Link Exchange – When Is It A Good Idea?

When Google first started to get big, the earliest search engine optimizers learned that exchanging links was a great way to “game” the search results. The concept worked like this:

  1. You link your site to my site
  2. I’ll reciprocate, and then Google will see that both our sites have new links
  3. Google will rank our sites higher because of our new links
  4. Profit!

Here’s a quote from an old article from Entrepreneur.com breathlessly promoting the power of the link exchange:

Link exchange requests require minimal effort from you, but they can absolutely explode your traffic numbers overnight.

Obviously, “exploding your traffic” today is no longer as easy as trading links. As a matter of fact, trading links in the here and now can get your site into trouble. It could trigger any number of algorithmic penalties, or perhaps even a manual penalty.

But this isn’t to say that you should never trade links. There are situations when a link exchange makes good sense – here’s how you find them.

A bad trade

In what’s widely regarded as one of the worst sports trades in history, the Red Sox traded a young Babe Ruth to the Yankees for money, which was used to finance a play. While historians won’t write about a bad website link trade (probably), consider yourself warned!

When It Makes Sense to Trade Links

A link exchange that’s logical and rational is never a bad idea, provided it’s done in a manner that’s not intended to manipulate rankings. Here are some guidelines:

Trade links when you share an audience. Let’s say you know another parts ecommerce site owner named Mike. and let’s say that your website and Mike’s website are selling different products to the same people. This means that you share an “audience,” and that means that trading links might help both of your companies sell more parts.

In this situation – where your website customers/users are substantially similar to another website’s customers/users – a link exchange is probably a good idea.

Trade links to be educational or helpful to your users. Let’s say you have an article on your website that explains how a vehicle’s AC compressor works, and that it’s popular. Another website has a great article explaining how AC evaporators work, and it’s also popular. Should you trade links between articles?

We would say yes, provided the other website is of sufficient quality. People who read your explanation of AC compressors might really appreciate the evaporator article, and vice-versa. By trading links, you’re helping your users find good, relevant content.

When It Does Not Make Sense To Trade Links

Trading links is not something you want to do casually. That’s because a bad link exchange can hurt your website. Here’s how you can determine if a link trade is a bad idea:

  1. The site that wants to trade links looks spammy or cheap. Yes, looks matter. If the site that wants to trade looks outdated, poorly maintained, has low quality content, etc., say no.
  2. The site that wants to trade links isn’t relevant to your business. Relevance isn’t easy to define, but you know it when you see it. If someone with a flea collar website wants to trade links with your auto parts website, say no.
  3. The site that wants to trade links will trade with anyone. Website owners who will trade links with anyone and everyone are on a speedboat racing towards a Google penalty. You don’t want to get caught in their wake. If you see that they’re trading links with sites you would never consider a trade with, pass.

Avoiding Penalties When Trading Links

As has been mentioned, trading links can lead to Google (and Bing) penalties when done incorrectly. Making sure that you only exchange links with quality, relevant websites – and that you only do so when it’s helpful to the consumer – is by far the best way to avoid a penalty. However, there are some other things you should avoid when trading links.

First, don’t do site-wide link exchanges. Trading links in the footer of your site with the footer of another site is a sure-fire way to get in trouble with the search engines. Footer links are “site wide” links, meaning they appear on every page. Exchanging this type of link looks very spammy.

Second, don’t use keywords in your link anchor text. Keywords in link anchor text are a sign of an unnatural link, and unnatural links tend to get ignored or penalized. Therefore, you want to make your link text as natural and “innocent” as possible.

Generally speaking, you only want to use three types of anchors when you exchange links:

  1. The other site’s web address, eg http://www.sporkmarketing.com
  2. The other site’s brand name, eg Spork Marketing
  3. An innocuous word or phrase, like click herethis site, this company, etc.

Three, only link from the most logical page on your site to the most logical page on their site. If you’re trading links on articles that compliment each other, for example, you would link from one article to the other and vice versa. If you’re cross promoting one of your products with one of theirs, you would link from one product page to the other.

Basically, don’t link from homepage to homepage when you’re just trying to trade links on a specific product, product line, article, etc.

Summary – Link Exchanges Can Be Great, But Care Is Required

Link exchange is a very old online marketing tactic, and while the words “let’s trade links” have long been associated with spam (the tactic was considered spammy all the way back in 2006), a link exchange is effective in the right circumstance. As long as trading links is logical, relevant, and done with care, it can be a great way to increase traffic to your site.

What’s more, in the world of auto parts ecommerce, link exchange is very common. Most auto parts manufacturers link to their larger retailers, and some of their larger retailers link back to the manufacturer. AutoPartsWarehouse.com, for example, links to the Flowmaster Mufflers website here (click on “About Us”, the FAQs, then you’ll find a link). Flowmaster Mufflers links to AutoPartsWarehouse.com here (scroll down towards the bottom third of the list). While this particular link exchange isn’t very prominent, the point we’re making is that link exchange isn’t unusual. A lot of part retailers do it – this is just one example.

As always, if you don’t have an SEO expert advising your company on things like link exchanges, contact us.

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