The History of Natural Links
Today search engines consider link exchanges on the borderline of unnatural - but link exchanges were crucial in website discovery when search engines were still in their infancy.
Link Exchanges Are Natural Links
Does above statement sound provoking? If so, take a trip down memory lane and the history of links with me. Nowadays, major search engines, most notably perhaps Google, will tell you that many kinds of links such as link exchanges are not natural. However, viewing the history of the internet, nothing could really be further from the truth in my mind. Thus I felt this blog post would be a good opportunity to tell how link pages and link exchanges actually are about the most natural kinds of links you can ever find. (However, do please note that search engines like Google may disagree, so do not take this as SEO advice, but merely as a historical perspective on how search engines have changed the meaning of natural links.)
Link Exchanges and How They Started
I ran a website mini-network about various computer games in the mid to late nineties. Back then it was a hobby which later faded as I started spending time on programming. However, back in those days, website marketing was not about search engines, it was about knowing other webmasters. People had little access to search engines of today’s quality. (One exception to this was AltaVista which lead in search quality for a while.)
Thus, people surfing the internet usually found other sites through the existing sites they knew about, so almost all websites had a links page. However, in my niche, you also talked with other webmasters about placements of button links, mentioning each other in news etc. and absolutely zero of that was because of search engines, no, on the contrary, it was about putting each other in front of more people and sharing visitors
Buttons, Banners and Webrings
While sites could link to a variety of other sites on their links page, all button-swaps, banner-swaps and webrings were usually theme based. You could often find entire mini networks of websites including all other websites with button-links. All those dealings were agreed over email or IM software like ICQ by each webmaster to each webmaster and could involve discussions about placement and similar depending on the relative size of the websites. "Placement?" I hear you ask. Well, yes, the goal was to share visitors, not link juice. To some degree it was even considered a plus to also link out to other relevant sites that would have the interest of your visitors.
You could also find banner-exchanges where you could earn impressions on other websites. A variation of this was webrings where random links from a tightly defined group of related sites were shown to visitors.
All this felt natural and was natural. These things were not done to game search engines, they were created to connect websites with each other to the benefit of webmasters and visitors.
Links Exchanges and Reciprocal Links
As search engines, again with Google being the front-runner, began ranking websites based on the amount of incoming links, many website owners began doing link exchanges with all kinds of sites en-masse. This later developed to sites called link farms. These would simply list all links submitted no matter what. As search engines started to detect and penalize these sites, more advanced schemes of reciprocal links started happening, e.g.
A links B which links C which links A. This again was abused increasing the necessity for search engines to start detecting networks.
The victim in all this? Natural links. Today webmasters are vary of simple clean reciprocal links to websites they either like, feel would be of use to their visitors or similar. Even creating a pure links page, something that existed long before search engines, involves many risks, e.g. how to avoid linking to sites that could be considered bad neighborhood by search engines.