What is Link Exchange in SEO? (Guidelines for 2021)

Have you heard from your friend “I’ll link to your site and then you link to mine”? This is called SEO link exchange. Two sites linking to each other so that they can both improve their ranking in search result pages.

But does this method work? and can you get penalized for it?

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Link exchange in SEO refers to websites agreeing to link to each other, with the hope to rank better in the Google search results.

Many SEOs still consider Link Exchange to be a viable way of creating backlinks. While others advise against it.

Google is not thrilled about SEO Link Exchange but doesn’t indicate that it is categorically banned.

In its guideline, Google mentions link exchanges briefly:

Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking [can negatively impact a site’s ranking].

The word ‘Excessive’ here is the key to the argument for link exchange schemes.

After all, how could Google tell you are exchanging links, if it is not excessive?

In a recent study (2020), Ahrefs has looked into the reciprocal links of 140,000 domains with more than 10k monthly organic traffic.

They found 73% of these sites had reciprocal links. Meaning they have linked to sites that have linked to them. 27% of websites at least have 15% of their links as reciprocal.

This is a natural outcome, as websites in the same industry (especially reputable websites), often link to each other.

So, does this mean we should do it or not?

The data certainly doesn’t suggest that the very existence of reciprocal links will hurt your SEO. Google will certainly look for patterns of excessive or unusual behavior.

So two (or more) websites constantly linking to each other can very easily be seen as a pattern of link exchange by Google’s algorithm.

But if for example, you link to a site, and that puts you on their radar and they link back to you, this can hardly be seen as excessive or even spam behavior. In the same way, isolated instances of link exchange can go unnoticed.

But there is a bigger point to be made about Link Exchanges and pushing Google’s boundaries in general.

A professional website that is looking for long-term success, is mostly focusing on organic and innovative ways to create better content and beat the competition.

Constant attempts at cheating the algorithm firstly can have demoralizing effects on your team and their mindset, and also may make you susceptible to future penalties, as Google’s algorithm is constantly evolving and many useful tricks of the past are considered pretty naive today.

So if you have an isolated opportunity to exchange links with someone, should you take it? It is hard to answer that and you should take the situation on its merit.

But should you consider SEO link exchange as a basic strategy? No.

Google can disregard a huge number of links without penalizing a site. Many sites receive spam links from directories and other sources. Google simply disregards these links, without any other actions taken.

So, it’s fair to assume that Google will disregard some links that look strange without penalizing the site.

The penalty will come when, as Google described, the link exchange becomes excessive.

It is difficult to find data on sites that are under penalty (outside of rhetorical evidence) as they disappear from the results. So each person’s experience on this subject may vary and the actions of Google may not always be consistent as well.

All we can say is, it is better to be careful than sorry.

Google is hoping for sites to not intervene in the process of referral link building and let it happen organically. But for obvious reasons sites can not do that and their competition is not doing this as well.

There are still many proactive moves that are recommended by SEOs for creating backlinks and are not against Google’s rules.

For example, you can offer your content to other websites that can use it within their posts. The return on these offers is not great, but it is a numbers game after all.

You can also guest post on a reasonable scale. Google has advised against ‘large-scale’ guest posting with ‘keyword-rich anchor text links’. So, you may want to avoid that.

Also, there is certain content that naturally attracts more backlinks. For example, Long-form content has better chances (more on this), or ‘What’ articles have better chances.

Ultimately creating connections and being reputable within your industry is the most successful method. Backlinking is built on an element of peer-review. So, being useful in the eyes of your peers may best method in the long run.

What is your experience of link exchange and link building? Share your knowledge in the comments section below.

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