It can be mighty easy as an SEO to get on your high horse and talk down to people when they ask about seemingly outdated SEO practices. But, as it turns out, there can be a lot more nuance to answering these sorts of questions when you look at it in a broader context. Such is the case of the old-fashioned link exchange, the SEO version of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
History of the link exchange
In the early days of Google’s search dominance, it became clear that the more links you had, the better your site’s chances were to rank well in Google’s search results. Once this became fairly common knowledge amongst marketers, everyone began looking for the most efficient (read: cheapest and easiest) way to acquire links. This gave rise to all kinds of large-scale link acquisition tactics which are generally frowned upon today. The list includes such classics as:
- Blog commenting
- Article spinning
- Private blog networks
- Link exchanges
Unlike the first three on the above list, the one thing that made link exchanges somewhat different was that there was consent between both webmasters to add a link. If you’ve never been hit up for a link exchange request you’ll probably be directed to a page like this:
While this list seems like a reasonable web page on the surface, the practice quickly spiraled out of control as online marketers realized that this could be scaled up to any type of page on the web. This led to pages with literally thousands of links back and forth from sites that had literally nothing to do with each other. You had sites that sell pet rocks linking to websites about phlebotomy, and the web was on its way to cats and dogs living together. Google, of course, was not having this for long.
Realizing that these links were cheap and not an indicator of quality, Google began adding quality metrics for links and penalties for sites that had a link profile consisting mostly of garbage links like these. So, as with most historical link building tactics, the link exchange began as a semi-legitimate way to get links and was quickly abused to the point that Google had to fight back, and then the SEO world overcorrected and now link exchange is treated like a four letter word, when it doesn’t have to be.
So link exchanges aren’t a bad thing?
Not really. Like most other over abused link building tactics, there are still some ways to use them responsibly if you know what you’re doing and you don’t act like an asshole. For example, using a program to automatically comment on 2,000 blogs with a canned message makes you an asshole. If you contribute to a discussion with some useful insights and drop a link to a relevant post on your own site as a natural part of that conversation – that’s a perfectly good way to get a link (and referral traffic!). Likewise, building a link exchange page and swapping links with thousands of other sites is just dumb, and it doesn’t work. However, let’s say your business and another business provide services for each other. If both of your sites have a page where customers provide testimonials, it makes perfect sense to put in a good word for each other’s businesses. You can leave a testimonial on their site with a link back to your business and they could do the same in reverse. Since you’re both customers of each other, this isn’t deceptive and a link to your business makes sense to a site visitor who might want to learn more about your company after reading your testimonial.
Other sensible ways to exchange links would be to find similar businesses and exchange blog posts. At Netvantage we don’t really do email marketing, but I’m sure some people who read our blog are interested in email marketing. If I were to bump into someone at a networking event who worked in email marketing and didn’t offer SEO, I might offer up a guest post for their site to talk about the latest and greatest in SEO in exchange for a post from them on some hot topic in email marketing. Tastefully adding a link or two back to each other’s home page or a specific service page within the article copy or within the “about the author” section of the post is another perfectly reasonable way to exchange links, and one that Google will give you credit for.
Before you get all gung-ho about link exchanges, keep reading
Now that I’ve got you all excited about going on a link exchange crusade, you need to pump the brakes just a bit. Some standard link building criteria still need to be considered before you just start sending out link exchange requests all willy nilly. A few things to consider:
- The eyeball test. First thing to look at is the site itself. Does it look like garbage? Is the content garbage? Do you want your business associated with a site like this? If you’re not getting good answers to these questions walk away…quickly.
- Relevance. If your site sells mouse traps and the site you’re looking to get a link exchange from is a bookstore halfway across the country there’s a very good chance that Google’s not going to give you any credit for the link because it doesn’t make any sense for your sites to link together.
- Too many links. If a site is relevant, but you’re on a page with 100+ other links, that page isn’t going to provide much specific value to your site. If a site has a short, carefully curated list of highly relevant industry links, go for it.
- Nofollow links. If the place you’re swapping links with only gives out nofollow links, then you’re not going to see SEO value from the link. However, if the site is a highly trafficked site that will still refer you quality visitors, you may want to swap the link anyhow, but you should consider nofollowing your link to them as well. (Don’t know what nofollow links are? Read this.)
- Measurable juice. For SEO purposes, you only want to swap links with sites that have similar or more trust and authority than your own. If a site is brand new and doesn’t have any inbound links of their own, you won’t receive any real value from a link exchange. If you want to get a quick feel for how much “juice” a site has, grab the domain and toss it into a backlink tool like Link Explorer, Majestic or Ahrefs and compare the target site’s metrics to your own. If they’re as good or better than your site, you can proceed.
Using the above rules of thumb should help you stay out of trouble with link exchanges, and can even help you land some high-value backlinks. By no means should you make link exchanges the foundation of your link building, as Google will certainly be able to sniff out a lack of one-way links as a sign that you’re doing something unnatural. But, for small local businesses and some industries where links are really hard to come by, the occasional link exchange can be a nice supplement to your overall link building strategy.