Is Link Exchange Bad for SEO? – A Link Building Experiment

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I’m sure pretty much every SEO ever has thought about backlink exchanges – how much easier they would be than guest posts or skyscraper content. I mean if all we need are links to rank, why don’t we all just scratch each other’s back and be merry? For local SEO specifically it would certainly make it a lot easier to rank your local business by exchanging links with other local businesses...also known as "networking".

That is until you do your research and then you find all the articles and blog posts out there that say link exchange is dead; link exchange will get you penalised and reciprocating the link will cancel out the value of the incoming link!

My opinion, SEO’s have a habit of going into hysteria.

When the former head of Google Webspam Matt Cutts said Guest Posts were dead, a lot of SEO’s started to shy away from guest posts. That is until we proved that guest posts were still truly alive and well, Matt Cutts was forced to clarify his statement and that it was in fact “spammy guest posting" that was dead.

In 2014 Google’s John Mueller stated that we should not be getting sitewide footer links. A lot of Web Design companies started to panic, many went on to remove the footer links on their client sites which credited them for their Web Design services.

However time and time again, Web Design companies would create their standard “Website design by” footer links on their client's websites and get a ranking boost. There have been a few case studies on this.

In truth, Guest Posts are not bad for SEO, but guest posts on spammy websites are.

Sitewide links crediting your company for web design services rendered is not bad for SEO, but hacking a website and placing a code in the footer to link to your site is.

For both occasions, why did Google have to paint such a broad brush instead of just being more specific about the issue?

The answer is simple. Google doesn’t want you (SEO) and has never wanted you to manipulate their search engine. In their perfect world, the best websites will rise to the top naturally serving their users with the best search experience.

So if they can discourage you from manipulating their search engine, that is a hell of a lot more efficient than trying to create an algorithm which can read the purpose of your guest post – were you contributing content to provide value or were you trying to manipulate their search engine with a link? (probably both right?)

In short, Google would rather have us police ourselves than create an algorithm that police our motives.

So how does this tie in with link exchanges?

My theory is simple. Back in the days of black hat SEO, link exchange farms were a very popular and overused tactic for ranking sites. Web sites would join these farms and rank the crap out of each other, these sites didn’t have to offer value, nor provide relevant traffic or links to each other, all they needed was to meet Google’s somewhat primitive link quantity criteria to get a ranking boost.

Google had enough, and it decided to put something in the algorithm that devalued these practices and websites relying solely on this tactic dropped. With an announcement to say that link exchange is dead, everyone dropped the idea of ever doing link exchanges again.

However, I prefer to read into the algorithm rather than broad statements, to what extent does this apply?

  • If I cite an article in Forbes and I one day manage to get a guest post in Forbes, does that mean that link is worthless because it was reciprocal?
  • If I'm a wedding photographer and meet a wedding piano player, we decide to share audience and do some local SEO by adding a link to each other's website, is the link devalued?

guest post is not link exchange

Now I know every SEO is saying "of course not, that's natural link building," well yes but how does Google know I met that wedding photographer at a wedding and that I genuinely want to recommend him to my audience? Or how does Google know Forbes did not offer me a guest post in exchange for a link?

Google cannot tell your motives…not really.

So instead of just accepting "because Google said so," I want to look deeper into Google's motives. Just like guest posts, site wide links, press releases or Private Blog Networks, Google did not completely kill them. They just want to kill the spammy aspect of it and discourage everyone from practising it for the purpose of solely acquiring a link.

Now I know a lot of sanctimonious white-hat SEO’s may be screaming at how this is going to the Darkside right about now, but I disagree.

What is unethical about promoting relevant content? Sure it's for the purpose of a link, but so are Guest Posts, and Skyscraper content. As much as they provide value, most wouldn't exist without the promise of a backlink. Of course, I'm not the first to challenge the myth on link exchanging, popular bloggers such as Robin from wrote a post on this subject.

More recently, white hat link building techniques include building editorial links using Haro which are one way formidable links from high DA websites.

So on to the test….

My Hypothesis

Google made alterations to their algorithm, and I believe they filter for the following:

  1. Link Relevancy. Is the link relevant? Are you a plumber exchanging links with a dentist or could you be a DUI Lawyer recommending a family law lawyer and exchanging audience?
  2. Website Authority. Is the Website you’re linking out to and receiving a link from a quality site? If it's a spammy site, forget it, you will only be associated with that spam. Check a website like which has a high domain authority and one of the top web agencies in Vancouver, I'm sure it would not hurt to link to them at all. Similarly, how about This site has a lower domain authority but it does have a modest amount of traffic flowing to each month and it doesn't contain a mountain of spammy inbound or outbound links. As such, linking out to this site or even to one of their clients is a pretty safe bet."
  3. Link Context. What is the context of your link? Are you just dropping a link on a page with no context around it, or is the link within a relevant piece of content? This also means that I will not be linking or receiving a link to the homepage, but instead to relevant pieces of content.

I also have to mention that the 20 links will currently make up for about 50% of my total link count. Apparently, excessive link exchange should be penalized but I believe this is offset by meeting the parameters below.

So what parameters shall I set to bypass these filters?

  • I will only link out to websites that are relevant to my niche. In return, I will only receive a link which is relevant to this piece of content.
  • I will only link out to real websites that have a DA of at least 20, doesn’t have a high Spam rating by Moz, and has some traffic to show it’s an active website.
  • I will surround my link with relevant content to the page I am linking out to. The outbound links will either be from an existing article or my glossary page. In return, I will ask that my incoming links have surrounding text relevant to this page.

The results should be that of a ranking boost which is a result of the links received from the link exchanges, showing that the links were not devalued as a cause of being reciprocated.

The Test

  • I will build a total of 20 links to this page using the above parameters and link back to a page on those websites from a relevant page on my site.
  • I will measure and track all keyword movements for this page “Is link exchange bad for SEO?” versus a competing page on this site “Is it OK to link exchange for SEO?” which will receive zero links. Both pages are aiming for the same keywords with everything else being equal, and as of this writing, both pages rank for a total of zero keywords.
  • I will track the rankings weekly over a period of 8 weeks and update this page with the results on a weekly basis (and also update the other page to keep things equal) starting with a baseline tracking as seen in the image below.

The results could go two ways:

The rankings for this post shoots up just as it would with 20 guest posts, or 20 quality PBNs or 20 resource links. In other words, Google doesn’t give a damn that it was reciprocal links because it passes their filters and is not associated with spammy websites or pages.

I don’t believe link exchanges are penalised, but they are devalued. So if all 20 links to this page are that of a link exchange, they should hold no value, and we should not see this page go up in the rankings any higher than the competing page.

Baseline Image:

link exchange snapshot 20/06/17

See you guys in a week!


Ok, so it's been slightly over a week since I've last updated this post. I've been pretty busy but I did get 6 links exchanges in total to this page from relevant websites. Results are in and it seems quite significant.

Whereas the counterpart page for this post is ranking for zero keywords, this post is ranking for:

#3 organic for "is link exchange bad for SEO" - UK

#12 organic for "link exchange" - UK. At its highest point, it was ranking #6 for "link exchange" which is a pretty competitive keyword.

Considering there have only been 6 link exchanges in total, I think the above results are fairly significantand shows that outright direct 2-way link exchanges, can still be effective. Just don't overdo it!

So far I see no hindrance whatsoever from reciprocating links.

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77 thoughts on “Is Link Exchange Bad for SEO? – A Link Building Experiment

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  4. Hi Marvin,
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