What is Link Exchange in SEO, and When to Avoid it?

The December 2022 link spam update which started in December 2022 and ended on 12 January 2023 was introduced by Google to fight link spam and encourage linking best practice. Here’s what it means for SEO, how it could negatively impact your site if you’ve been involved in spammy linking processes, and what to do about it if you’ve been affected.

Link exchange

What is a link spam update?

With Google keen to reward high quality content, it considers the amount of links coming into a website in an attempt to understand what content users will find useful. But those links needs to be well-deserved and legitimate, otherwise Google will penalise the website with dropped rankings.

A link spam update seeks to disregard links that Google considers ‘spammy’ and against its best practice guidelines. The actual wording used by the search engine was ‘neutralise’ in terms of what it will do when it detects spammy links. So, rather than penalise websites for making use of non-best practice links, it will simply just ignore them. This is the way things have worked since the Google Penguin update of 2016.

Link building strategies that go against the guidelines include low quality guest posts, buying or selling links, automated back linking programs, large scale article marketing or guest posting with keyword-rich anchor text links, and excessive link exchanges that refer back to your website exclusively for the purpose of cross-linking. These are all considered ‘link spam’.

Google is quite clear on the fact that link exchange, when done excessively, will be considered as manipulating PageRank, which will risk a penalty. And that could be devastating for your online visibility, resulting in lost opportunities and a drop in traffic.

This most recent link spam update used SpamBrain, which uses machine learning to better detect spam in search. Google says that SpamBrain doesn’t just ‘detect spam directly’, but can ‘now detect both sites buying links, and sites used for the purpose of passing outgoing links’.

What is link exchange in SEO?

Link exchanges, otherwise known as reciprocal backlinks or backlink swapping, involves just that. It basically means swapping a link from one website to another.

The purpose of the link exchange is to improve your standing with Google, based on the premise that receiving a quality backlink will give you a ‘trust’ signal that could set you above the competition.

Most SEO agencies will strongly advise against any form of excessive link exchange as part of your SEO campaign. Of course, Google will understand that it is natural for websites to link to each other in certain circumstances.

There are all sorts of scenarios where link exchanges are normal. You may be supporting a charity for example, and want to link their website, and they may wish to link back to you by way of a thank you on their sponsors page. In some situations, exchanging links is good for business relations.

Reciprocal linking is common across the web. 43.7 per cent of top ranking pages contain some reciprocal links. Around four or five out of every top 10 organic Google ranked website has some too. This would suggest that link exchanges are a natural by-product of the web.

The issue arises when reciprocal links become excessive, and when the links bear no relevance.

This is why it is important to employ common sense when considering any link exchange. Keep your mind on relevancy. If the website you’re exchanging links with has content, products or other features that your own visitors may genuinely find useful, then the link exchange could be considered legitimate.

link exchange

When is link exchange NOT a good idea?

But there are times when for Google, link exchange just won’t wash. Here are some situations where reciprocal backlinks are definitely a no-go:

  • When the website you are linking to is not related to yours. Your site is about travel, and theirs is about plumbing. It’s just not relevant.
  • When the website that wants to link to yours is poor quality. It’s badly written, has a terrible layout, looks shoddy, and contains nothing of value to visitors whatsoever. In fact, it’s probably been set up solely for the purpose of link exchange.
  • When the other website is packed to the rafters with outbound links. This will be because the site has exchanged links with numerous others. It’s a commodity site, and Google won’t like it.
  • When the site offering a link exchange is new. It’s been around five minutes, has no PageRank, no authority, no nothing. It’s worthless to you.
  • When the site gives out ‘nofollow’ links. These are links that do not count in the eyes of Google. They do not boost PageRank, and they will never help your website climb the search engine results pages.
  • When you’ve received a link exchange email that’s impersonal and spammy, usually starting, “Dear Webmaster”.

These are just some of the reasons why you should give an exchange of link a wide berth. But there are some situations where you might want to consider it.

When might you consider an exchange of link?

