For years, I’ve received email requests to engage in link exchanges with other sites. Because Google and other search engines base a site’s PageRank in large part on the number of incoming links to that site, many webmasters and SEO types see pre-meditated link exchange as an easy way to build rank.
I refuse nearly all link exchange requests, to this or any other site I manage. On occasion, webmasters have taken umbrage at my refusal. Because I’m tired of explaining why I don’t do link exchange, this page exists to explain why I think the practice is wrong.
PageRank is based on the number of incoming links to a site for good reason – it’s a wonderful organic measure of the usefulness of a site to the internet at large. Remember when Google turned search inside out? Most of us had never seen search results so clean and useful. The “link love” formula was the secret sauce that made the service so useful. Link love works because it makes every link on the internet a vote. (Read John Battelle’s The Search for an excellent history and explanation of the process that lead to the development of PageRank.)
I believe there are both sincere and insincere reasons for creating a link between two sites. A sincere reason is that the webmaster or author feels the external site would be of value to his/her readers.
An insincere reason is that the the linker stands to gain (financially or otherwise) from placing the link. An insincere link is an attempt to “game the system” — to take a brilliant system where “links equal public votes of confidence” and turn it to their personal (usually financial) advantage.
A sincere link serves the public. An insincere link is self-serving. Every sincere link strengthens the quality of search for every user of the internet. Every insincere link accomplishes exactly the opposite, because it pushes sites higher up in search rankings not because the internet public at large found them useful, but because two webmasters decided to scratch each others’ backs. Insincere links are bad for the health of the internet.
I value the organic usefulness of the internet. I don’t do link exchange for the same reason I try not to litter or do other things that are bad for society. It’s just bad juju.
I understand that not everyone looking for link exchange is insincere. Some link exchange requests are written by humble, everyday webmasters who aren’t trying to “game the system.” The problem is that even seemingly sincere mutual links ultimately have the same effect as insincere links. Because they’re pre-meditated, they’re not organic, and they ultimately weaken the system. Think of politicians doing each other mutually self-serving favors — the favors may be small, and the politicians might not be corrupt, but ultimately, the favors are for the benefit of the politicians’ careers, not for the public they’re supposed to serve.
So my response to link exchange requests that seem basically sincere is this: Link to my site if you think your readers would find it useful, interesting, etc., and do it without hoping that you or your site will benefit from the link. If you think my readers would find your site useful, by all means drop me a note and let me know you exist. But if you ask me to engage in link exchange, understand that I’m highly predisposed to refuse. The fact that you asked for a link exchange to begin with means I didn’t find your site organically.
That doesn’t mean I categorically won’t link to you in the right context, at the right time, if I find your site interesting. But none of my sites are link farms. Except within clear advertising areas, I don’t — and won’t — treat links like currency.
A final note: Link exchange is no longer considered to be a very effective technique. Google and other search engines are always on the lookout for ways to weed out those who would game the system, and now devalue sites found to be involved in the process.