Backlink exchanges (sometimes termed as reciprocal linking, link exchanges, link swaps), are a popular tactic used by SEOs since the dawn of link building. 

And backlink exchanges sound ideal  – “you link to me, and I’ll link to you”  – although you probably know that Google doesn’t recommend organized link exchanges as they may consider them a type of “link scheme”.

Regardless, whether it’s small bloggers, niche industry news sites, or an 8 figure tech company – a lot of people are doing it and it does work. 

So in this guide we’ll cover everything you should know about backlink exchanges, the pitfalls to avoid and the correct way to incorporate them into your link building strategy. 

So essentially this is when two or more websites make an agreement to link to each other. A few ways it can be done:

  • Site A will link to Site B from one article, and site B will link back to them, either on the same page they’ve just linked out on, or from a different page. 
  • ABC link exchanges are a preferred method, and that’s where Site A links to Site B, Site B links to Site C, and then Site C to Site A. This usually helps mitigate against any unnatural link patterns. 
What are Backlink Exchanges

We’ll discuss a few other techniques to do link exchanges later as well 

How do Backlink Exchanges Work?

The idea is that by linking to each other, both sites receive that link equity and increased authority. 

Backlink exchanges can sometimes happen in the outreach process, and there are link building companies who base their entire process around link exchanges. That’s because often during the manual outreach process, you will have sites who are happy to link to a valuable piece of content, but they will often want something in return. While some may ask for sponsorship, you will also get many who will ask for a link swap instead (or often in lieu of waiving a sponsorship fee). 

There is a study by Ahrefs about reciprocal links. They took a sample of over 140,000 websites with at least 10,000 visitors per month, and analyzed any backlink overlap. What they found was that around 73.6% of sites had reciprocal links of some sort.  

Some other findings from this study:

  • 73.6% of sites had reciprocal links.
  • 26.4% had no reciprocal links. 
  • Of the 27.4% of all the sites that were studied – had reciprocal links with at least 15% of the sites they linked to. 

Interesting findings, but let’s clarify a few things:

  • This doesn’t necessarily mean this is all intentional link exchanges. Sites could be linking back to each other purely based on editorial value alone. In other words ”reciprocal links are a natural byproduct of the web.”
  • They only analysed dofollow links in this study. 
  • They only analysed sites with search traffic – which means penalised sites are automatically excluded or anything with less than 10,000 visitors per month. 

But what we can say is that it proves that a site can exist and flourish from an SEO point of view, with reciprocal links.

Here’s a couple of more interesting stats and something you can keep in mind if link exchanges is a strategy you particularly want to practice. 

  • Average % of reciprocal links = 11.16%
  • Median % of reciprocal links = 6.45%

Quality, relevant links, will transfer some equity and authority to the receiving site. So, there is a benefit to doing them. It tends to be a fairly cost effective way to build links, and doesn’t require a lot of investment in resources. 

In fact, many companies engage in it, by partnering with non-competing sites in their niche, and setting up a spreadsheet with their partners, and doing link exchanges between content pieces. The advantage is, you don’t really have to worry about writing guest posts, or having to really work hard to convince the editor to link to you. Content quality and satisfying the search intent of target keywords is still important, but you can probably get away with your content not being the “best” from an editorial sense – since you can gather backlinks quicker with these relationships.

It’s particularly popular in industries where there is a wide range of sites who are aware of the benefits of link exchanges but where it’s big enough to have non-competing sites – E.g. B2B SaaS, there is a big market for link exchanges and a lot of companies in that space have built the vast majority of their profile on link exchanges. We’ll cover this in more detail later. 

If you can get highly niche relevant links with link exchanges, that is particularly powerful, and helps in terms of establishing topical authority and E-E-A-T within your niche, which will translate into better ranking increases. 

Private Influencer Networks

Glenn at Detailed covered it extensively in his article (which is now removed), but to summarize, this is somewhat similar to a microsite strategy. Essentially, it’s when a group of sites publishing content all link to each other on a regular basis in order to collectively boost their rankings. 

Types of link exchanges: Private Influencer Networks

Credit: Glen Allsopp

Often they’ll be in the same industry or at least, in sectors which are related in some way – for best effect. 

