For sites that are just getting off the ground, link exchanges--done properly--can be a simple way to build Google cred. Everyone else has to rely on the poor man's search-engine optimization: If you've ever hung up your own shingle on the Web, you've probably gotten an e-mail to this effect at some point: The idea is that if you can coax a link out of a large site like CNET, Google and other search engines will record that link as a vote of confidence in your site's worthiness and improve your ranking in searches for certain topics, thereby boosting traffic to your site.
The technique is quite old, dating back even before Google and its PageRank system emerged as the Web's dominant search engine. But does it still work? And at what point do two or three sites struggling to get off the ground veer off the road from mutual assistance to a full-blown spam operation designed to game the system?
Evan Duffield, for one, thinks it still works. You have to get the ball rolling. Google's novel approach to site indexing way back when was to evaluate the worthiness of a site based on how many other sites were linking to it, also taking into account the worthiness of the sites passing along the links.
This meant, and still does mean, that a link from a site with a high PageRank counts for way more than a link from a site with low PageRank.
But how do you get a link from one of those sites? In a Web as vast as this one, getting attention for a new site, even one with superb content, is a very difficult undertaking. Bloggers can discuss each other's work and help each other build up a following, but if you're selling a product or service it can be much more difficult to climb the ranks of search results for things like "day-trading software" when you're starting from scratch.
So Webmasters like Duffield turn to solicitations for links. Danny Sullivan, who writes about search-engine optimization for Search Engine Land , says "if you're a new site, absolutely you want to be doing link building. But you need to be doing that in a smart fashion.
That was a mistake, he said; the result of prematurely hitting send on an e-mail template. Duffield compiles his targets by searching for sites that are related to finance and stock trading, and attempts to contact a general e-mail address to pass along his site's information and offer a link exchange.
Google does not like that people would simply be buying links to do better. While paid links are clearly off-limits, Google appears to ban link exchanges in general , saying it does not allow "excessive link exchanging" but failing to define exactly what constitutes "excessive.
For the most part, however, the practice is rampant enough that only the most egregious violations get snagged. In an era where SEO is a budding industry unto itself, link exchanges are perhaps the most basic approach.
Far below the realm of those dithering over Google's search index are those like Duffield trying to make something out of literally nothing. While he needs to build PageRank equity to get started, Duffield acknowledges that at a certain point that Google is right: Link exchanges only work to get one's name out there: That's when your search ranking and therefore traffic really starts to grow, he said.