Link Exchanges: Do They Still Work For SEO?

Today I look at whether exchanging links is still an effective SEO tactic, or whether you should avoid link exchanges altogether.

linkbuilding

Back in the glory days of the late 90s/early 2000s, exchanging links was the done thing in SEO.

Every site under the sun had a ‘links’ page or, taking things a stage further, a categorised directory containing thousands of unrelated links to everything from table tennis bat suppliers to dog walkers.

And then around 2005/2006 things started to change. Google, which was by now under pressure to improve the quality of it’s results had to do something to stop this easy to game method of ranking your website.

So, sites that had been aggressively trading links with unrelated sites took a tumble down the rankings and exchanging links was declared taboo.

One way links became the sought after SEO holy grail and complex link wheels, 3 way link schemes and other dubious tactics started to become the staple of the unscrupulous SEO.

But that’s enough of the history lesson! The purpose of this article is to convince you that these days, exchanging links (in the right way) is a good thing for your site and that you should stop worrying about building one way backlinks. And here’s why!

An Example Of A Good Link Exchange

I originally posted this example in this thread on webproworld (look mum I just exchanged links!), but I’ll expand on it a bit here.

Let’s say I was lucky enough to be interviewed by one of the top SEO sites. One of the high profile, sought after, authority building monsters that we all covet a link from.

A search for ‘SEO blog’ gives us moz.com at number 1 and as it also happens to be the SEO site I visit most often, I’ll use it for this example.

So, all my years of work have paid off, I’ve managed to position myself as an expert and have been asked for my opinion on something SEO related. Moz.com has the courtesy of linking to my blog from the article to thank me for my input.

If link exchanges are bad and one way links are the only type of link that will rank your site…

I should say ‘thank you very much’, remove all links to moz.com from my own site, bask in the glory and fame, never link to moz.com again and watch as I rocket up the rankings.

But that’s not going to be very useful for my visitors is it?

I regularly cite and link to articles on moz.com, so removing all those relevant links which are supportive or add/expand on the topic I am writing about is going to be a bit silly.

How about I do the following instead…

Put a big banner on my sidebar saying ‘as featured on moz.com’ with a link to my article. For anyone visiting my site for the first time it’s going to give a big boost to my credibility!

But as exchanging links is bad, this means my link from moz.com is going to lose all its value doesn’t it? Hmmm… I think not…

It’s Only Natural

When you focus on building quality relationships with other sites/webmasters in your niche (one of the staples of modern white hat SEO), you will find that link exchanges happen all the time without you even thinking about it.

If an SEO blogger I follow posts an interesting article, I’ll naturally want to share it with my own followers/readers. This might be in the form of a tweet or facebook share, but if I really like the post I might write up an article expanding on, or referencing it and linking back.

I would hope that they would do the same if they like something on my site.

Am I going to be penalised for all those nasty link exchanges with related SEO sites that are giving good value to my readers? Should I never link to any other SEO sites just in case they link back to me?

The questions are of course rhetorical, but feel free to let me know if you disagree!

Potential Traffic = Good Link To Have

You probably still get the spammy link exchange emails that go something like: –

Dear webmaster,

I visited your websites and I must say I really liking your websites.

I would like to exchanging links with your website and improving our search results. I can link from my page here and you can link to my page there so links will be guaranteed 1 way and safe from penalisings.

Waiting for your favourable responses.

A woman (you’re more likely to respond to a female right!).

Needless to say, this email should be going straight to trash. It’s not going to do anything for your site’s SEO and is exactly the kind of link exchange that will get your site penalised!

However…

I play in a wedding band here in Scotland, so let’s say I received the following email  to my band’s site: –

Hi David,

It’s Joan here, the wedding photographer. Good to meet you at the Smith and Jones wedding last week, was a great party!

I’ve added a link to your band on my ‘recommended’ page as I am often asked by clients if I know any good wedding bands.  I noticed you had a similar page and was wondering if you would consider adding a link to my site?

No worries either way, but you’ve got to ask right 😉

Sure we’ll bump into each other again in the near future… and hopefully I can send some business your way!
Thanks,
Joan

Unless the woman was the worst photographer I had ever met in my life, the chances are I would be happy to link back to her site.

Brides and grooms visiting my site will probably need a photographer and vice versa, so the links are offering value and should result in traffic going both ways.

Will I be penalised for this clear example of link exchanging? I say not!

I say if a link is offering value and should bring traffic then it is a good link to have. One way or not!

But What About My Pagerank?

Old school thinking goes…

If someone links to me, pagerank will flow from their site to mine and my search results will improve.

If however, I link back to them, any pagerank increase is negated (the pagerank will flow straight back out) and my rankings will not improve.

This is so the wrong way to think about things that I even considered whether it was worthy of writing about, but just to clarify my thoughts…

Forget about pagerank!

Link out where appropriate and focus on your readers.

Pagerank is only one part of the SEO pie these days (and it’s probably a decreasing slice…), but assuming that it remains a factor, then if you create great content and focus on your users, then over time your site will naturally pick up one way links without you even thinking about it.