Large publications like Techcrunch and Mashable have proven to do this, but Glenn found a group of smaller sites doing this as well. It’s very possible to create your own version of a Private Influencer Network like this, with each site building its own audience and serving its own purpose, but interlinking like this:

how does PIN work

In my opinion, it’s unlikely that a larger publication is going to be penalised for that kind of practice – seen more as “mutual back scratching” than something dodgy. 

For smaller sites (especially sites all owned by one person/company) it could be frowned upon and you’d probably want to ensure you are being a bit more careful with how you’re doing it and ensuring you’re not doing excessive link exchanges, or making it glaringly obvious. 

Reciprocal Links

You can classify reciprocal links as when 2 sites make an agreement to link to each other. This most often happens when you’re doing outreach, and you come across someone that knows about the benefit of link building, and they want you to reciprocate with something, if they link to you.

Reciprocal are a natural part of the web, and happen even without people intending to manipulate their rankings – they may simply just appreciate the other websites content and believe it adds value for the audience. 

This is why in the Ahrefs study mentioned earlier, it’s not surprising that almost 74% of sites had reciprocal link building. 

It’s safe to say, you can probably do reciprocal linking, if you are directly building a relationship with websites, and it’s simply about appreciating each other’s relevant content, and crediting it. 

Guest Post Swaps

Same principle as doing a reciprocal link, but it’s about reciprocal guest posting. Essentially, Site A does a guest post on Site B, and vice versa. 

Types of link exchanges: Guest post swaps

Guest post swaps or exchanging links within guest posts is really effective if you aren’t able to find the right contextual relevance in each other’s site. Probably not applicable in most cases but can happen if you’re approaching a site in a different niche where you need to “bridge” the two niches. 

In my opinion, doing a guest post for a site is enough of a value exchange in itself – after all they’re getting a well written piece of content for free. But, you may sometimes approach a really good site, who is happy for you to guest write on their blog, but will want something in return. 

If you really want to get that link, it might be worth reciprocating and letting them guest post on your site. 

Three Way Swaps (ABC Link Exchanges)

Link exchanges can also be done in a more complex way, where Site A links to Site B, Site B links to Site C, and then Site C to Site A. What some might call an ABC Link Exchange or Three Way Swap.

ABC link exchange

Generally people use this technique for these 2 main reasons: 

  1. Site A and B have already linked to each other, and need to find more domains to link to each other from. 
  2. At least one of Site A and Site B, is a low authority site still starting out link building. So they need to find a higher authority site to do a guest post in, to keep the link exchange fair. 

Once relationships are established here though, it’s also quite an effective way of continuing to do more swaps, and scaling up link building –  but at the same time, mitigating any risk by constantly changing where the links are coming from. 

E.g. if Site A is doing guest posts in completely different sites, and gets a link to Site B in those posts. In return, Site B will link back from guest posts they are doing in other sites. 

ABC link exchange using guest posts

If you keep the relationship, that is pretty much never ending, as long as both sides don’t stop guest posting and always have a constant source of areas to link back from. 

However, it can also get a bit messy, due to the complexity of the guest posts being published on different sites, editorial processes and long publishing dates. So, you have to be really organized to ensure Site A and Site B are both doing well out of it, and getting the links that are promised. 

Link Exchange Slack Channels and Facebook Groups

This particularly gained popularity in 2023, and it started off the back of a lot of SaaS companies trying to build links at lower cost. 

This is a pretty straightforward system, and involves people posting on the group explaining where they can link out from, and the kind of links they are looking for in return.

Link Exchange Slack Channels and Facebook Groups

 These channels are mostly controlled by specific companies or SEO agencies, but are generally kind of self policed. If someone is getting links and then just not linking back at all, this will eventually be called out and can get the person banned. 

However, it is a bit of a wild west, and we’ll explain later why you may want to be careful with doing link exchanges on outside platforms like this and the potential pitfalls. 

If you delve into Google’s webmaster guidelines they could consider this a “link scheme” and that it should be avoided.

In extreme cases I could understand why they would penalise a site. I.e. If someone created  a huge network of low quality sites which all interlinked together multiple times, it wouldn’t be fair to reward them with better rankings purely from the sheer volume of links coming into each site.

It could be considered an example of unnatural linking and a clear attempt to manipulate search rankings. 

However, that doesn’t mean they should be avoided altogether. And you need to remember Google’s guidelines are fairly general, and aren’t necessarily giving the full picture.

I mean in true Google style, the wording of their warning means it’s pretty open to interpretation

From Google: 

“Excessive” could mean anything and I don’t know of anyone who has had so many link backs that they’ve been (knowingly) hit with a penalty. 

