what are link exchanges and do they work in 2020?

What is a Link Exchange?

A link exchange is simply when two sites agree to link to each other. This is also referred to sometimes as reciprocal linking.

The biggest difference in those two terms is that reciprocal linking refers to an exchange between two websites, whereas a link exchange can involve multiple websites.

Like many other tactics, link swaps have one main goal – increase trust and authority to attract more organic traffic. This is based upon the original statement from Google indicating that links are essentially seen as a “vote of confidence”, when editorially placed.

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As such, spammy tactics (such as setting up web 2.0 sites) have been killed off over the years because they are not editorially vouched for, they are simply created by the person promoting a page, much like a press release.

Editorial link placements are those that are added and “vouched” for by the site adding them, which is what Google wants to see.

We will get more into that shortly, but for now, let’s look at why this is one of the more debated SEO linking strategies.

 

Are Link Exchanges Safe?

In Google’s link schemes answer page, they state the following:

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

Followed by this point specific to link exchanges:

“Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking”

On the same page, they also talk about guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor texts links, buying links, and a number of other things that could get you into trouble.

Now, if you have been around the SEO space for long, you already know that what Google says and what they do are not always aligned. You also know that sometimes you have to read between the lines to really understand what they are getting at.

When it comes to link exchanges, just like guest posting or any other type of link building, there are going to be risks.

If you look at the history of link building, you may recall that pre 2012, the best way to rank for keywords was to use them in your anchor text often. Post Penguin, the opposite is true.

The key to using link exchanges is very similar to using guest posting effectively – focus on quality and relevancy. While this will not remove all risk, it will greatly reduce it.

Taking the time to research potential link swap partners, and looking at the “big picture” will help you make link exchanges safer, even though no link building is 100% safe, outside of posting great content and hoping for links.

 

What to Look At When Considering a Link Exchange

Link building is a major part of SEO, but organic rankings are not the only benefit.

If you get mentioned on popular, trusted websites, they can help you build brand recognition, trust, and are often a great source of referral traffic.

 

Link Exchanges for Referral Traffic & Brand Building

Looking at the big picture, which is to grow your business, the right link exchange could be golden, even if not for SEO sake.

A no follow link from an exchange, sponsored post, or a guest post on the right website can generate a great return on your time or investment. So, start by looking at how a link from the site you are considering an exchange with can benefit you.

Here is a practical example:

Let’s say that you own a dog grooming business in Nashville, TN and you are approached by a veterinarian in Nashville about swapping links on your resource pages.

You both are in the same location, you both will have a similar audience, so the likelihood of someone finding and contacting you from the link (for both of you) is realistic.

Think of this as the online version of leaving your flyer in the lobby of the vet and displaying their flyer in your lobby in return.

This is a good example of a link exchange with benefits beyond SEO.

 

SEO Link Exchanges

Some websites are just not likely to send referral traffic, even if they are popular and relevant to your business.

Even major websites like Forbes or Business Insider can contain links that just don’t send much traffic. This could be because the article itself hasn’t gained much traction or it could have to do with how many other resources are linked in the same post.

This can also be the case for local sites as well. Using our above example of the vet and dog groomer, let’s pretend that no referrals were generated in either direction. Does that mean the reciprocal link was a waste?

Nope!

When it comes to link building, especially local SEO link building, that link is a home run. It is Geo-relevant and niche relevant. Repeat that process and you will be attracting more local search traffic in no time.

What if you are not a local site? Well, then it depends.

Here are some examples:

If you are a national site that has city landing pages, like an apartment rental search tool with a pet friendly filter, then that link is still good, because of the geo-relevancy.

If on the other hand, you do not have a localized landing page, the value of that link is going to come down to topical relevance and authority.

Topical relevance is simply the topic of a website and how well that topic relates to your own. We cover this more in The A.R.T. of Link Building if you are not familiar with the topic.

When Considering sites for a swap, this should be one of your first questions – is it relevant to what I am doing? If it isn’t, don’t do it. This looks unnatural and it isn’t going to be all that helpful for either one of you.

The second part of the process is looking at authority. By authority I am not referring to Domain Authority, specifically, although it is a popular metric. You may use metrics from Majestic, Semrush, or Ahrefs instead.

The purpose of this check is to make sure that you are getting a fair or favorable exchange.

 

For Example:

If your site has a Domain Rating (Ahrefs metric) of 70 and an organic traffic estimate of 25K (also Ahrefs) you would want to make sure the site you are exchanging links with has similar or better metrics.

Once you have established that it is relevant and of similar authority, you should look at the page they are offering a link on, and the site as whole.

You should be asking questions like:

  • How many outbound links does their page have?
  • Where will your link be located? (main text, footer, sidebar, resource page?)
  • Are the other outbound links also to relevant sites?
  • How is the general appearance and content quality?
  • Do they have a large banner advertising link exchanges?

 

Not all links are created equal, nor are all link placement locations. Sidebar and footer links for example are less valuable (and riskier in many cases) than natural links in the main content of a page.

When it comes to the other quality checks, look at how it compares to your site in terms of design and content quality. Avoid sites with poorly written content and especially sites broadcasting that they offer link exchanges (or sell do follow links), as this is pretty easy for Google to identify.

If you take the proper precautions, you can find some really beneficial link exchange opportunities, be it for referral traffic or SEO value.

Here is one method that works pretty well, if you decide to include link exchanges as part of your overall strategy.

 

3-Way Link Exchanges

There is plenty of debate as to whether or not reciprocal links are harmful or have less value than links obtained through other channels.

A study by Ahrefs found that 73.6% of a group of 140,592 domains had reciprocal links. In order to get the full picture, you need to read the study, because they do bring up some good points about why that data may not tell the full picture.

That being said, if you opt for a 3-way instead of a reciprocal link, you can steer clear of that debate, although 3-way link exchanges are often the topic of debate as well.

As the name implies a 3-way link exchange is simply when:

Website “A” links to website “B”

Website “B” gets a link to website “A” from website “C”

When this is done between relevant websites with similar authority it can be very beneficial and it is more difficult for Google to identify as anything other than a naturally occurring editorial placement. This is one of the safest and most effective ways to use link exchanges as part of your link building strategy in 2020.

So, are link exchanges risky?

As with any link building tactics, they come with some risk.

How carefully you screen and execute potential link swaps will greatly impact the amount of risk. If you choose poor quality sites and swap links in high volumes, it is probably not going to work out well for you.

However, if you use the tips above, avoid excessive link exchanges, picking only good opportunities, you can likely benefit from this approach now and in the foreseeable future.

If you are not comfortable with exchanging links, there are plenty of other link building tactics that work very well, rather you hire a link building agency or decide to handle it yourself.