When to Use Reciprocal Links

The debate rages on over reciprocal links, as it has for years. Many SEOs say that they’re worthless; that at best, Google ignores them, and at worst, treats them as indicators for spammy websites. Guess what? It isn’t that simple.

Let’s start by considering why reciprocal links got a bad reputation. Way back before Google’s algorithm became so sophisticated, it only considered a site’s incoming links from other sites in rating quality and relevance. A link to another site was a “vote” for that site. When SEOs and site owners realized that they could simply “trade” votes with reciprocal links and improve each other’s standing in the SERPs, reciprocal links became very common.

Not long after that, such links began to be abused. Link farms started cropping up. Some black hat SEOs even built three-way link schemes to hide the quantity of reciprocal links they used to game the system. It didn’t take too long for Google to get wise, of course, and now reciprocal links as a rule don’t count much, if at all, in the way of raising your site’s ranking.

Given this background, you probably should not use reciprocal links just for raising your Google rank. It’s a waste of time. Some SEOs even seem to think that Google’s algorithms include some kind of percentage trigger that warns them a site is spammy if its link profile includes a lot of reciprocal links (more on that in a moment). This doesn’t mean that such links are useless, however.

Yeah, I know; I thought there was no point to reciprocal links myself, and that they could even be dangerous, until I read Eric Ward’s article on the subject. Granted, it’s a two-year-old piece, but I believe he makes valid points that hold up well even today. At the root of his argument is the implication that there are reasons other than sheer ranking to use reciprocal links – and that Google understands this.

Ward’s example will drive you batty – literally. He holds up a website that ranks quite high in its niche, the Southeastern Bat Diversity Network. Their goal is to “conserve bats and their habitats in southeastern North America through collaborative research, education, and management.” With what I’ve read about white-nose syndrome, this seems especially urgent, and not just because Halloween is right around the corner. It’s not the bats he wants you to look at, however (even though they’re kind of cute); it’s the site’s link profile.

“If you take a look at other top sites within this subject area,” Ward explains, “you start to notice…[they] have a tendency to link back and forth to all the other sites devoted to bats…The reciprocal linking percentage across the top five sites is over 80%, and for the top three, it’s 100%.” This must sound like an incredible contradiction to those SEOs who think reciprocal linking is either worthless or actually harmful to your search engine ranking! What is going on here?

Bats, it turns out, are a niche subject. Just ask any vampire. Seriously, though, because of the nature of the topic, any visitor to a website about bats is likely to be interested in any other website about bats. Bat lovers aren’t looking to buy bats; they want information. As Ward notes, “this reciprocity percentage is perfectly natural, believable, and in no way an attempt to fool any algorithm or improve rank. These sites link to each other because they share the same passion for a very specific topic and want to make sure those people visiting and reading their content find other sites about the same topic.”

That last point bears repeating. These sites are not using reciprocal links to fool the algorithm and attempt to gain a higher ranking in Google. They’re linking to each other because they know their visitors would benefit from seeing other sites that cover the same topic! And Google seems to understand this, since the SBDN and other sites Ward named don’t seem to be getting penalized for their reciprocal links.

So where did the idea that Google might be using reciprocal links as an indicator for spammy websites come from? Well, what is normal behavior for a niche-focused, content-based website isn’t exactly normal for a more broadly focused e-commerce website. Ward uses websites that sell NFL jerseys for his example in this case. In that category, literally hundreds of sites fight for the top spots, and the same reciprocal link profile that looks normal for the bat sites looks extremely spammy for the NFL jersey sites. In fact, he’d consider 80% reciprocal links among several website with this focus to strongly indicate that they were all owned by the same person.

Please note that the key difference between the bat sites and the NFL jersey sites in the examples are their subject matter. That’s what makes one link profile normal and natural and the other suspicious. You just wouldn’t expect a set of websites devoted to selling NFL jerseys to reciprocally link to each other to that degree UNLESS they were all owned by the same person.

A reader of Ward’s article weighed in with a comment wondering whether Googlebot can “consistently and accurately tell the difference between…a ‘perfectly normal’ high reciprocity ratio site” and one where a high percentage of reciprocal links indicates something more suspicious. I imagine Google handles this the way they handle most things: with special algorithms backed up by human eyes in certain cases. To oversimplify, I’d think simply counting the number of sites or hits that are relevant for “bats” (the animal) as opposed to “NFL jerseys” might give them a clue. Believe it or not, despite “bats” being one word and “NFL jerseys” being two words, Google delivers nearly twice as many hits for the latter as for the former. If someone who put relatively little thought into how to tell the difference between a niche topic and one with broader appeal could figure that much out, imagine how sophisticated Google’s approach to this must be by now.    

What does all this mean for you? If you’re trying to use reciprocal links in any kind of unnatural way to raise your rankings, you should stop. Don’t even consider it; Google will probably catch you. But if reciprocal links happen to make sense in your case – if your niche is such that your visitors will truly benefit from  knowing about the other websites with which you’re exchanging links – you don’t need to fear that Google will smear your site with the spam brush. Good luck!

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