Backlinks are SEO’s most valuable currency.
The internet is linked together via backlinks from site to site. When a site links another, they are providing them with a backlink.
SEO professionals and webmasters have been pursuing backlink strategies for decades, they’re one of the primary methods for fuelling SEO.
Backlinks used to operate on a simple principle: the more the better, but this is no longer the case.
In March 2020, Google announced a series of algorithm changes that could change the typical modern linking strategies used by many SEO professionals.
This was another stage in a long sequence of Google algorithm updates, probably starting with the Panda update in 2011 that clamped down on low-quality, spam content packed with keywords and links.
This latest update has cast a shadow over the use of backlink exchanges, the act of exchanging reciprocal links with another site for SEO purposes.
SEO Pros and Google: At Opposite Ends of the Table
When many become interested in SEO, they often imagine SEO professionals and Google to have some sort of symbiotic relationship, a cooperative of sorts.
In reality, it’s more of an arm’s race, and Google and the major SEO players are locked in combat.
Consider Google’s objective:
Expectations are high and Google pretty much has a responsibility to serve the public with the best possible results for their query.
SEO backlink strategies and other SEO tactics damage Google’s ability to serve the public in the way that they see fit.
SEO professionals have been gaming backlinks since the early 2000s, at which point you could insert a ton of links into various purpose-made link farming directories and rocket your site up the SERPs, even if it was rubbish!
Now, Google has thoroughly put the focus on building sites and pages for the user, and not for the purpose of gaming the search algorithm
Backlink Exchanges: A Bygone Era?
In the 90s, backlink exchanges were crude but effective.
Search algorithms had to use something to rank pages. Ranking software was primitive, it could only really use numerical metrics to rank pages whereas now Google uses natural language processing (NLP) to process written content much like a human would. This enables them to understand it in tremendous detail.
But, back in the dawn of SEO, a link meant a lot for site ranking, and since competition on the internet was low, it was worth paying big bucks for just one link.
In fact, Ahrefs reports that purchasing just one link on a paid directory in the late 90s could have cost $300.
Throughout the 2000s, paid link directories snowballed and you could buy links that would be published across networks of sites. These links would provide your site with ranking juice, pushing it up the SERPs, even when those links were practically meaningless, and your site poor quality.
And that’s where we are today.
We know that backlinks are links placed on a webpage to link to another webpage.
Consider how this happens naturally.
Whilst writing an info-rich post, you’ll need to provide some insight or evidence of your claims.
This is a component of many forms of communication. When we state a fact, we could be challenged on how we learned it, who we got it from, etc.
A fact with evidence is stronger than a fact without evidence (and shows that it is indeed a fact and not a falsehood).
Backlinks enable us to back up our claims. They also enable us to bring attention to useful research, studies, products, posts, articles, stories, any type of content that helps animate our content and bring it to life.
In these situations, backlinks are natural and permissible by Google.
In fact, Google states themselves: “Google does not discourage these types of articles in the cases when they inform users, educate another site’s audience or bring awareness to your cause or company.”
However, a link exchange is often different.
How To Exchange Links in a Link Exchange
A link exchange involves communication between two or more parties. The general gist is “you do me a favor and provide me with a link and I’ll provide you with a link in return”.
Or, alternatively, you could just ask if they could publish your article on their site with a link to your site (probably for a fee).
You can find numerous Facebook groups for link exchanges. It’s also possible to buy backlinks from SEO professionals that locate sites to place your link, usually through guest posting or resource pages.
In many situations, these backlinks tactics are fair and virtuous, but in others, they represent attempts to game Google’s algorithm. After all, they don’t want people exchanging private money with the sole purpose of boosting a site up the SERPs (and they’d probably want you to spend that money on their ads anyway).
These types of exchanges were expressly discouraged by Google in 2020:
“Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.”
The caveat here is that Google is still pretty cautious in their wording, excessively, showing they do have some understanding of how, why, and when link exchanges are inevitable at least, or even a positive force for the internet.
After all, how can start-ups circulate products without sending some out to reviewers? Why shouldn’t small webmasters use link exchanging as a catalyst to building a genuine network?
Along these lines, Google said that link exchange posts are permissible under the following conditions:
- No keyword stuffing to your site
- No posting articles across many different sites, or posting many articles on a few sites
- Content that shows inept knowledge for the topic will be considered poor quality
- Duplicating content from your own site to post on other sites
But, this is not a free ticket to keep link exchanging, and hoping you’ll get away with it.
SearchEngineJournal published many anecdotal reports of blog owners and other webmasters getting struck with manual actions and penalties from Google for accepting paid guest post content.
Reciprocal Links: A Natural Byproduct of the Internet
Reciprocal links result from the activity Google frowns on; “Link to me and I’ll link to you”
But surely reciprocal links, and by proxy link exchanges, are a natural byproduct of the internet?
An influential Ahrefs study into backlinking found that over 40% of top-10 ranked sites in the study had some level of reciprocal links. Overall, their findings suggested that reciprocal links just happen, they might be link exchanges, they might not be, but either way, they’re natural.
This is why Google is pursuing a softly-softly approach to clamping down on all link exchanges. Google’s modern algorithm is certainly able to get a good idea of when a website is regularly creating thin content with the sole purpose to link another site in return for some form of payment.
But what about genuinely info-rich, insightful content that links to a selected audience of sources that provide value to the post?
This is still likely a strong strategy for both now and the future.
How Does Google Know?
Perhaps this is the golden question.