You’ll need to proceed with caution here, but there could be times when a link exchange might well work for you:

  • When the other website could potentially drive a lot of traffic to yours
  • When the reciprocating site is brimming with useful information that is directly related to your niche
  • Where you are linking back to a site that is not in competition with your own
  • Where the other website is of high quality and has good authority and PageRank
  • When the other site appears in the search results for the same or similar keywords are you are looking to rank for

As long as you are NOT seeking out reciprocal links for the sole purpose of attracting more traffic or building your backlink profile then you should stay on the right lines.

How can backlinks negatively impact SEO?

As we said, Google has not outwardly stated that it will penalise websites for back linking practices that are not within with its guidelines.

However, there could still be negative implications, such as…

Reduced site authority and rankings

Linking out to external sites that bear no relevance to your content could cause your website to experience a downturn in Domain Authority or positions within the search engine results pages (SERPs).

So, always make sure the content you are linking to is relevant, and that the Domain Authority of the site is good. Scores between 40 and 50 are considered average, and between 50 and 60 are rated as good. Anything above 60 is excellent.

Sometimes you might find a great resource that’s totally relevant and you’d love to link to it, but the site has low Domain Authority. That’s perfectly fine – just don’t overdo it –because excessively linking to low authority sites will not do your own authority any good at all.

Domain Authority is important because it shows Google how important the site is for a specific targeted subject area and how relevant it is for user queries.

Handing over advantage to your competitors

When you link out to sites that have the same target keywords and phrases as your own site, you’re going to be a lot less likely to get your link reciprocated. In fact, all you’re really doing is helping your competitors boost their own SEO. And that’s not good.

Always stick to link exchanges between sites that are based on similar subjects, and avoid sites that are in direct competition with your own.

Losing the trust of the search engines (and your audiences too)

If you lose the trust of search engines, you could risk losing search positions and, as a result, traffic. Losing trust with the search engines could lead to a manual penalty, as well as impacting negatively on your brand.

Sites that have  too many links that lead to unrelated suspicious websites could result in a loss of trust with search engines, and with audiences too.

What’s the alternative to link exchange?

Whilst link exchanges can work in some situations, the fact remains that one-way links are way more valuable. An exchanged link delivers a lot less ‘link juice’ than a one-way link. Link juice is the power a backlink passes onto another website. The more link juice, the stronger the effects on the SEO campaign.

Linking is a vital element of SEO. But the best strategy, hands-down, has to be spending time creating a user-friendly website, with exceptional, highly valuable content that people will naturally want to link to and share.

This is absolutely where you should be investing your time, in an ethical, best practice strategy, rather than trying to exchange links. Because whilst link exchanges are against Google’s best practice guidelines, reciprocal links are not if they are done naturally.

What if you’ve already participated in a link exchange program?

If your website has been involved in an excessive link exchange program, perhaps dating back to those dubious black hat times in the world of SEO, or because you were inadvertently subject to an unethical SEO campaign, you’ll need to take steps to remove the offending links.

If you are linking out to websites that are not relevant to yours, are poor quality or that give out nofollow links, then you should just go right ahead and remove the links. They’re just not worth having on your site.

When it comes to getting rid of questionable inbound links, we’ve provided some advice in our post on what to do about spammy links, but you’ll need to prepare yourself for what might be a time consuming process. It’s worth it though, because following the recent 2022-2023 Google link spam update, your site could suffer dropped rankings otherwise.

link exchange

Best practice link building, from an SEO agency trusted by local businesses London and Surrey wide

Looking to build good quality links into your website as part of a wider SEO campaign? At Figment, our expert team has been achieving exceptional results for local businesses for several years courtesy of fully managed SEO campaigns.

All our strategies follow Google’s best practice guidelines, including our link building tactics. We also focus on creating quality, highly shareable content and improving the user-friendliness and authority of websites for SEO.

To learn how we could help YOUR business achieve the online visibility it needs to increase sales, you are welcome to get in touch.

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