Giorgos' recent post on link exchanges using LinkEx generated a few questions about the value of link exchanges. I thought it might be interesting to revisit some signs of quality links and then discuss where link exchanges might make sense when acquiring links.
Let me first say link exchanges are far from my preferred source of links. Google has made it pretty clear they don't care for these kind of changes and while that doesn't mean all link exchanges are bad, mass reciprocal linking is generally frowned upon as a useful seo tactic. I've never engaged in link exchange networks and have no plans on doing so in the near future. Still there can be times when it makes sense to reciprocate a link and there can be times when a direct trade of links is perfectly natural. Think trackbacks for an example of a natural reciprocal link.
Quality Link Signals
The following list is far from exhaustive and in no particular order, but here are a few signs to help you recognize a quality link.
- Links from related or topical sites
- Links from trusted/authority sites
- Links that can be crawled
- Links that can send direct traffic
- Links with relevant anchor text
- Links to deep pages
- Links that are contextual
- Links that have aged
- One way inbound links
If you look at the list above you'll notice that most of the items on it can apply to reciprocal links. There's no reason why you can't trade links with an authority or related site. You can certainly set your own anchor text and have the links point to deep pages. Some of the reasons for the popularity of link exchanges a few years back likely had to do with how much control you could exert over the links back to you.
Of course there is that last item on the list. Reciprocal links are clearly not one way and three way links are only one step removed from being reciprocal and probably not that much harder to detect.
Questions about the value of link exchanges seem to come down to a few major points. How much weight is given to one way links as a ranking factor and how hard or easy is it for a search engine to detect the exchange? And once detected what will happen to a site with too many reciprocal links?
Is There Value in Link Exchanges?
Maybe, maybe not. Let's first consider the question of how hard or easy it is to detect link exchanges. It should be relatively simple to detect direct reciprocal linking. Compare the incoming and outgoing links for any page and if there's a match, bingo, we have a reciprocal link. Step up to three-way links and it becomes harder, but far from impossible to detect. Compare those same incoming and outgoing links and then also look at the pages on the other side of those links.
Add another level of exchange to four way and it becomes harder to detect. The further you get away from a direct one-to-one exchange the harder it should be for a search engine to detect, however once one site in the linking network is detected the rest of the sites in the network can often fall like a house of cards. And regardless of how difficult it might be to detect today I think it's a safe bet that search engines will be looking for ways to better detect and discount any form of link manipulation. If your goal is to manipulate search ranking with your linking practice don't blame the search engines later when your linking practices fail.
On the other hand there's no such thing as a worthless link. Just about all links have some value, though how much can depend on some of your other link building tactics.
Also keep in mind that not all search engines are the same. Google has been clear they don't like artificial link trades and they've been able to detect and discount many of those links. The situation isn't necessarily the same for the other engines. What matters to Google may not matter to MSN.
Wiep recently gathered some seo and link building professionals and asked their opinion on a number of link value factors. Reciprocity was one of the specific factors discussed. The general consensus mentions reciprocity as having some influence over the value of a link, but here are a few quotes I pulled.
Joost de Valk: â€œLots of reciprocals will get you a weird profile, some reciprocals won't hurt though.â€?
Hamlet Batista: â€œFew reciprocal links are fine, but is far better to focus on the one-way ones.â€?
Maurizio Petrone: â€œReciprocal links are not "The Evil", but you should avoid them as your main link popularity strategy.â€?
There are more thoughts on the link value factors article, but consider the theme of the three quotes above. If too many of your links are seen as being part of an exchange then they probably aren't going to do you any good. However, if you have a strong and balanced link profile with lots of non-reciprocal links you can probably see some benefit from adding a few exchanged links into the mix.
When Might You Consider Link Exchanges?
Ultimately that's up to you. There are certainly pros and cons to exchanging links. The cons will far exceed the pros if you're talking about mass reciprocal linking with anyone, but you can still find an exchange of links that provides a lot more pros than cons.
If CNN were to email me asking me to link to their home page in exchange for them linking back to mine. I'd be replying with a yes before I finished reading the email. I could care less how a search engine would see the link since the link itself would have the potential to drive a lot of direct traffic.
Search engines are also aware that some link exchanges occur naturally. I might add your blog to my blogroll and you might add mine to yours. In that case we're going to end up with a lot of reciprocal links between our two blogs. I think search engines are smart enough to realize neither site should be penalized, though I also think they're smart enough to realize they shouldn't be giving huge gains to either site based on those links.
The cleaner your linking is in the eyes of a search engine the more you can get away with adding a links the engines might not think are so squeaky clean. Every site is going to end up with some junk links. That is natural. As long as it's not overdone chances are you won't lose anything by exchanging links, though your gains might not be much either.
If you can still get in enough quality signals on the links odds are the link exchange won't hurt.
There's one obvious time when you can exchange links to your heart's content. When you don't care about search engines. We sometimes get locked into the train of thought that all traffic must somehow originate through a search engine results page. Hardly. Search traffic is one form of traffic. A good source, yes, but only one source nonetheless. Links aren't always about search engines.
Exchange enough links with enough sites and while your site may get put on the permanent search engine spam pile you might still end up with a lot of entry points into your site resulting in traffic. If you've chosen link partners well the traffic might even be pretty good.
Back to the question of whether or not you should use a service like LinkEx. Once again I'll avoid the answer a little and leave it up to you. Will I use their service? Probably not. I think the risks will outweigh the reward for my particular circumstances. Should you use them? Depends on your circumstances. Instead of thinking about it in terms of black and white or good and bad, understand the potential benefits and understand the potential risks and decide if it makes sense for you and your sites. Most of the time the risks will probably not be worth taking, but sometimes they might.
LinkEx isn't going to be a magic bullet to seo success. I'd guess for most sites it can do more harm than good, but that doesn't mean it will do harm to all sites or site owners. Understand the risks, understand the rewards and decide if it makes sense for you. LinkEx doesn't make sense for me, but you're not me and I'm not you.
Bio: Steven Bradley is a Web Designer/Developer and SEO. He writes about topics related to marketing and search engine optimization at TheVanBlog and can be found in many places online under the username vangogh.