So backlink exchanges if used correctly, and done with good practice, can actually be beneficial for your SEO. 

Aim for Partnerships Through Outreach

To stand the best chance of building the most relevant links, that look natural – incorporate link exchanges into your outreach process. 

It may be something you offer as a value proposition from the get-go – which might be particularly useful in link-savvy niches like SaaS sites or MarTech – or you just have it in the back pocket, when they ask what you can give in return. 

Since you’re reaching out to these sites anyway, you at least know its relevant, and you’ll have hopefully been doing your quality vetting at the prospecting level. 

Bring a Value Proposition

Offering them a link exchange, is in of itself a value proposition, but it’s not just about the link juice they’ll get. See if you can really explain why it’s going to be of particular benefit to them. Perhaps the page they’re getting the outbound link from is of particular relevance to their product?

Maybe you noticed a specific keyword where they only have a small link gap to reach the top few spots, and that link will help? 

Whatever it is, just make sure you can bring that into the equation, and it particularly helps in occasions where the other site has a much higher authority level and/or traffic level than the site you’re offering a link from. 

Partner with Quality Sites

You obviously want to ensure the site you’re exchanging a link with, is of good quality itself    i.e. its  not a spammy link farm, PBN or something of that sort. A site which has some kind of purpose other than link building, i.e. its a business or editorial site in a defined niche, is what you would ideally be looking for. 

Site Relevance

It needs to be part of a strategy and not purely a “tactic” to drive link equity.

Exchange links where it is relevant, where it actually makes sense to have a link from. And where it would make sense to link out to.

When you do this correctly, the links are contextual and therefore, hold value.

Is what you’re linking to a valuable piece of content? 

Is it going to actually be of use to the user reading your page? 

If you satisfy that, it’s worth doing. It works both ways as well. The person linking to you (if they know what they’re doing) should link out if you have something which would be relevant and useful enough to people browsing their page. Can even bode well in terms of the quality of the referral traffic coming through from the link.

Traffic Volume

As well as this, traffic of the linking site is important –  but balance this with the traffic quality and relevance. Even a site with a fairly modest amount of traffic, can be worth exchanging a link with. Maybe they only have a few thousand visitors a month, but if let’s say you’re in the logistics niche, and you’re getting a link from a SaaS site in the logistics sector, then it’s fine compromising on traffic volume, due to the relevance. 

When to Avoid Link Exchange?

There are situations when you may want to avoid link exchanges. And there are potential drawbacks if you do become too reliant on them. 

Here’s an insider’s look on what you need to be careful of. 

A Reasonable Amount of Reciprocity

Now, this goes without saying. Links aren’t just about sheer volume. Continually getting links from a mere handful of sites, isn’t going to have a huge long term effect in terms of link equity. So, exchange links where it’s necessary. 

Exchange links with a site multiple times over a time period if it adds value to your content and vice versa. But don’t restrict yourself to continually linking to the same sites, as it will have a ceiling in terms of the SEO impact.

Along with that, just be aware of the potential risks involved. If a large proportion of your backlink profile is built entirely of link exchanges, in theory, Google could figure out a pattern, depending on how it’s been done. 

risks involved with link exchange

Will that actually happen, and will Google actually ever start devaluing links which it thinks are following too much of a close pattern? There’s no evidence they will, but just be aware of the potential risks. 

Linking to Irrelevant Websites

Not all links are created equal. A link that is not exactly in your niche is not going to cause harm, but there is a point at which you’re stretching the relevance too much – and the link will not be as impactful. 

And if you only chase link exchange opportunities, and the entire strategy is based on that premise, you can be in danger of losing sight of relevance. 

Inbound-Outbound Link Ratio or Organic Keyword to Organic Traffic Ratio

There are different schools of thought on different ways to weed out low quality sites. Bear in mind, there is nothing scientific to back this up, but this essentially would be a way of filtering out sites that are likely to be lower quality. 

1 – Inbound Links: Outbound Links Ratio of less than 2:1

So if a website has 500 incoming dofollow referring domains, but 1000 outgoing dofollow referring domains, we can say that they are linking out way too much, but don’t have that many incoming links. That can be common amongst link farms and private blog network sites. 

