Link Exchange in 2023: A Guide to Staying on Google’s Good Side

link exchange

At this point in your SEO journey, you’ve probably realized that link building is an important part of the puzzle. And, you may have also heard about link exchanges. SEOs have debated long and hard about this topic, and there’s still no definitive consensus. So, what’s the deal with link exchanges? Are they a helpful way to build backlinks (a major factor in search engine rankings), or do they do more harm than good?

In this blog post, we’ll explore everything you need to know about exchanging links. By the end of this post, you’ll have a solid understanding of how link exchanges work, if you should be participating in them, and what the risks are.

What is link exchanging?

Link exchanging is a process where two website owners agree to link to each other’s sites. Backlinks, or links from other websites to yours, are a key ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. Essentially, the more backlinks a website has, the more authoritative it seems to Google. So, link exchanging could be seen as a way to “game” the system and get more backlinks, and therefore, a better SEO ranking.

Here’s an example: let’s say you own a website about pet supplies. You contact another pet-related website and propose a link exchange. If they agree, you link to their website from one of your web pages and they link to yours from their site. In theory, this should help both websites rank higher in search engine results pages since you’re both getting more backlinks. However, link exchanging isn’t as simple as it seems.

The dark side of link exchanges

Link exchanges were once a popular way to build links because they were relatively easy to do and didn’t require much effort. However, this SEO tactic fell from grace when Google updated its algorithm to crack down on link schemes. In 2012, Google released an update called the Penguin update, which targeted link building tactics that fell under the umbrella of “link schemes.” The goal of the update was to devalue links that were perceived as being unnatural or artificial.

Google’s algorithm has only gotten more sophisticated since then, and exchanging links is now strongly discouraged. In fact, exchanging links with other websites can actually do more harm than good to your SEO efforts.

Still, many in the SEO community love link exchanges because they’re an easy way to get high-quality backlinks. A lot of the top players in SEO participate in these exchanges, so we can’t tell you definitively whether or not you should get in the game.

But, we can teach you everything you need to know so that you can make an informed decision about whether link exchanging is right for your website. We’ll also provide information on the newest, most sophisticated link exchange strategies so that if you decide to partake in one, you and Google can stay pals.

How does Google know if I’m participating in link exchanges?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t. At least, not with 100% certainty. Link exchanges aren’t written into your website’s code for all the world to see. So, if you’re link exchanging with someone, there’s a chance search engines will never find out.

That said, link exchangers often leave telltale signs that give themselves away. For example, link exchanges often happen in clusters. So, if you have a lot of links coming from the same few websites, that’s a major red flag for Google. Additionally, a link exchange often happens between websites that aren’t relevant to each other. So, if you have a link from a website about pet supplies on your own website about personal finance, that might set off some alarms.

search engine that penalizes link exchanges

Google is getting better and better at detecting link exchanges, so even if you’re being sly about it, there’s a chance they’ll catch on eventually. If they do, you could get hit with a manual action from Google, which is basically when Google decides to penalize your website because it’s not in compliance with the webmaster quality guidelines.

A manual action from Google can be devastating to your website’s SEO ranking. In fact, it can cause your website to disappear from search engine results entirely. So, it’s not worth the risk to exchange links with just anyone.

3 link exchange methods you should leave to the amateurs

Now that we’ve talked about the dangers of link exchange, let’s discuss some specific link exchange methods you should avoid.

1. Reciprocal link exchanges

A reciprocal link exchange is when two website owners agree to link to each other’s websites. We also call this a 1:1 link exchange, and we don’t recommend actively pursuing reciprocal links as the cornerstone of your link building strategy.

Reciprocal link exchanges can be beneficial in small doses because they help you build relationships with other website owners in your industry. What’s more, reciprocal links are a naturally occurring phenomenon of the world wide web. Ahrefs CMO Tim Soulo estimates that 73.6% of websites with substantial traffic have reciprocal links. With this in mind, linking back to websites that have linked to you doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

However, link exchanges can quickly become a problem when they’re done excessively. If you’re only link building with reciprocal link exchanges, it’s going to look unnatural to Google. We advise that, in general, you approach link building as organically as possible. So, if a website has linked back to your site and you like the content they’re producing, link back to them! But leave the “I’ll link to you if you link to me” emails in the past, please.

