Can Link Swapping affect your ranking?

by Tim Hill (aka Doodled)

February 1st 2013
The writing has been on the wall for long enough when it comes to link swapping. Are you still ignoring it?
The writing has been on the wall for long enough when it comes to link swapping. Are you still ignoring it?

Most now accept that the old idea of swapping links with other websites in an attempt to make search engines believe you were popular (because you had lots of lovely links) are over.

In the world of SEO such activities are referred to as Reciprocal Links and you won't find many search engine optimisers promoting the idea for at least the last 18 months.

Any modern search engine can spot that you have linked to Site A and Site A has linked back to you so it ignores them both as valueless. Ignoring is one thing, but can it actually hurt your rankings?

The answer is, it potentially can. And because of three factors:

  • You are Link Farming
  • You are using duplicate content
  • You could be linking to disreputable sites

Link Farming

Now Google has said it hates link farms (websites that are simply just links to other sites) and, if you have one of those 'Links' pages, you have your own little link farm. Depending how large your site is in comparison to the 'Links' bit is an immediate issue.

I saw a website yesterday for a wedding photographer with the standard five pages that most small business websites had. But then he had 15 pages of links to all sorts of sites. He was beginning to look more like a Link Farm with some content thrown on top than a wedding photographer.

Size aside Google knows what you're up to so why get it's back up? So far all Google has done is start ignoring the links but the warnings have been on the wall for long enough. At some point it may actively start penalising the activity as it adds nothing to the internet or user experience.

Duplicate Content

Most link swapping schemes define what text you should use in the link and in the text beside a link. For example:

Professional SEO Services clean, transparent and affordable SEO for individuals and small to medium sized organisations worldwide.

That means, by definition your link page is going to be full of text that already exists elsewhere on the internet (mainly on other people's links pages). As a page it will be unique but Google will have found each sentence on that page numerous times. More and more times as the link swapping scheme continues.

So now your page looks like it is duplicating content from around the net and you are trying to hide that fact by reordering it. In other words you are taking random sentences from multiple websites to create a page of content. A trick some scrapers use to create content farms sites full of text that they hope to get indexed and ranked.

It's another reason Google will take a dim view on your link swapping and that can overshadow your entire website.

Linking to disreputable sites

The third issue with links is that they need to be managed. You may have swapped links with Mrs Lovely's site 3 months ago but are you sure Mrs Lovely's site still exists.

Businesses go under and individuals change direction which means websites are dumped every day of the week. Very often, because the domain is old, the www is picked up by gaming, gambling or pornographic webmasters and redirected to their not so wholesome content.

If you don't check your links regularly then, unbeknown to you, your site could suddenly be linking to adult content or worse.

Again Google judges your site, to some extent, on where you link out to. Hence why it is a good idea to always include some links to whiter than white sites like Wikipedia if you can. But if you are linking out to adult content sites and especially not announcing it because the anchor text of the link says something else, then you are the worst kind of spammer and you don't even know you are doing it.

So why keep a links page?

It's a good question and the ultimate answer is don't. The chances of them causing harm greatly outweigh the non-existent benefit. "Very easy" you may think, for me to advise such a thing but much harder to hit the delete button.

If you absolutely must keep your links page (for your own peace of mind), and it is not too big compared to the size of your site then the following are minimum requirements:

  • remove all links that are nothing to do with the subject area of your website. In other words if you have a flower shop don't link to a website about computers, it's obviously spam and completely out of context.
  • rewrite the text (both the link itself and the text outside the link) in your own words so you are not serving up duplications of what is already on the internet elsewhere.

In other words create a Resources page rather than a Links page. Google is obsessed with user experience so make a page which offers something positive in that direction.

Resources versus Links

There is no particular issue having a page with outgoing links on it. Here's an example: http://bookpreview.info/buying-property-in-poland/resources/

So why is this OK?

  • the links are either to do with property or Poland and the website is about buying property in Poland so we have links within context.
  • the text beside each link was written by the webmaster (me!), not dictated by a third party, so I am not duplicating any work already elsewhere on the web, or about to appear elsewhere on the web.
  • the text in the anchor text (the link itself) is sensible. Many link swaps ask you to put in the link things like "Best Computer Site" but again with lots of links around the web saying exactly the same thing from similar pages it rings alarm bells.

Why do some sites still promote link swapping?

I've laid out why link swapping is not healthy for any website in the modern era but there are plenty of businesses out there still promoting the practice.

They do because they are milking the cow for as long as they possibly can. They know there are still people out there who have simply read that links are important and jumped before finishing the paragraph.

Don't be one of them.

And if you start being hoodwinked by SEO companies offering Link Wheels as a solution have a read of my earlier post: Link wheels, a SEO solution?