Where do link exchanges fit in your link building campaign?

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.

  1. Links from related or topical sites
  2. Links from trusted/authority sites
  3. Links that can be crawled
  4. Links that can send direct traffic
  5. Links with relevant anchor text
  6. Links to deep pages
  7. Links that are contextual
  8. Links that have aged
  9. 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: “Lots of reciprocals will get you a weird profile, some reciprocals won't hurt though.�
Hamlet Batista: “Few reciprocal links are fine, but is far better to focus on the one-way ones.�
Maurizio Petrone: “Reciprocal links are not "The Evil", but you should avoid them as your main link popularity strategy.�

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.

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25 Comments

Inbound links are key! To get to the op few pages of search engines, you need several thousand. Let's get to work!

I undertand the importance of one way links over reciprocal links but I believe link exchanges aren't that bad - or at least not considered bad by google unless if done in excess.

Can you point me to where Google has openly condemned them ??

One example of acceptable link exchanges would be as you already mentioned the trackback links.

Another one would be a case where you find an interesting article and you naturally discuss it and link to it. And then that Author finds something interesting on your blog and naturally links to it. That is a natural link exchange.

Should this be illegal or condemned ?

If it was then people SHOULD be careful not to link to people that might link back to them !! which is absurd !!

The main way I have found to be able to get one way inbound links is by writing an article and submitting it to the free article sites and then people copy it to their sites with my link included. Do you you think this devalues the link? I mean, you have no control over who is using it. They can demolish your article, and in most cases, you have no way of contacting them.
I also get one way inbounds from forums, comments on blogs, bookmarking, and all the usuals. The hard one is trying to ask for a reciprocal link on a like minded site. I have found some very dodgy people.
Therefore I have given up on this and will rely on the articles and natural linking to do the job! I just hope I am making the right choice as it seems that this issue will never be resolved until Google confirms their strategy to the public.

@Giorgos - I don't think link exchanges are automatically bad. I'm sorry if I gave that impressions. I think there are times where it makes sense to exchange links. Google will have a problem with too many of your incoming links being reciprocated, especially if the sites in question have no topical relevancy.

I don't if it's in their guidelines anywhere. I think it's been mentioned many times, though, Matt Cutts mentioned it in his post Indexing Timeline. The post itself isn't about reciprocal links, but if you read the section Reading Current Feedback the idea is certainly mentioned.

He and others have made similar statements since then.

I do agree with you, though that it's ok to trade links. You just can't do it too much with just anyone .

@Free Computer Help - Everything you're doing sounds like good ways to get links. I wouldn't call them very high quality links, though. But they're still all valid ways to get more links.

One potential issue with submitting to the article sites is that the article ends up on more than one site creating duplicate content. You're better to not use the exact same article on your site. You could rewrite the article for your site, but it's best not to use the exact same version.

You won't be penalized for duplicate content. Just understand that search engines only need to index and rank one version of it. The additional copies may not pass a lot of link juice in their links.

What you might try with articles submissions is offering to guest post or submitting the article to one site with more authority and related to your topic. That one good link will probably end up having more benefit than a bunch of links from the sites that download the article at an article directory.

All the people doing SEO sites seem to know what they are doing and work together...However in the free computer help area I seem to have hit a brick wall. They see me as competition, not a partner site.

I do have one page that has a rank of 5 that wants my articles, however they already have at least 20. Is it better to find another site or keep giving this site artilces?

I think you can find some other link partner not exactly "free computer help" but maybe "free software sites" for example or other ones that make sense to your industry.

I would keep giving my articles to this page and probably find other potential places to host my articles.

One more suggestion for your forum in particular. Make the adsense ads less apparent. I suspect it appalls people and you might be loosing link partners because of this.

Thank you both for your information.. And I agree with the ads on the forum...Thanks guys

Link exchanges are a time consuming process but it truly needs to be fit into the linkbuilding process. Often link exchange may seem like a waste of time but if exchanged with the appropriate sites, it is a cost worthy concept.

Good post!

Reciprocal links are OK! but I think the main point is that only a small part of your links should be under that category or else you mite fined out that reciprocal links are very bad for seo

I learned about oneway linking and a-b-c linking, when i did seo for a company which didn't allow linkpartners on its domain.
Now i've created several not to me in any way related (sub)domains to put the reciprocal links on.Looks to me a more valued way of gaining inbound links.

edwin - do you think google dose not know that a sub domain is a sub part of the head site???
but I gees it is better than links to the head site

Google used to treat subdomains as a separate domains, but recently they said they will be treating subdomains the same as they will a subfolder.

So:

sub.domain.com
domain.com/sub

will be seen as the same thing.

Steven Bradley - can you please bring a source for that
thanks

I like to find places to put my links that create permanent traffic, not just once off clicks. Reciprocal links are great if they send a regular flow of visitors to your site, however, other than that, where is the value? Anyone can swap links !!! In the future I think the one way links are going to be the only ones that count..

Link exchange is not bad for Google, if Google's criteria followed. Google's dislike irrelavent link from irrelavent sites, and ofter, issues penality.

Link exchange can still be useful but only if it is an exchabge with a valued partner and increases direct traffic,so do not just exchange on a worthless linkpage.

I mean that it is allright to exchange links with a high traffic partner who puts links on a frequent visited page.

More than 5 10 outgoing links already finishes the value of the site.. so even if you are planning to exchange links find at most 5 links outgoing pages...

getting links from sites with keywords I believe is the key

Nice post! The ideas and insights are very worth reading. You really gave me valuable information. Thanks for sharing it!

Nobody really knows...that's the bottom line.

If anyone is interested in conducting a REAL survey with quantified results I'll set up the system for comparison and analyse the results in a few months.

If interested please email me.

Cheers!

AGREED. Links aren't always about search engines. if a PR zero page that got thousands of human views per day felt like linking to me, id be inclined to link back.

I have just started the work of link building, so I have thoroughly went through your post and found it to be an informative one. I will suggest all the novice link builders to read this article. This is because, it will surely going to help them out in their work.