Ah yes… link exchanges (also known as “reciprocal linking”)
One of the most commonly used tactic to gain new links for many website owners out in the world.
It’ll usually go something like this…
- Identify a piece of content you want to promote
- Research and list out other websites who might find your content interesting and may link to it/share it
- Locate an email address or submit a note in the contact form on the website letting the know it exists
Joe Smith writes an article that that he feels proud about and starts to email other people he knows that also have websites. He asks other people to link to him new article to help his rankings with Google and to get more traffic.
Some of the people he emails don’t respond, some reject his offer, and others suggest something else.
They suggest that Joe Smith update his website to link back to them, in exchange they’ll link to Joe Smith’s article.
If you link to me I’ll link back to you.
Eh… not really… it depends.
In this article I’m going to break why you should (mostly) avoid link exchanges, when you should do a link exchange, and break down a couple of ideas as alternative strategies if you ever come across this situation.
Let’s get into it!
When Should You AVOID Exchanging Links?
If people are consistently asking you for reciprocal links in your outreach, this is usually a result of “less than stellar” content or poor linkprospecting.
If your content is awesome, then people should want WANT to link to it because it would add value to THEIR website.
People only care about what you can do for them. Especially when doing cold email outreach!
If you’re asking for a link and your content is “meh”, then there is this kind of vacuum in the value exchange, which is usually when the topic of link exchanges comes up (assuming they respond to you at all).
Most people think this is a fair offer and way for everyone to win.
When in reality, and assuming you’re just asking for links to help with Google rankings and not for the referral traffic, this is more or less a waste of time as it degrades the value of both links.
Or at least hypothetically this is the case.
There are thousands of sites on the internet and many of them link to each other but still rank.
So do link exchanges hurt or help?
There in lies the great question.
The problem comes in when it’s done in excess.
“Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking”
The keyword in there is “excessive”.
There are some nefarious folks out in the world that congregate groups of people with the intent to link to each other resulting in this spiderweb of links between the same websites.
When you actively engage in trading links like this then you’re starting to edge closer and closer to the danger territory.
When SHOULD You Exchange Links?
Although I recommend against actively exchanging links, it is worth noting that they DO have a place in the world of SEO and relationship building in your niche.
That being said… here are a couple rules to follow when considering link exchanges.
The link is natural and contextually relevant
The first and foremost rule you should follow when considering a reciprocal link arrangement is if the links are relevant to the overall topic and theme of the article.
At the end of the day, Google cares about user experience and fulfilling the query of the user. The happier their users, the more likely they’ll come back to Google again… and again.
If you think the link you’ll be placing will hurt the user experience of your website or the website of someone else you’re trying to get a link from, chances are the link would fail this test.
The link adds value to the article and continues the conversation
Taking it one step further than just being “relevant” does the link in question add value?
By that I mean, would a user thank you for giving them the opportunity to click on the link you just placed?
This may sound silly but it comes back to user experience.
If the user is happy, then it will send positive signals back to Google regarding the quality of the page.
The link could build social capital within your niche
When considering to exchange links with someone you may want to consider looking at it from a different angle.
Perhaps you’re new to a niche and don’t have much value to give other websites.
As show of good faith you could exchange links.
Sure the link may get devalued by Google (possibly) but you’ve started a conversation with someone else you may be able to do business with in the future.
…or perhaps collaborate on an article or some other project.
But if you were to ignore everyone who asks for a reciprocal link, then you may be stifling your ability to build beneficial relationships that could offer value in other ways instead of a link.
The link could provide referral traffic
This option will depend on the traffic the target website receives on the page you want a link on.
Not every page you attempt to get a link on will have substantial traffic.
But if you suspected it did…
Then it could be an opportunity for an additional stream of qualified traffic.
The link is from a website in your niche
This last option is more to do with the topic of the website.
For example, one of my websites, “Bethebowtieguy.com” is in the men fashion space.
It would make sense for there to be other reciprocal links with websites closely related to mine (e.g., realmenrealystyle.com, themodestman.com, etc).
If I started to manufacturer reciprocal links from websites like babycenter.com or womensdailymag.com things start to get a little dicey.
Alternatives To Link Exchanges?
Now if you DO come across a scenario where you have decided to not provide a reciprocal link, then take a look below and considering implementing one of these strategies as an alternative.
Offer free content in the form of a guest post
If someone wants to swap links, offer instead to guest post on their site.
This approach is more expensive and time consuming, but most website owners LOVE free content.
If they balk at adding your link, float the idea of a guest post and see what they say.
Below is an example of one of my consulting clients where I had him reframe his ask from a link to a guest post and it converted. Of course this wasn’t specifically a link exchange, but still goes to show you how to reframe after your initial ask is denied.
Offer multiple links on future guest posts
This is a slightly different approach.
How would it work?
When your outreach requests that you trade links, suggest as an alternative that you’ll include their website in a future guest post rather than on your website.
This method works even better if you are continuously performing outreach and constantly scheduling new guest posts. You should be able to add those promised links within a week or two and get your link in return.
The only downside is that you need to keep track of your promises. A good outreach CRM should be able to help with this.
Offer social shares
If your brand has any kind of social following on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any other social channel, then you could offer a share in exchange for a link to the piece of content you’re promoting.
I usually phrase the ask like this…
“As a thanks, I’d be happy to share your updated piece on my social channels.”
or if they tentatively agreed to add a link I may add a slight incentive…
“Let me know when you add the link and I’ll share it on my social media handles”
Offer a podcast interview
If you have a podcast, this could be a great way to reframe an initial ask into a link.
Again the idea here is you’re offering value in exchange for the link.
Not many linkbuilders have podcasts, so this method could set you apart from the masses fairly easily.
If you’re a more established website with some authority, you could offer advice for the link.
How would this work?
When you’re doing outreach and get a request for a reciprocal link say something like…
“I’m going to pass on the link trade for now, but as a thanks for helping me out, I’d be happy to share some of the best way’s I’ve been able to grow and make money from my site (currently @ $2,000/month with 50k page views). Happy to jump on the phone when convenient for you.”
What you don’t want to do is act condescending in your response as if you’re this hotshot.
You just want to acknowledge that this person is doing you a favor and you’d be willing to talk online marketing strategy to reciprocate.
Final Thoughts On Link Exchanges…
The above list is just a couple of ideas that I have used and found success with.
The main idea here is to only resort to link exchanges when it’s natural.
When both websites are in the same niche, the context is organic, and the user experience is maintained.
Otherwise I would stay away from