What exactly is a link exchange?
Link Exchanges, Reciprocal Linking, Swapping Backlinks – You’ve probably heard the term in some shape or form. It’s all the same thing. Whether Google likes it or not, there are thousands of webmasters out there looking to give and receive a link exchange from fellow bloggers and website owners.
The perceived purpose or benefit of the link exchange is to gain an advantage on Google, using the logic that receiving a quality backlink will give you a ‘trust’ signal that may give you an advantage over the competition. Read more about the benefits of backlinks here.
Being at the forefront of link building & outreach through our link building company, we’ve come across literally hundreds of instances where webmasters have openly asked us to exchange links, and trust me, it’s not only smaller bloggers who are actively practicing this. I’ve seen websites with millions of visitors per month happy to exchange content-based links.
- 1 Is Exchanging Links a Legitimate Strategy?
- 2 The Cold Hard Facts
- 3 Conclusion
Is Exchanging Links a Legitimate Strategy?
Most traditional SEO’s (especially those who aren’t deeply involved in the link building space) would strongly advise against any kind of link exchanges.
It’s true, exchanging and swapping links is an extremely divisive topic in the SEO and link building community, and most experts prefer to use other strategies. But as I’ve seen first hand, the landscape is changing and those involved in SEO even at the highest level will look to gain advantages where they can.
Private Influencer Networks
A year or two ago, Glenn Allsopp aka Viperchill published this incredibly popular article on private link building. It talks about the concept of a ‘private influencer network’ and highlights some of his findings on huge companies like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire using link exchange practices.
Glenn then uses an awesome graphic to show how some MAJOR tech publications on the internet all rose up together and regularly helped each other by passing backlinks to one another;
He goes onto to use some examples closer to home, and in particular, one major affiliate he found that was involved in a private influencer network with other major competitors in his space. They linked to each other’s websites in order to bolster rankings.
Here’s the diagram Glenn made (hopefully you don’t mind me using these Glenn!);
So as you can see, there would be a group of websites all linking indirectly to each other, with the ultimate goal of growing together.
This is certainly a pretty advanced method of swapping links, but certainly, food for thought and I personally found Glenn’s insight pretty groundbreaking at the time. From my own personal experiences in link building and talking to content publishers in every niche imaginable, I can say with 100% certainty that even huge companies are practicing some similar strategies, but most often in a lower-key way.
What does Google Say on the Subject?
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines clearly state that excessive link exchanges are against their terms. However, it’s interesting to hone in on the language that Google use…
“Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking”
The word ‘Excessive’ suggests that even Google understand and appreciate that it’s very natural for websites to link to each other in certain situations – If I had a close friend in the internet marketing space, we’d probably link to each other. If I was running an event with a website, I’d probably link to my exhibitors and I’d expect they’d probably link to me as well. So there’s a whole host of common scenarios where link exchanges are completely normal.
The Cold Hard Facts
Unless you’re exchanging links in public or openly courting hundreds of websites for link exchanges, Google can’t tell the difference between a manufactured link exchange and a natural link exchange. After all, Google is a machine-based algorithm.
Reciprocal Linking is Very Common
Ahrefs ran a beautiful study on reciprocal linking (another term for link exchanges) which gives some incredible factual information. I’m going to relay some cool facts from their investigation.
The study looked at 140,000 random domains with at least 10k organic visits/month – So essentially websites that perform pretty well and that Google likes (as opposed to old, outdated and unvisited websites)
However, please take this very important point of caution…
Joshua Hardwick touches upon this in the Ahrefs study. If indeed there were websites who Google penalized for exchanging links (which again, I’ve not heard of) then they would have been omitted from the Ahrefs study since the traffic would’ve been decimated and they wouldn’t meet the study criteria.
When Should You Consider a Link Exchange?
It’s very important to employ common sense when considering a link exchange. You shouldn’t be too focused on any perceived SEO benefits or link juice. Instead, the focus should be on relevancy.
Ask yourself some basic questions: “Does this website have any content, tools or products that my visitors might actually find useful? Am I going to link to this person’s page in a relevant way that’s going to be helpful for my own users?”
And of course, think about the direct relevance of the website in question. For example, I own a successful Airsoft affiliate website, where 25% of our links come directly from other Airsoft websites. 60% come from other relevant spaces such as outdoors, adventures and hobbies, whilst only 15% of links come from other random sources.
When to Avoid Link Exchanges Entirely
Of course, we want to use a qualitative analysis before we go any further. So again, question whether the website is relevant, useful and basically whether or not you like the website. Check out their social profiles, investigate the owner’s LinkedIn and get a feel for the brand.
Once you’ve passed this stage, you do some metric checks;
How to Exchange Links in the Safest & Best Way Possible
I want to very clearly state that your strategy shouldn’t be to go out there and look for people who want to explicitly exchange links. Rather, you should be generous to other people and other bloggers – Compliment people, link out freely whenever you come across relevant content that genuinely helps you out.
If you are going to exchange links, I recommend never directly linking from page A to page B and vice versa.
Instead, you should do it like this…
So with the setup as you can see, we have 4 pages involved, and there’s no clear link footprint between any 2 pages.
You definitely want to avoid any kind of site-wide link exchange. This was something that people practiced years ago and it was truly rampant in certain industries. I’m convinced that Google has measures in place to cancel out any ranking benefit from these types of links.
My take on exchanging backlinks is one of common sense. Don’t use it as a core link building strategy, but if you’re a professional in a certain space, I’m sure you’ll have friends and peers. It’s inevitable that situations will arise when linking to one another becomes tempting and in many cases makes sense.
I’ll revert back to the official language used in Google’s guidelines – Excessive link exchanges won’t be tolerated.
So like a fine whiskey, don’t drink to excess. By all means, have a drink now and then, but don’t get blackout drunk in a haze of reciprocal link building.