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Link exchange is dead.

It's not that it doesn't work. It works perfectly well for those who already have their established link directories. But there are two things that kill link exchange as a viable link building tool for a new website:

  • The effort to get new quality link partners is now beyond reasonable
  • Even the best, high-quality link pages are a huge risk for you now

Why is that the case? We'll need to look at this from a historic perspective to understand this fully.

"Long ago" link exchange was one of the primary ways to promote a website. Search engines indexed a relatively small portion of the Internet, and did a poor job in ranking the search results. One of your best bets to get your site noticed was to take part in as many link exchanges, banner networks, directories, web rings and rating systems as possible.

Then Google appeared with its PageRank algorithm. All of a sudden those well-linked sites received a huge additional bonus in visibility and traffic, and their success was then certified with lots of search traffic.

Links became the hottest commodity on the Net, and PageRank the universal indicator of their worthiness. Have a PageRank 8? The world is yours. PageRank 1? I don't have the time to reply to your email. The level of manipulation to get the highest possible PageRank quickly grew out of hand. It was bought, swapped and stolen.

Link exchange underwent a huge boost in popularity at that time. It worked wonders for getting high rankings on Google. A huge set of problems developed:

  • PageRank greed. It became more complicated than the simple "link to me and I'll link to you". Who can stuff more listings deeper in their directory, who found more dirty tricks to fool their link partners out of their share of PageRank.
  • Generally low quality of link pages. These pages weren't created for people but for search engine bots. They contained a lot of garbage and most of the time were hardly usable for a human at all.
  • Quantity over quality. It was always hard to find really good link partners, so people were tempted to go for the sheer quantity of links. A great number of automated tools assisted and further encouraged that practice, no matter what they wrote in their official guidelines.

That could not last long. Google gave warnings and recommendations, but finally it had to go in an all-out war on link exchange farms. In 2008, thousands of websites were banned from Google results for excessive and unnatural linking. Forums were filled with questions, confusion and anger.

The fallout

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Webmasters took their lesson. Now no-one wants to touch straight link exchange with a 10-foot pole. Even if you find a perfect linking match for your site, your chance to get a deal is next to nothing.

A small percentage of webmasters are still eager to get all the links they can, but they aren't exactly the ones you want to get associated with.

Overall, link exchange is no longer the easy, effective tool it once was. Your best approach to link exchange today is to exchange a few links with your genuine business partners. And then forget about link exchange as a promotion method.

So what are your alternatives for link building?

If you want relatively easy methods, comparable to link exchange, try these:

  • forum posting
  • blog commenting
  • article directory submission
  • social bookmarking

These are mostly useful to build a more diverse linking profile. If you decide to go high volume, many SEO outsoursing shops will be willing to help you with these. Consider the possibility that excessive linking in such obvious self-referencing ways may be the next target for Google's cleanup…

If you want more reliable methods that will bring you top quality links, consider these:

  • guest blogging
  • press releases
  • link baiting

These require more effort but they will also give you two huge advantages:

  • They bring a lot of targeted traffic
  • They are 100% natural and will work for you many years in future

Whatever methods you decide to use, don't trust others to judge their effectiveness.

Good luck with your link building! May it always be safe, ethical and productive for you.