2. Free backlinking

If you’re a website owner, it’s possible you’ve gotten an inquiry from another business owner asking you to backlink to their website, usually claiming they have a “great addition to your site.”

We only recommend outbound links to websites that are 1) high-quality and 2) relevant to your website. So, if you get an email from someone asking you to link to their website and it doesn’t meet those criteria, just hit delete. In the SEO community (for the most part), other marketers are not going to expect you to hand out backlinks for free.

That’s not to say that link building should usually be about transactional links. You shouldn’t link to a website just because they link back to you. Instead, link to websites because you’re genuinely interested in the content they create and think your readers will enjoy it too.

3. Excessive link exchanges of any kind

As we’ve mentioned, link exchanges aren’t inherently bad. In fact, link exchanges are a natural part of the internet. However, when link exchanges are done excessively, they can be harmful to your website’s SEO ranking.

What’s considered excessive? If link exchanges make up the majority of your link building strategy, you’re probably doing too many. Google wants to see that you’re link building organically, not just link building for the sake of link building.

Three-way link exchanges: a better way to build authority?

The three-way link exchange is a link building method that’s a bit more sophisticated (and, in our opinion, less spammy) than reciprocal link exchanges and free backlinking.

A three-way link exchange is when three websites agree to link to each other in a sort of content markets’ round robin. For example, website A links to website B, and website B then brings in a third party, website C, to link back to website A. Normally, this is because website B is writing guest posts for both website A and website C, so it can embed its chosen links into both articles.

This link exchange method is more effective than reciprocal link exchanges because it’s less likely to be caught by Google’s link building algorithms. This indirect link strategy looks more organic than two websites linking back and forth to each other.

What’s more, three-way link exchanges help you build relationships with more website owners in your industry. These link partnerships can come in handy down the road when you need link building help from other website owners.

Still, we advise that you use three-way link exchanges in moderation. As with anything link-related, Google can (and will) penalize your website if you’re link building excessively.

The thing about private influencer networks

Thumbtacks and strings depicting a private influencer network (link exchange)

This concept is admittedly not the easiest to grasp. It’s a bit like three-way link exchanges, but with more people (or, in this case, websites) involved.

Here’s how it works: a group of influencers with their own website, private blogs, and guest posts that they’ve written for other sites link back and forth to each other’s content. This link-sharing creates a “web” of link connections between all the influencers in the group. It’s essentially about using everything in your arsenal (your website, your private blog(s), and your guest posts) to provide link juice to the members of your network.

The result is that all the websites in the group get a mini link boost because they’re receiving links from high-authority websites. This linking strategy is beneficial because it’s more difficult for Google to catch and penalize. The links appear natural since they’re coming from different websites, and not just being exchanged back and forth between two sites.

This is similar to the three-way link exchange tactic from the previous section, but different in that these influencers are continuously bolstering each other’s content with links, rather than just link-sharing once and then forgetting about it. Now, linking to your fellow PIN members or partner pages exclusively would eventually get repetitive and wouldn’t be providing much value to your readers. Just make sure you’re not overdoing it.

Seriously, this tactic is nothing to scoff at. Viperchill has discovered that some really big and successful brands use private influencer networks to link back to their website and improve their link profile.

These 6 tips will help you pull off a link exchange (hypothetically)

Now that we’ve looked at link exchanges from every angle, it’s time to give some advice on how one might pull one off without getting penalized by Google. Of course, remember that Google’s guidelines are steadfast when it comes to their stance on link schemes, so you should keep that in mind if you want to move forward with link exchanging.

1. Keep archaic link building tactics to a minimum

If you link to too many websites, or if you’re constantly link-exchanging with the same partner, Google might catch on. You might get penalized for your link building attempts, which could seriously hurt your traffic and search ranking. A here-and-there approach to reciprocal links, for example, won’t likely get you in trouble with Google. Just try not to link excessively.

