A link exchange is where two sites agree to swap content-based links (i.e., I’ll link to you in my article A if you link to me in your article B). It’s common, and it’s definitely one of the most hotly debated topics in link building.
The reason webmasters and bloggers seek out link exchanges as part of their link building strategy is to try and improve their link profile and move up the SERP, pure and simple. If you are able to secure a quality backlink from an authoritative site, that’s a trust signal that Google will look upon favorably.
How Does Google Feel About Your Link Exchange?
As with most of Google’s declarations and pronouncements, there is always a bit of deliberate vagueness. In 2021, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, was asked “up to what extent is it permissible to exchange the links or not considered as spam?...what’s the best practices when it comes to… exchanging… backlinks?” His answer was as follows:
So… a link exchange where both sides are kind of like you link to me and therefore I will link back to you, kind of thing, that is essentially against our webmaster guidelines. So that’s something where our algorithms would look at that and try to understand what is happening here and try to ignore those links. And if the web spam team were to look at it they would also say this is not okay. And if this is the majority of the links to your website like this then they might apply manual action. So that’s something I would avoid.
Look at the language and try to read between the lines. “Essentially against.” “Try to ignore.” “If the web spam team were to look.” “Might apply manual action.” Something to “avoid.” Not exactly a flat-out condemnation of link exchange tactics, but clearly Google has a strong preference for links built “organically,” which is to say, ones you get for having great content that other sites find helpful and want to link to of their own accord.
Google says it doesn’t like “excessive link exchanges.” What you can probably take from that is that as long as you don’t do it too often and build a lot of organic links as well, Google likely won’t penalize you.
Ok, But Can/Should You Still Do It?
A lot of SEOs who are not link specialists believe that the answer is an unequivocal “no.” They would advise you to utilize other link building tactics that Google explicitly webmasters to engage in. If you talk to an experienced link building service, however–people who understand the niche better and are more in tune with how specific kinds of links affect metrics, traffic and SERP ranking, the answer is more nuanced.
The reality of the situation is that you can build very credible, valuable backlinks in a link exchange, but you need to go about it carefully. Building a solid backlink profile is time and money-consuming and Google, more likely than not, acknowledges this and makes space for certain kinds and amounts of link exchanges, so long as they aren’t spammy.
Link Building Makes Sense in a Lot of Situations
There are plenty of circumstances in which exchanging links makes perfect sense and Google’s use of the word “excessive” in its official policy documents would indicate that it recognizes this. If you were hosting a webinar with a bunch of speakers representing different companies, it would be entirely reasonable for you to link to their sites and, in turn, for them to link back to yours. If you knew someone in the same niche as you, again, a link exchange is going to be pretty normal.
Don’t take this as a wholesale endorsement of link exchanges. While it’s unlikely that Google will penalize you for it if you do it judiciously, you definitely don’t want manual action taken against your site.
What Does the Data Show?
It’s one thing to make an educated guess as to Google’s intentions and opinions and another to look at how their link exchange policy is actually applied in practice.
The bottom line is that unless you are conducting your link exchanges in public (e.g., discussing the terms of your exchanges with counterparts on public message boards and the like) or spamming hundreds of websites looking for link exchange opportunities, it’s almost impossible for Google to know whether a link exchange is “natural” or “artificial.”
Reciprocating Links Happens All the Time
Back in 2020, Ahrefs actually did a study on reciprocal links using quite a large randomized sample–140,000 domains each with over 10,000 monthly traffic. These traffic numbers indicate that the site is performing quite well and that Google likes it.
Of those sites:
- 74% hosted reciprocal links
- 27% had at least 15% of their inbound links coming from link exchanges
- Even Ahrefs found that 19% of the domains they themselves link to link back to them as well
Important (potentially) confounding variable: if Google was penalizing sites for using link exchange tactics, they would not have met the 10K traffic criteria and, therefore, would not have made it into the study. Something to ponder.
When is it Prudent to Consider Exchanging Links?
The criteria you should use to evaluate a link exchange are similar to the criteria you should use when deciding on a guest post or a HARO link and can be summarized in a question: will a link from a particular site hurt or help your trust and authority in the eyes of Google.
Don’t think about link juice (there are plenty of high DR link farms), think about whether the link will be relevant to your site, content and helpful to your readers. Does the site you’re considering a link exchange with have products, services or content that your customers or audience will find useful?
You should also consider whether your link exchange partner’s site is one that you want a link from in the first place. Does the site link to anyone and everyone? Are there links to things like porn, cannabis, gambling, crypto and other potentially shady sites?
Some Metrics to Apply to Your Link Exchanges
- The site is DR40 or higher. You don’t want to engage in technically frowned upon tactics with a site that is not going to pass on at least a bare minimum of link juice.
- The site has at least 5,000 organic visitors every month. This number of visitors is a good indicator that Google likes the site.