2- Organic Keywords: Organic Traffic Ratio of more than 3:1

So if a site is seen to rank for 3 times more keywords, than they have in traffic – this can be an indicator of it being a lower quality site. This may indicate they have a large spread of topics, and content pages they’re covering – but Google isn’t valuing that content enough, for them to gain a significant amount of traffic, in proportion to the number of pages. 

But at its very essence, this is purely about metric numbers and crunching numbers in different ways. You may come across a situation where you have a link swap opportunity, where the site has really good traffic, its niche relevant, but it just happens to have a lot of outbound links. It’s about weighing up the pros and cons of that link opportunity. 

Link Exchanges to New Websites

When you are using link exchange tactics, it can be effective for building links at scale, with relative ease in comparison to other tactics. With that said, if you collaborate with comparatively small sites, that have low authority and are not aged – then they may not have much impact. So just make sure you are partnering with well established sites that have at least a similar authority, or higher than yours. Where the authority level isn’t there, it should at least be very relevant, or be valuable because of it having other traffic sources driving referral traffic. 

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The other consideration is the amount of time it takes to coordinate and keep on top of all these link exchanges, and other ways in which all these small “problems” that come with the territory of link exchanges may impact you later. . For example, here is a post on LinkedIn:

LinkedIn post showing downsides of backlink exchange

While there is something to be said for the fact it saves you time in the initial stages – being fully reliant only on link exchanges, may not actually save you time and resources. 

Keeping track of them will require a proper system, and even when you do keep track, it gets really difficult when you are doing ABC link exchanges, and both parties have links going live on different sites. It’s often done via guest posting, and that’s where things get tricky. An editor may not be ok with a link, or it’ll take ages to get it live. You’ll either be left trying to figure out with your link partner where your link is, or you’ll be chasing editors on your end, to get the other person’s link live. 

Another problem comes later, also in ensuring those links stay live, and if you link to someone – hoping that they actually do stay good on their promise and link back to you.

It has been known to happen and that’s when you see posts like the following in these link exchange groups

This can just lead to bigger headaches later, and there isn’t really anyone that has the authority or ability to mediate, in situations where a website just decided to take everyone’s links out. 

Limited Pool of Targets and Niches

On top of this, if you only rely on link exchange groups, you may find its the same group of people, and therefore, generally the same pool of targets and niches being available for link placements. 

You will generally see a lot of marketing agencies, SaaS sites, MarTech and other business blogs. 

If you’re firmly in that sector, it might be ok, but if you’re not, you will find you need to stretch to find the relevance, and then you’ll have a niche irrelevance issue – which will eventually impact your ability to maximize your search engine rankings. 

In those cases, being reliant on link exchanges may not be for you, and you would be best to try a mixture of different tactics. 

Excessive Link Arbitrage

This ties in with the issue above of “death by a thousand cuts” and this is something that the industry is not talking about, but is rumbling under the surface. 

There are a lot of link exchange groups and platforms out there, which are catering to a growing audience of people looking to conduct link swaps. And the problem with these things when they reach a certain scale is it becomes hard to control who is on there, what they’re doing and what their intention is. 

For instance, if one website decided to do link swaps with 100 companies, but later decides to remove a large proportion of them, what will the link partners do if they notice? They may just decide to remove them. 

The problem is when you have a link arbitrage situation, which is rife in the industry right now. You may have something like this:

example of excessive link arbitrage

This is very convoluted and there are so many areas where things can go wrong. If for instance, one company folds, or is acquired (which is a very real possibility especially in the current market with the SaaS sector especially), there’s a risk loads of links will be removed. This then impacts the sites they’re linking to – but then who were those link spots negotiated with? 

In this example, imagine Site F was given a link in a guest post that Site E was doing on Site A. Site F wants to give Site E a linkback, but they pay someone at Site C, to give them that link. The problem arises if they don’t pay their invoice at the end of the month, and the link eventually gets removed. This leaves Site E one link down, while Site F gets their link, which is safe, since it’s on Site A ( and Site E can’t really go and get it removed since it was only supposed to be included for editorial value anyway). 

This gets further complicated by the number of random link building freelancers and new, small agencies popping up on the scene. Many are just link brokers, operating in this way by guest posting on a handful of sites, but bartering the link spots between multiple people. often not employees or editors at any of those sites, but are middlemen trying to make use of link exchanges for maximum profit. I only envisage this getting murkier and more convoluted as people try to find cheap, unethical ways to make money out of a relatively unregulated part of the industry. 