2. Quality over quantity

When link building, it’s better to link to one high-quality website than to link to several low-quality websites. A link from a high-authority website will carry more weight and help improve your SEO ranking more than a link from a low-authority website.

3. Make sure link exchanges are relevant

When link building, it’s important that the links you’re receiving are relevant to your website. If you have a website about cats, for example, and you link to a website about dogs, Google will likely see this as an irrelevant link and penalize you for it.

4. Understand the difference between do-follow and no-follow links

Do-follow links are the most valuable because they pass link juice and help improve your website’s ranking. No-follow links, on the other hand, don’t have any link juice and won’t help your website’s ranking. If you’re link building for SEO purposes, you want to focus on getting do-follow links.

To tell if a backlink is a no-follow or do-follow link, right-click on it and select “Inspect.” Then, in the HTML code, look for something that says “rel=nofollow”. If you see that code, the link is a no-follow link. Otherwise, it is a do-follow link.

5. Disavow excessive low-quality links to your site

If you have too many low-quality links pointing to your website, Google might penalize you for it. In this case, you can use the Google Disavow Tool to disavow the links and tell Google that you don’t want them to be counted.

6. Check your backlink profile regularly

Make sure what you’re doing is having a positive effect on your site’s authority. You can check your backlink profile using a keyword research tool like Ahrefs. If you see that your link profile is healthy and growing, then you’re on the right track.

Don’t forget about white hat link building strategies

abstract image with "link" symbol (link exchange)

Just because link exchanges have been getting a bad rap lately doesn’t mean that all link building strategies are bad. There are plenty of white hat SEO tactics or strategies for link building that are considered acceptable by Google’s guidelines, that you can use to improve your website’s ranking.

Here are a few white hat link building strategies to try:

1. Produce original content

It’s very important to add value to SERPs with each piece of content you create. It’s not enough just to provide correct information that can be found on ten other blogs. That won’t help you build links and it certainly won’t help you rank. You need to produce fresh content that can’t be found anywhere else. This type of content is more likely to get link-backs and social shares.

2. Participate in online communities

Participating in online communities is a great way to build relationships with other people in your niche. These relationships can lead to link-backs and high-quality links.

3. Offer resources, tools, templates, etc.

Another great way to get high-quality links is to offer resources, such as infographics, eBooks, and templates. Most bloggers, just objectively speaking, don’t want to do the work to create new resources for every blog they write. If you’re going the extra mile to build a treasure trove of these resources, you’re already doing better than most bloggers in your niche. These types of resources are extremely link-worthy and can help you attract attention from other bloggers and website owners.

Remember: high-quality content is an SEO’s most valuable tool

Link building has changed a lot over the years, but one thing remains the same: content is still king. If you’re creating high-quality content that other people want to link to, then you’re on the right track. Link exchanges can be part of an effective link building strategy, but make sure you’re not link spamming and only link to high-quality websites. If you do that, you’ll be in good shape.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is link exchange good for SEO?

Despite what some people might say, link exchange can actually be good for SEO if it’s done correctly. Link exchanges can help you build relationships with other bloggers and website owners, get high-quality links, and improve your website’s ranking. But, it’s important to remember that link exchange should only be a small part of your link building strategy. You should focus on producing high-quality content and participating in online communities.

How do you increase the link popularity of a specific blog post?

You can promote the blog post on social media, link to it from other blog posts, and reach out to influencers in your niche and ask them to share the blog post. You can also revisit the content to see why it’s failing in the backlink department in the first place. It’s likely that you’re missing something where the user’s search intent is concerned. You might need to audit your content to make sure that it’s aligned with your target audience’s needs.

What’s the fastest way to get a manual action from Google?

Bad strategies in your link building efforts are the quickest way to get a manual action from Google. This includes link buying, link farms, link spamming, and link schemes. These activities will not only get you penalized by Google, but they can also get your website blacklisted.

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About Kouressa Smith

Kouressa is DOS’s resident Website Content Manager. In this position, she directs the content creation for DOS’s website development projects. She develops SEO strategies, maps out the overall direction of content per website, and helps facilitate the creation of that content. Kouressa has over seven years of experience writing professionally and an educational background in creative writing and technical communication at Texas Tech University.

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