- The website is relevant to your own. If you’re in a fitness niche, you wouldn’t want a link from a financial services website.
- There is obvious thematic relevance between the content on each site. If you’re hosting a link in an article about the best graphic design courses, you want your inbound link to be from at least a thematically adjacent article.
Swapping Guest Posts
Another way to do a content-based link exchange is through what’s known as a guest post swap. The mechanics are pretty straightforward. I write a guest post on site A and provide a link to your website in it; you write a guest post on site B and provide a link to mine. We’re coordinating our guest posting activities in a way that is mutually beneficial.
When to Say No to a Link Exchange
Knowing when to decline a link exchange offer is as important as knowing when it’s a good opportunity for your site. You of course need to ask yourself whether the site in question is relevant, and you should do some additional investigation into the owner’s Linkedin and other social profiles. Do you like what you see and would you be comfortable linking to the site, essentially directing your visitors there?
There is also some important quantitative analysis you should do before going ahead with a link exchange. You want to consider:
- A counterpart’s outbound link ratio
- The age of the site
- The “trust flow”
Outbound Link Ratio (no more than 2)
The outbound link ratio is the number of outbound links (the number of URLs a site is linking to) over the number of inbound links (the number of URLs that are linking to the site).
Generally speaking, you want to place your cutoff at a ratio of 2. This is to say, when it comes to outbound links, the site should have no more than double the number of its inbound links. This is because too high an outbound ratio is often indicative of a link farm or personal blog network and Google doesn’t like those.
The Age of the Site (no less than two years)
You usually only want to consider a link exchange with a site that is at least a couple of years old. Older sites that are actively kept up with new content, receive good traffic, and have a respectable DR rating are more likely going to be seen as trustworthy by Google.
Trust Flow (no less than 10)
Trust Flow is a correlate provided by the SEO tool Mastic, and it attempts to measure how trustworthy a site is. Majestic looks at the “trustworthiness” of the sites linking to the site you are analyzing, the premise being that legitimate, trustworthy websites will link to other such sites. Ideally, you don’t want a trust flow score of less than 10.
Link Exchange Best Practices
Link exchange opportunities can be part of a comprehensive and well-rounded link building policy, but it should not be something that you should devote a lot of time and energy to. Instead, you should try to organically develop relationships with relevant people and sites and find ways to “reciprocate” trust and authority. Be generous with your own outbound links when you appreciate or value particular content but be discerning.
Furthermore, if you do find there is a viable opportunity for a link exchange, you should avoid direct 1-for-1 links. What this means is that if you link to your counterpart’s article “X Ways to do Y” from your article “How to do A: A Guide,” they shouldn’t be linking back to that same article from “X Ways to do Y.”
It’s much better if you provide a link from your page A to your counterpart’s page B. And, in return, they provide a link from their page D back to your page C. The objective is to avoid a glaring “link footprint” that screams “Hey Google, lazy, purely transactional link exchange taking place here.”
Developing a Safe Reciprocal Link Strategy
There are a few ways you can make sure you aren’t compromising your site while engaging in link exchanges. First off, to reiterate, don’t make link exchanges your primary link building tactic. Make sure you have a sound link building editorial policy in place that incorporates a range of strategic link building tactics.
Second, only trade links with people you know and have a relationship with. You want to trust the site and trust the owner.
Third, you should determine what a safe ratio of link exchanges to other tactics is for your niche. Look at what your competitors are doing. You can compare outgoing with incoming links and then find duplicates to see where they are engaging in link exchanges.
Lastly, regardless of the niche, you should try to keep around a 10-to-1 ratio. That is, 1 link exchange for every 10 natural links.
Where to Find Link Exchange Opportunities
There are a number of Slack and Facebook groups where people shop around for link exchange opportunities. You join the groups and post and look for link exchange offers. Keep in mind that you are expected to reciprocate in these groups. If you join to try and market content or aren’t willing to link back, you’re going to be booted.
Given Everything Above, Should You Exchange Links
At dofollow.io, we see reciprocal link building as something that is necessary if you want to build links at scale but our philosophy is one of common sense. You certainly don’t want to rely on it as a primary, or even secondary tactic and Google has made it clear that they could come down on your if you do. The fact of the matter is that there are better ways to build more natural links and those are what we prefer.
However, of course you will make friends and build relationships over the years with relevant, trustworthy sites and webmasters. You will undoubtedly find there are instances in which linking back to one another makes sense and provides real value for readers.
To bottom line it: be on the lookout for link exchange opportunities, and definitely entertain them as a legitimate link building strategy, but be very discerning when moving ahead with one.
If you are interested in finding out more about how working with a trusted, experienced, bespoke link building agency can help you make serious improvements to your organic traffic and ranking, get in touch with us and request a pricing breakdown.