What Is A Link Exchange and Are They Still Relevant?


When Google launched in 1998, it introduced an innovative strategy to determine website popularity. Initially dubbed “BackRub”, Google examined a site’s backlinks to guage its significance and its connections to other sites. In an effort to gain exposure on Google, websites began implementing link exchanging, otherwise known as reciprocal linking, wherein sites agreed to link to one another. However, Google swiftly cracked down on this practice, penalizing sites engaged in it, prompting the evolution of link exchanges.

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While static outbound links in a website sidebars were common in the late 1990s and 2000s, modern websites universally avoid such practices, fearing repercussion from Google.

Today’s Link Exchanges

Organically linking to other sites within article content remains recommended and prevalent. Nonetheless, many sites still promote each other’s non-contextually relevant links in sidebars or below content, albeit tagged with “rel=nofollow“, which tells search engines not to pass link authority to the partner site.

Components of Link Exchanges

With link exchanges no longer about gaming search engines, they no longer need to be confined to article pages. Publishers now promote their partners through various means:

  1. Widgets: Traditionally, link exchanges utilized widgets in sidebars or below content, but now, these widgets are often automated to feature multiple partners with only a few links displayed at once.
  2. Newsletters: Publishers feature partners in daily or weekly emails, often incorporating widgets dedicated to partners.
  3. In-Article Links: Link roundups are articles with curated links on a particular topic. These articles toe the line between contextual and non-contextual links, so to be on the safe side, publishers should tag these links rel=nofollow.
  4. Social Media: Facebook and Twitter previously represented a large percentage of a website’s referral traffic and as a result, featured prominently within a link exchange partnership; however, Facebook has since shifted away from promoting news content. Publishers still promote their partners via social media, but its impact is less prominent.

Benefits of Link Exchanges

Balanced links partnerships still provide many benefits to publishers and represent an important audience development strategy implemented by sites of all sizes.

  1. New Readers: If a publisher sends one reader to a partner and then that partner sends one reader back, why bother? It is because the reader you send to your partner is an existing reader, while the reader that the partner sends back to you is likely a new reader. Think of it this way. If you have a link on your page that promotes one of your articles and 100 people click on it, your site will receive 200 pageviews, but the number of unique readers will still be 100. If you replace that link with one of your partner’s links and 100 people click on it and then that partner sends you 100 readers back, your site will still receive 200 pageviews, but the number of unique readers will double to 200.
  2. Capture Lost Value: If a reader reaches the bottom of your article, and viewed all of your recirculation links, but chooses not to click on any of them, they are most likely going to leave your website for another. This is the perfect opportunity to promote partner links. Your partners may have articles that interest the reader, so rather than lose the reader for nothing, you can now capture some value by sending them to a partner, who will then send you a reader right back.
  3. Expanded Content Offering: Most websites focus on a particular niche, such as fashion, but those readers might have a common interest in other categories, such as beauty. Rather than produce that content, you can instead link to partner sites that focus on those other categories.
  4. Brand Association: If a publisher carefully curates their list of partners, a publisher can create an association in the minds of the readers between the qualities and attributes that the readers associates with the partners’ brand and the qualities and attributes of its own brand.

Challenges of Link Exchanges

Since link exchanges are now more about marketing and traffic, it is important for these partnerships to be equitable for both parties. The following are challenges that many publishers face when engaging in modern link exchanges.

  1. Balanced Partnerships: It can be difficult to predict the number of times a link will be clicked on, so without continually maintaining a balanced partnership can be challenging.
  2. Partnerships Between Unequal Sites: Without heavy oversight or automation, publishers are limited to partnering with sites of equal size and similar website layout. Otherwise, the partnership will be continuously unbalanced.
  3. Consistent Tagging: If partner links are not properly marked as non-contextual, Google can penalize a site and potentially exclude them from appearing in any search results

Link Exchange Platforms

Because of these challenges, companies like PubExchange launched to help publishers navigate link exchanges. Other platforms like Zergnet were also introduced, but only PubExchange offered publishers the ability to establish direct partnerships with other sites. The following is the functionality offered by companies like PubExchange.

  1. Automated Partnership Balancing: PubExchange widgets continuously swap the sites and links that are shown in a widget to ensure that each partnership remains balanced and to determine which articles from each partner are most relevant for a publisher’s audience.
  2. Normalized Traffic Between Partners: Since PubExchange knows each site’s size, the number of partners they have, and can estimated the click through rate on each piece of content, PubExchange can balance partnerships between sites of any size. As a result, publishers can focus on selecting partners with complementary content and brands, rather than limiting it to partners of a similar size.
  3. Tracking Across Mediums: In PubExchange, link clicks are valued equally across newsletters, widgets, social media, and in-article links, and since all the traffic is recorded in the platform, partnerships can remain balanced on a click-for-click basis across all mediums.

In the dynamic world of digital networking, link exchange remains a fundamental strategy for enhancing visibility, building relationships, and driving traffic. While its practice has evolved alongside changes in search engine algorithms and digital marketing trends, its core principles of reciprocity and collaboration endure.


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