The classic SEO strategy laid bare. Link exchanges do not benefit your site on a dollar/pound by site basis.
This is my second article about SEO mythology*, you can read the previous article (The Myth of SEO), and the [ahem] stimulating discussion that followed.
The strategy your Search Engine Optimizer will offer you is this: by building a large volume of links to your website, from similar or complementary types of online businesses, blogs and sites, the SEO will decrease the number at which your site is returned in search engine results pages (SERPS).
i.e. Move you nearer to the top result.
So how do they persuade other sites to link to yours?
The classic technique is to offer the titular "link exchange" - we'll link to you, if you'll link to us. In order to preserve the perceived value of the link the SEO politely requests that you link using a specific piece of HTML and text. The SEO mails all the related sites they can find with an introductory message offering a quality exchange.
Here's an example, (almost) fresh from my mailbox.
Sports Tickets - Theater Tickets - Concerts Tickets - Event Tickets
Buy tickets for sports, concerts, theatre and nationwide events are available from our all event tickets broker. Visit our site for venues, dates and time.
Ugly isn't it?
So, now you're wondering where on your site you're going to fit all these links, and the quicker amongst you are wondering how you gain from the inbound links, if you're linking out to all these sites too.
Well, your friendly SEO is going to recommend that you install a link directory, and one that probably uses a parameterised query string to store the directory entries in either an A to Z or a categorised listing. In an ideal world, it'll use the ?id=xxxxx parameter to minimise the likelyhood of Google and other engines considering the link 'valuable'.
With me so far?
I'll summarise: the SEO is trying to increase your sites' chances of being at the top of a given search results page by building a pool of inbound links to your site, from other sites in your sector.
The other sites are tricked into thinking that the link exchange is of equal value, while your SEO attempts to create value by preventing your outbound exchange links from adding to the external site(s) link count.
If you've got this far, and you're an SEO you've probably got half your comment written.
You'll fall into one of two camps, you're either a) an uneducated idiot, or b) you agree with me, with the following caveats.
1) You can build traffic to your site by partnering with other similar and complementary websites, but the best traffic will come directly from those partners, because you're capturing users interest, rather than getting users indirectly as a result of improvements in your search listings.
Capturing users in this way is more likely to result in conversion of the user into a paying customer, or registered user - this is what matters most, and this is real marketing. Link exchange programs are not marketing.
2) The kinds of sites that will fall for a link exchange are the kinds of sites that are unlikely to deliver real value to your SERPS ranking or by customer delivery.
3) Affiliate programs are not link exchange programs. If you have a product or service that permits it, create an affiliate program that offers other sites and users a sample of what you do, or can return value to the affiliate partner (e.g. pay a % of transactions referred). This is also marketing, and successful examples can be found every day offline.
Other sites will give your message better position on their site if they get something out of it too. Remember, every pixel on your site is worth something, the same's true of theirs. A free exchange is unlikely to create real value now is it?
4) Don't spend your money on an SEO link exchange program, spend it on some targeted advertising. Even a small budget can produce excellent results if directed carefully and thoughtfully. SEO is not a magic bullet, put some effort into your marketing and you'll get something back.
As ever, feel free to agree/disagree, and I'd be delighted to see hilariously misconceived examples of introductory mails offering link exchanges. (I've got one that arrived at a clients site, from a direct competitor's SEO).
Mythology can be defined as: stories of a particular culture that it believes to be true and that feature a specific religious or belief system.
Myths can be defined as: a combination of paradigms and syntagms that make up an oft-told story with elaborate cultural associations or legends that express basic beliefs.