Is the Reciprocal Link Dying a Slow Death?

Between webmasters becoming annoyed by “link begging” campaigns and major search engines suspected of downplaying reciprocal links in their search algorithyms, reciprocal links are slowly becoming less common. But they’re far from extinct, and they can still be useful. Hugo Guzman gives you some pointers on how to make the most of reciprocal links.

“Dear Webmaster,
I was surfing through the web and found your site. It is a great looking site and an excellent source of information, so I would like to propose a link exchange….”

“Dear Webmaster,
I am linking to your site at www.esofle.vsdfle.dflker.com/sdofiels.htm. Please reciprocate….”

“Dear Sir or Madam
This is Joe Schmoe from Spamomatic Internet Solutions, Inc. Our site www.notrelatedtoyoursiteinanyway.com is currently a PR 5. We would like to exchange links…”

At this point you might ask yourself “Another damn link exchange request? Will the requests ever end?”

Surprisingly, the answer to that question is maybe.

99.9% of all webmasters receive these types of “link begging” emails. Some are legitimate requests from individuals who like your site or have a site that contains relevant content. Sadly, the vast majority of these requests originate from spammy bulk email campaigns designed to acquire links from any and every site possible.

Because of this overabundance of “generic” link begging, the golden age of “reciprocal” linking may soon be over.

The definition of a reciprocal link is simple to understand:

“A hyperlink you put on your website that leads to a partner website. This partner website also has a link back to your website. The link is ‘reciprocated’. Reciprocal links are usually assembled into a link directory. Webmasters use powerful software that handles the assembling and managing a reciprocal links directory.”

Its origin dates back to birth of the civilian Internet. Due to the interlinking nature of the Internet, where sites link to one another to form a “web” of hyperlinked websites, industrious webmasters began exchanging hyperlinks to one another’s sites in the hope of improving their search engine position. The other basic function was to attract targeted traffic from one site to another. This is one of the oldest Web promotion tricks in the book, and laid down the foundation for more elaborate SEO schemes such as the classic “Web ring.”

Reciprocal linking in its purest form actually helps make search engine results more relevant, and gives the Web user additional resources that might not be easily discovered through the use of basic search engine queries. For example, a site about American football (NFL, etc.) might reciprocate links with a site about “soccer” football. The reciprocal hyperlinks will help improve SERPs because both sites will receive a boost in their rankings because they are being linked to by a “football” related site, and of course, they both contain legit “football” content. In addition, the Web user who may happen to be browsing the American football site can click on the link about “soccer” football if he/she is interested in gathering information about that version of the sport.

As the search engine optimization industry grew and developed, reciprocal linking became a powerful and widely accepted technique for acquiring backlinks, and therefore, improving search engine ranking positions (SERPs) for target search terms. Various software applications were developed to create and manage reciprocal links. Many websites began to build reciprocal link directories that would store scores of different reciprocal links. The industry leader in reciprocal link management is Linksmanager.com. They offer a fully automated and comprehensive system for acquiring, managing, and hosting reciprocal links.

Unfortunately, one of the undesirable byproducts of the growth of the reciprocal link industry was the proliferation of spammy “link farms” and bulk email “link begging” campaigns. A link farm is a Web page that is nothing more than a page of links to other sites offering no real content. A “link begging” campaign refers to unsolicited bulk emails that request a reciprocal link.

These techniques for Web promotion/SEO are bad enough in and of themselves, but they are only a symptom of a larger problem.

Good Reciprocal Linking vs. Bad Reciprocal Linking

The largest potential problem posed by reciprocal linking is the phenomenon of sites that link to other sites that are utterly and completely unrelated. I will admit that even I will accept a link from a site that is unrelated to mine.

In a perfect world, the best backlink is a link from a site that is directly related to the topic/theme of your site. In the real world this is not always feasible. The next best thing is to acquire backlinks from sites that are “loosely” or “generally” related to your site. What do I mean by this? If you’re site is about some sort of business product like “inkjet cartridges,” then it is typically acceptable and desirable to link to other “business” related sites even if they are not specifically about ink jet cartridges. The reason for this is simple. First and foremost, there is a chance (however slim) that a Web user might click on your link while visiting the link directory of the site that you are reciprocating with. Secondly, it is very doubtful that the major search engines frown upon links from sites that are at least “loosely” related to your site, so the link that your are receiving should be somewhat beneficial in terms of SEO.

Unfortunately, many webmasters have decided that any and all reciprocal links are worth acquiring. Typically, these webmasters come from the pharmaceutical or gambling industries, but there are also a significant amount of “mainstream” webmasters that subscribe to this “one size fits all” philosophy. So what you end up with is countless irrelevant non-themed backlinks acquired via reciprocal linking. Because of the obscure and secretive nature of SEO, it is virtually impossible to definitively assert that non-related and/or non-themed backlinks are valueless or even harmful to SEO efforts, so the practice continues to be prevalent.

There are signs that, because of the negative repercussions of spammy reciprocal linking schemes, the major search engines may be taking steps to decrease the significance of reciprocal links in their ranking algorithms. Search engine representatives at the last two major SEO conventions hinted at the fact that reciprocal links may be losing their “potency.” Here are a couple of comments from “Industry Leaders” (whatever that means) to that effect:

A comment taken from the Search Engine Strategies conference in Stockholm, Sweden in October (via www.seoroundtable.com):

“Paddy Bolger from Top-Pile says you should buy links, even Yahoo! Directory, be choosy but buy. He is strongly against reciprocal links, not that it might hurt today, but it will hurt in the future.”

A comment taken from the World Search Conference #7 held recently in Las Vegas, US (via www.linkadage.com/forum):

“Too many reciprocal links are easily spotted by the search engines. You need plenty of one way links…Keep your links on-target. If you sell jewelry, don’t get links from real-estates sites…”

Now obviously, I couldn’t find any official word from any of the major search engines (what a surprise), and I personally still engage in reciprocal linking to an extent, so don’t get rid of your reciprocal link directory just yet!

The main point that I’m trying to get across is that, like most SEO techniques, reciprocal linking may lose its significance as time passes. Don’t put your eggs in one basket. If your main (or only) technique for acquiring backlinks is reciprocal linking, it may be time for you to consider alternative means. As DazzlinDonna (SEOchat moderator) likes to say…”be prepared.”

Now let’s hit on some sound advice pertaining to the acquisition of “good” reciprocal links:

  1. Make sure that your link partners are relevant to your site in some way.
  2. Keep your links current. Get rid of “dead” (unreciprocated) links.
  3. Make sure the reciprocal link is on the domain of the site you’re exchanging links with.
  4. Make sure that your link partner is not blocking search engines from spidering their links page or that their site hasn’t been removed from Google’s index (banned). Simply search for the links page url on Google to confirm that the links page is getting indexed.
  5. Use anchor text on your links that target your keywords/keyphrases.
  6. Make sure that you have reciprocal links point back to interior pages on your site, and not just your homepage.
  7. Stay away from link partners that link back to you with redirected links.

There are many other facets to successful reciprocal link building. The key is to understand what types of reciprocal links to stay away from, and to diversify your link acquisition strategy, so that you are not left holding the bag if the major search engines decide to lessen the significance of reciprocal linking.

Until that day comes (and it may never come!), make sure that the reciprocal links that you do acquire maximize your SERPs positions.

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