can ignore spammy links that try to manipulate rankings but normal anchor text does help Google rank a page for what the anchor text says about the page. Hence giving Google more context about the page.
It is why Google can rank pages that do not have that content on the page. Like why Adobe Reader for years and years ranked for the words [click here] in search. Adobe Reader's landing page did not have the words "click here" on them but everyone who had PDF documents on their site had a link to view this PDF, click here to download Adobe Reader. That was the old days but yes, anchor text can help a web page rank for a specific set of keywords - if you it is natural.
John Mueller of Google said in that Friday video (thanks Glenn Gabe for sending this to me) at the 19:55 mark that anchor text does impact rankings. This was in response to Google having keyword rich anchor text for some of its properties. John said he will pass it along to the web spam team because "when it comes to these kind of links, what we try to look at is the specific anchor text there." He said if someone is trying to abuse it, it can be "more problematic" and should be reported.
Here is what he said:
In general, when it comes to these kind of links, what we try to look at is the specific anchor text there.
So if it's something where, when we look at it, it looks like, oh, it's promoting this website in a way that it uses very keyword-rich anchor text, then that would be more problematic. If it's essentially just linking to the URL or if it's using the business name as something that is linking to the website name, then usually that's less of an issue.
So from my point of view, if this were any random website, I wouldn't really say much there. But since it is a Google property, I will pass it onto the Web Spam Team just to double check to see that they're OK with this. I don't know what will happen there with the Web Spam Team. It's very possible that we already ignore these specific links, because these are the kind of links that are very easy for our systems to pick up and say, well, we can just ignore those.
But it is always awkward to get these reports that Google properties aren't doing things perfectly.
The back and forth on this topic starts at 19:23, here is the video embed:
So yes, anchor text of a hyperlink is a ranking signal for Google. Yes, this is not new.
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