If something deserves a link and gives value to your readers, then link to it! If your site loses its rankings for this then you can come and find me and throw a big SEO pie right in my face. I’ll enjoy it.

Although first, I’ll probably point out that it was something completely different that caused you to lose your rankings…

Keep The Penguin At Bay!

Google penguin is all about combating spam and one of the biggest issues that will cause a website to be slapped by the Penguin is an unnatural looking link profile.

As I have demonstrated above, link exchanges occur naturally all the time, so if your link profile contains 1,000 links and every single one of them is one way, what do you think will happen?

In Summary

So, to summarise my thoughts on link exchanges: –

  • Link freely to related sites in your niche where you feel they will benefit your users
  • If you get a high profile link on a top site, brag about it!
  • Exchange links with relevant sites where you feel they will bring traffic (both ways)
  • Never exchange links with unrelated sites

Don’t take this as a green light to send out a thousand emails to sites in your niche asking to trade links, but if you think swapping links might benefit both your site’s readers then by all means drop a personal email.

Actually…

Just forget about link exchanges as a concept. Give, receive, share and if the link happens to be reciprocal then it really doesn’t matter a jot.

So, that’s my thoughts… am I right? What do you think? Feel free to shoot me down in flames if you disagree, although just to warn you, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to get me to change my mind!

Over to you!

About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Leave a Reply 13 comments

David of THGM - September 16, 2013 Reply

I agree. Not with the headline, but with everything you say that actually makes the headline redundant. It does not matter whether a link is 2-way, 3-way, 25-way or 3.14159-way. But these are not really link exchanges you are talking about for the most part (although the wedding photographer example is, and an excellent example at that!)

    David McSweeney - September 16, 2013 Reply

    Thanks david. Ok, hands up i tried to make the title a little click baity…

    You’re spot on on the message of the post though! People have become so wary about linking out, ratios etc and there’s absolutely no reason for it.

Cole Wiebe - September 17, 2013 Reply

The link bait got me… a couldn’t wait to read the heresy being proclaimed by my Scottish friend. 🙂

I would agree that links passing both ways aren’t the problem. It’s the way that it’s often handled that’s the issue. Link pages and blogrolls… not a chance. They reek of contrived linking and I have seen very bad things happen to PageRank and Google rankings as a result. But when you mention me in a blog post, with a deep link to one of my posts or pages, and a week later I link to something on your blog that I found interesting, that’s naturally occurring, and I have never seen any repercussions, particularly where the sites are related in content. If anything, I believe those links establish relevance and authority.

    David McSweeney - September 17, 2013 Reply

    Yeah, definitely always best to link contextually within content whenever possible. Blogrolls still seem to be popular in the fashion/beauty industry and on some pretty high ranking sites. Whenever i see them though i immediately think of the textlinads.com days of site wide PR5 blog roll links for £10 a month. Not that i would ever have bought them myself… but i heard they did wonders for your rankings back in 2005 😉

Why Link Exchanges Are Good For Your SEO | Quan... - September 18, 2013 Reply

[…] Think reciprocal linking will hurt your site's SEO? Well I'm here to tell you that not only is this wrong, the opposite is in fact true!  […]

Michael Fielding - September 18, 2013 Reply

Great post David! It seems as though reciprocal linking is a phrase which sounds alarm bells in any experienced SEO’s ears these days. But a phrase which I don’t think many fully understand, so tend to stray away from linking back, which is slightly frustrating as without links the internet would be useless!

So. I’m fairly confident that you won’t be receiving any SEO pie in your face anytime soon…which is a shame because it does sound rather tasty! 😛

    David McSweeney - September 18, 2013 Reply

    Thanks Michael, You’ve hit the nail on the head there. Thinking about it further, we (SEOs) are (correctly) waxing lyrical about the need to be social; share other people’s content through twitter, g+, facebook, build a community, be nice to people… but when it comes to links… for many the shutters come down!

Oscar - September 19, 2013 Reply

Loved the article, but the end was specially moving for me: forget about the darm “link exchange” concept, for God sake.

I think nowadays we (SEOs) are so caught up with “techniques” that we tend to forget what the real deal is: please the users.

Thanks man.

David Hood -- SEO Consultant - October 4, 2013 Reply

Link exchanges are okay as long as the link is relevant to the site. Sometimes, people are overthinking Google’s algorithm. Getting linked by some top sites is something to be proud of.

    David McSweeney - October 7, 2013 Reply

    Hi David, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree that people overthink things sometimes. As long as there is a reason for the link it should be ok.

Steve B - October 11, 2013 Reply

Completely agree with you David. Forget about every little thing that Google and all the fear mongerers are saying out there. Use the Internet as it was intended – to share ideas and link out. Do what is right for your readers, and you shall eventually be rewarded.

Luke Gibson - April 19, 2015 Reply

Out of curiosity, what about say working with a hotel website and say doing link exchanges with places that are local activities like golf courses, restaurants, night clubs etc?

They aren’t related directly as the same type of website, but they are relevant to the visitors, do you think Google is smart enough to know?

I’d imagine so, but I wanted to double check.

Kind Regards

    David McSweeney - May 25, 2015 Reply

    if it’s good for your visitors (and I would say that was), then go for it.

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