The world of SEO is a dangerous place to have a baseline level of knowledge. People can read a few blog posts, understand the basics (Keywords, Content and Links) and go to work on their websites. There are many mistakes to be made in this situation, especially in the world of link exchanges. At its most basic level, it is generally understood that the more inbound links a website has, the better its ranking will be. This understanding has spawned a whole link-exchange industry. You can join link exchange directories and if you are the primary contact for a website you have undoubtedly received countless emails – both spam and legitimate – from people who want to exchange links with you. As with so many things in the online world, link exchanges are not as simple or straight forward as they appear.
The best way to think about a link is as a recommendation between websites. When you link your site to another website, search engines count it as a recommendation of that site by you. As with any recommendation, its importance is totally dependent on the source of the recommendation. Online, this all breaks down to what Google calls Page Rank. Page rank is tabulated from a complicated algorithm involving a multiplicity of factors but that can be effectively represented by a number between 0-10 with 0 being the worst and ten the best. [Note: Don’t confuse Page Rank with SERP rank. The former is a quality index which impacts the latter. The latter (Search Engine Results Page rank) is the position of your site’s link on a search engine results page.] If you spend lots of time on your website adding pages and pages of unique keyword rich content, it is updated frequently, and other high-page-rank sites link to you, then Google is going to rate your site towards the top end of the scale. (To give you some context, whitehouse.gov and harvard.edu each have a page rank of 9. Most Real Estate sites are a 2, 3, or 4 although a rare few rank higher.) A favorable page rank will inspire other sites to want to exchange links with you because a link from your site will really help their own Google Page Rank. There are two factors that you need to be aware of in this situation.
- First, you want to make sure that the site you are linking to has good content that will add value to your client’s experience. For example, if a client follows a link off your page and it leads them to a bogus website it will not reflect positively on you. On the other hand, a recommendation by your site that proves useful will encourage people to come back in the future and trust your opinion.
- Second, you need to be aware of whether the reciprocal link from this other site will do you any good. This is where page rank comes in. If your page rank stands at 5 and the site you are linking with is at a 2, then the link will really not help you in the eyes of Google and thus you should not waste your time with it.
Of course, this second consideration can be overlooked if the site to which you are linking has information that will be useful to your clientele or you have some other motivation such as a close personal or business relationship. However, if you are purely linking for linking sake, then you will want to be discriminating in you choices. There are many free online utilities that check page rank but the best of the bunch is a plug in for Firefox called The SEO Toolbar. This little toolbar sits below your other toolbars in Firefox and can give you immediate data on any site you happen to be visiting. By using these tools to evaluate the quality of the websites that are contacting you, you can make informed choices about which you want to link to and which you want to ignore.
Link building can be a very good avenue to pursue in your ongoing work to optimize your site. But like all decisions you make about your website, it is imperative that you utilize the tools that are available to you and make sure that your decisions are based on data.