Linking best practices have been at the forefront of many SEOs’ minds, especially after Google’s LinkSpam update. With so many questions surrounding link exchanges and Google Webmaster guidelines, we thought we would devote an entire article to explaining what the “new” rules are for link swapping and how to operate within Google’s guidelines while increasing your site’s chances of landing in top search results.
Link Swapping is the process of exchanging or trading link placements with another site. Often one site will place a contextual link within a blog that points to the other site and vice versa. This practice is also called “reciprocal linking,” link exchange,” or “2-way linking.”
This form of link exchange often does not include providing the other website with a guest post or blog. Instead, one site will add the link to an existing article or one they are planning to post.
In 2021, Google introduced its LinkSpam update. This algorithm update changed how Google’s ranking system values links from spammy sites, are of spammy nature, or from poor quality sites. Essentially, Google ignores links from low domain rating sites when calculating page rankings. Additionally, Google can apply manual actions to sites that are suspected of participating in Link Schemes.
So, what does Google say about link exchanges? People often link to Google’s link Scheme page, however, it’s important not to ignore that they emphasize the importance of qualified links in the statement:
”If you’re linking out to other sites, make sure to qualify those links appropriately.”
Furthermore, Google describes link schemes as:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
And Google goes further by providing examples of link schemes:
Notice the word “excessive.” Excessive is defined as “exceeding what is usual, proper, necessary, or normal.” This is where the gray area arises. “Excessive” implies that a normal amount of reciprocal linking is not going to arouse any suspicion, and–is not of concern to Google.
When thinking about link schemes and link spam, it’s important to understand that the severity of spam and how Google likely looks at it is a spectrum. This makes the ethical nature of link swapping a gray area. Google’s quality guidelines further blur the lines of what level of link exchanges are acceptable and within their terms of service. So, to give you a clearer idea, we will look at a few different levels of “spamminess.”
Link spam is a real problem–especially when sites are bombarded with unrelated, unnatural links from questionable websites. This practice is extremely spammy.
These unnatural links confuse Google’s indexing algorithms since they use links, anchor text, annotation text, and the linking page’s content to better understand the linked-to page.
Let’s say you own a business that sells customized children’s toys, and this site has been growing in popularity on social media. However, unbeknownst to the site owner, a site that creates fake gambling apps which steal customers’ credit card information has been linking to them. They’re doing so because this practice may help them appear in front of Google’s bots and give their site the appearance of legitimacy. However, the content linking to the toy business is poor quality content that’s unrelated. This confuses Google’s webcrawlers since the content is so semantically different from toys. Furthermore, Google’s webcrawlers may begin to build confusion the more the spam site links to the toy site.
Google also highly dislikes when sites work to manipulate search ranks through artificial means because it can lower the quality of their search results. And Google’s primary goal is to always provide good quality content and quality solutions to searchers’ queries.
In stark contrast to the spammy link scheme as illustrated above, Google acknowledges that many reciprocal links are natural.
For example, it’s normal for a site owner to suggest a cross-promotion with another business, which inevitably will involve a natural form of a link swap. When setting up this cross-promotion, neither business may be thinking about their backlinks in relation to search engine algorithms.
This leaves us with that gray area between natural link building and black hat, spammy backlinks. This level of spammy reciprocal linking is likely harmless, and it may have the potential of increasing your website’s search traffic.
This reciprocal linking can include pacing your backlink outreach and offering quality content to other websites (which contain natural links to your own site).
This form of reciprocal linking is similar to networking within your industry and adjacent niches. They benefit your site by increasing the opportunities Google’s webcrawlers have to index your site and understand the nature of your site.
When it comes to building your site’s reputation across your industry, link-building is a natural choice. However, to perform a link swapping campaign the right away you will want to:
When it comes to building your site’s backlink profile, you want to remain within Google’s linking best practices. To do so, keep your outreach efforts steady but not excessive, and always try to provide value to anyone that may click the hyperlink. Most importantly, never add a link to your site if the content (or site) it links to is questionable.
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