As a lawyer, you're very familiar with the idea that when something looks too good to be true, it probably is. You may have seen search engine marketers who talked about free link exchanges for attorneys, and you may be wondering whether a free link exchange could be the SEO answer you've been looking for. Unfortunately for lawyers, using free link exchanges is usually a bad idea and will almost never give you a net positive result for your search rankings. In this guide, you'll find out why free link exchange used to work—but also why today, it's a losing game.
What is a Free Link Exchange?
Free link exchanges exist because of the way that Google computes whose website is listed where in search rankings. Because Google's search spiders aren't being assisted by humans who can tell them exactly which websites appear to be high quality and which are low quality, Google has to take some shortcuts. One of the ways that Google tells whose website is better and more authoritative is by seeing how many different links there are to that website.
If a website has a huge number of inbound links, it's obvious that a large number of people respect—or at least are interested in—that website. This means that Google will put it higher into the rankings. Free link exchanges developed because website owners realized that, at least initially, Google didn't make much distinction between different types of inbound links. When all links were valued similarly to each other, free link exchange was an idea that made sense and worked to lift many websites into the top page of search results.
Do Free Link Exchanges Really Work?
While it's true that free link exchange was a good idea several years ago, there are a few reasons that it doesn't work very well today. Free link exchanges were identified by Google as being rife with abuse and inorganic link building. Remember, the whole idea behind using inbound links in the rankings algorithm was to make sure that people could see the highest quality links first. Now, with people gaming the search engines, low quality links created by free link exchanges were suddenly at the top of the heap.
Google didn't like this very much, and responded by figuring out some algorithmic ways to detect when free link exchange was being used in place of organic link building. For example, when Google detects that you have a very high percentage of links coming from known link exchange websites, you may now incur penalties to your rankings so that those links are now completely without value.
Can a Free Link Exchange Ever Help?
It is sometimes possible to do free link exchanges that will make your website rise in search rank. However, you're not going to be able to just do free link exchange in huge, wholesale quantities. Instead, keep your free link exchanges personal: try exchanging links with some bloggers or other attorneys that you know, and bring in some reciprocal links in this way. You won't be penalized for a small number of reciprocal links, and this kind of linking is a good way to contextualize your blog and help it become indexed properly.
Why Do People Still Promote Free Link Exchanges?
Some attorneys are surprised to learn that free link exchange no longer works. After all, if you search the web for information about link exchange, you'll find tips and hints about it on many websites. However, you need to keep a couple of things in mind when seeing free link exchanges promoted online.
First of all, many of the websites offering free link exchanges still want to promote themselves. If you want to get unbiased advice, you can't get it from someone who has a stake in making sure you're using link exchange. Second, many of the articles that are positive about link exchange were actually written several years ago, when free link exchanges were still potentially a good search engine optimization strategy. The landscape of the web changes so quickly that you really shouldn't trust any marketing information that is even a few years old.
Help, I'm Being Penalized for my Free Link Exchange!
Some people don't find out that Google penalizes free link exchanges until their webmaster gets an email from the search engine. If Google believes you've been using link exchange websites too much, you'll receive notification that your website is over optimized and contains suspicious links. You'll be given an opportunity to have the links deleted in order to stop the penalties from occurring.
To get the links taken down, start by running a free inbound link checker tool. You'll find out which websites are currently hosting links to yours, and can begin the process of emailing each webmaster. This can be long and tedious, and it's possible that some or all of the webmasters you contact will be unavailable or unwilling to take down the links. If this happens, you should alert Google and show them the paper trail you've built, indicating that you made a good faith effort to have the link taken down.
Will Free Link Exchanges Become Popular Again?
Occasionally, you'll see someone talking about a new system for creating free link exchange that is supposed to work better. Sometimes these involve link exchanges only for sites with high PageRank values, or exchanging links in an automated way but only with contextually similar sites. The truth is, all of these methods are still relatively indiscriminate, and are likely to be perceived as deliberate attempts to overoptimize your website.
Don't count on free link exchanges ever regaining their popularity. If they do, it will only be because they've truly become “intelligent” link exchanges that only work to link websites that truly have common features and would have good potential for reader crossover. Until this happens, it appears that like keyword stuffing and article spinners, free link exchanges have gone onto the trash heap of SEO ideas that used to work.