I have even heard reports of people working at SaaS and MarTech companies, selling links “under the table”

Here’s an example from Linkedin, where Jo found someone claiming they could promise a link on Readers Digest. This was likely to be a link broker operating under an alias. Whether they would get the link or not, we don’t know, but something does look off. 

This kind of mass link exchange has never been organized in this way before, so it’s hard to say what the actual risks are. However, we fed all the info around link exchanges into Chat GPT –  the different ways of doing them, potential risks, assuming only a small minority of people actually have ill intentions – and it came out with the following. 

ChatGPTs response to the different ways of doing link exchanges and its potential risks

This probably is about right, whereas if you were to follow a more natural link building strategy, you generally would only see an attrition rate of about 1 – 2% of your links in a year. 

Conclusion

So to summarise – don’t be scared about having any reciprocal links. 

Use them – but don’t overuse them. 

Focus on creating valuable content, building links through methods other than link exchanges, whether its guest posting, HARO, resource page strategy or other methods. 

Nobody has the foggiest what “excessive link exchanges” means , but if you want something to aim for, as a general rule of thumb, keep it under 10% to 15% just to mitigate any potential risk. 

What is a Backlink Exchange?

A backlink exchange (or reciprocal linking, link exchanges, link swaps) is when 2 or more sites make a mutual agreement to link to each other’s website.This generally doesn’t involve payment, and this may be a one-for-one link exchange – but a site may exchange 2 links if there is a large difference between the authority of the link exchange partners. 

What is an Example of a Link Exchange?

It could be as simple as a straight swap between 2 websites, or it could be an ABC link exchange, where Site A links to Site B, but Site B links back from a completely different website (Site C). 

Are Link Exchanges Bad for SEO?

Exchanging links will generally speaking, be good for your SEO. However, you still need to ensure the websites linking to your site are quality, authoritative and the links are relevant. 

Otherwise, swapping links with low quality sites can either negatively impact your site, or will just not have much impact as they end up being devalued. 

You also have to be careful not to fall into the realm of a “link scheme” which happens if you try to scale up the link exchange process and there is a highly clear pattern being formed due to the same sites linking. 

Does Google Penalize Link Exchanges?

There is no evidence that link exchanges will directly cause a penalty. As per their guidelines, they say that “Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” – are against their spam policies.

However, the word to note here is “excessive”, so you should still be careful, and weigh up the risk vs benefit of doing link exchanges. 

Are Excessive Link Exchanges Risky?

Excessive link exchanges, especially when there is a clear pattern, and/or a lot of AB link exchanges, may be risky. That’s why you should diversify your link building strategy and use other tactics to build up the majority of your profile. Don’t base your entire strategy on link exchanges. 

What Should Be Included In Link Exchange Requests?

If you’re leading with a link exchange request, you may as well be upfront with it, and let them know what you can reciprocate with. If people are open to link exchanges, this should be a no-brainer for them. 

But most importantly. make clear why they should even link to you at all, as you should be showing them some content that’s relevant to their audience. If there’s nothing relevant between both sites, then you might have to bridge the gap with a guest post, or do an ABC link exchange, and give that link to someone else. 

It’s also something you can leverage in your other link building tactics as well. You might find when you do resource link outreach, or guest post outreach, that people ask what you can do for them. They don’t always mean payment, and they may want a link from you, or even a social share. 

At TLG we don’t lead with link exchange requests, as we would always ensure the value of the content, or content ideas we’re reaching out with, makes it enough of a value proposition, that they don’t need a linkback to sweeten the deal. But where they do want a link back, we’ll find them a link from another guest post we’re doing. That way, it doesn’t put the burden on your site to insert links in your blogs. 

What Types of Sites Should I Exchange Links With?

If you are swapping links with other sites, you want to keep in line with Google’s webmaster guidelines as much as possible. So, normal rules apply, in terms of aiming to only swap links with quality sites that are relevant to your own website. So their inbound links, how many outbound links they have, the value of their content, and that site’s rankings – are just some of the factors you need to look at. 

Contextual relevance is also important, so just ensure when you find link exchange opportunities that you get a link that is actually niche relevant at the page level. If there no page level relevance, you should bridge the gap either by helping them add more context on the page (ie. a content refresh), or do a guest post to bridge that gap. 

The best way though, is to combine link exchange tactics with conventional link building tactics which is where a link building company like The Links Guy can help you.