Consider a site with decent traffic that accepts paid link exchanges. This site might create different types of blog content every day, always with the purpose of linking out to the site that has paid for a link.
After a period, it’s highly likely that this site will be easily determined as a link exchange site.
It might only use branded link anchor text, constantly linking out to disparate sites that have little to do with each other.
The less relevant the links get and the more the posts look to serve the links and not the users, the more likely this site is heading for a manual action.
What the heack is a Manual Action?!
It’s a reprimand that can be severe for your site’s ranking and if you receive one, you’ll need to sever ties with those links.
But say you’re swapping links with trusted sites in your niche, then how does Google know that you’re link exchanging, assuming the sites are genuinely linked?
It’s pretty easy, Google will see how many 1-to-1 links you have, showing that your site has only ever been backlinked when you reciprocated the link – this insinuates the kind of strategic communication that Google dissuades.
For smaller sites, it’s highly unlikely this will result in much byways of a penalty – it will likely help rather than hinder, till a point. But, it’s certainly not a long-term SEO strategy.
A rule of thumb used by many marketers is the 20% rule for reciprocal links – try and keep reciprocal backlinks to and from your site below 20%.
A 3-way exchange could seemingly be a way to game Google’s distaste for standard reciprocal 2-way linking.
3-way exchanges involve site A linking site B which links site C and back to A. ⅔ of the sites get a backlink out of this, and the process can then be repeated.
Sometimes, you’ll get a directory site that ‘partners’ with other sites. That directory site will link to you if you link to their partner. That means you get a link, and the partner site gets a link, but both are indirect and not reciprocal.
Another type of indirect link strategy involves site A and B producing two pieces of content each.
Site A’s first piece of content links to site B’s second piece of content and vice-versa. This isn’t exactly stealthy but does go some way to avoid a strict reciprocal page-to-page link.
The problem with 3-way exchanges (and reciprocal link exchanges in general) is that they’re rarely mutually commercially viable.
The directory example, in particular, is pretty shady. That directory could be spammy and meaningless, it’s just a tool for the partner site to get a link from you when you’re getting a poor link in return.
Best Practice for Link Exchanges
1) Content Marketing is Gold
Content marketing is the process of creating content that markets your site (or other products or services).
The best thing to do to build links is to keep grinding out quality content that links others, and then posting that content around the internet where you can.
For example, factually rich content should be regularly cited, like you would an academic essay or piece of research – that’s plain and simple.
This combines with the value you’re creating with the content yourself. For example, by creating content on a new genre of art, music, or similar cultural entity, you could link to those that gave you the ideas for that content, whether that’s artists, musicians, or art galleries.
The same would go for technology. By reviewing products, you’ll be providing manufactures or creators with links.
The idea is your content will market itself to those you link. If they care about SEO (which they will if they have some authority), then they’ll see that you’ve linked them.
The very least you can get out of this is traffic, but you could pick up backlinks, maybe even very authoritative ones that provide you lots of link juice.
- Create outbound link-rich content
- Share this on social media, forums, and messaging boards
- Make sure you do your SEO research for your content so you can pick up organic traffic too
- Add resources, e.g. checklists, templates, guides, handbooks, and other linkables or downloadables to your content
2) Networking is Key
Link building is about networking as much as it is about SEO.
If you do start searching Facebook groups, messaging boards, or the internet for link-building platforms, you’ll be faced with a choice.
Do you go down the blatant reciprocal link-building route and start creating reciprocal link-building content for your site?
Or do you try and strike longer-term relations with those close or parallel to your niche?
The tricky bit is, you’ll need to be aware of the commercial viability of your relationships. If you go on Ahrefs, Moz or Semrush, you’ll very rarely, if at all, find them linking or even mentioning each other. Obviously, it’d be commercial suicide!
However, they may link other sites that are parallel to their niche or commercial strategy, including advertising sites, web designers, data engineers, analysts, etc. These subjects, topics, and entities are related, but not commercially exclusive.
Once you find sites to work with, creating guest post content and reciprocal or genuine 3-way links is much simpler!
- Build a commercially viable network
- Network with sites your size at the start instead of setting your sights too high
- Be wary of dodgy offers!
3) If You Guest Post, Don’t Skimp Out on Quality
It’s very easy for Google to see when two sites write a tiny piece of rubbish content for the sole purpose of reciprocal links.
Links need to be embedded in proper, feature-rich, and well-written content. Google uses natural language processing – they know if you’re cutting corners to just stick a link on your site.
If you do guest posts or engage in link exchanges, then make sure everyone involved is creating proper, high-quality content. Everything through from the topical and keyword research to the style, format, and writing quality should be firmly established and checked for quality – if you feel you’re cutting corners, then Google probably feels that too!
- Write mix-length quality content, and only accept that from others
- Employ professional writers
- Ensure that posts avoid excessive branded mentions or overtly ‘salesy’ language
SearchEngineJournal states that modern link building = sweat + creativity!
That’s very true, and link building eludes many novice and beginner SEOs who get pretty overwhelmed with the prospect of prospecting links.
But, once you get stuck into creating content and sharing it through social channels, opportunities will come your way, some good and some bad.
You’ll need to stay aware of what Google thinks about reciprocal linking and abide by some golden rules, namely:
- Make sure the sites are relevantly linked to each other
- No linking in spammy or thin content
- Don’t over-optimize or use excessive branded anchors
- Always track your links and search ranking to see what’s going on
- Never forget producing content for organic SEO – in time, this will collect links itself