What should you do when you inevitably encounter reciprocal link requests?
I’ve been in the trenches, building links, for quite a few years. I’ve seen every type of SEO and link building-related article published.
Trends and algorithm updates come and go, and the ebb and flow of the SEO blogosphere forms around them.
There’s one topic that doesn’t seem to get much practical consideration– reciprocal linking.
Sure, people write about why you should and shouldn’t engage in reciprocal linking practices, but it’s purely hypothetical.
If you’re an active link builder, sending outreach emails daily, you come across reciprocal link requests often. And no one discusses that. They portray reciprocal linking as if it’s some shady, backroom deal between devious webmasters. That’s not usually the case.
For the average link builder, a reciprocal linking request is usually the result of an average outreach email.
“I’ll consider adding your link to my resource page, but would you mind linking to me as well?”
So, what do you do in this situation? Do you ignore it and move on to another target site? Or do you honor their request and grant them a link?
There’s no easy answer.
But it’s a big part of the real link building experience, and most advice I see is far removed from a link builder’s daily operations.
This won’t be a full-fledged guide, like many of my recent posts. Instead, I’ll keep it short and practical.
When you’re hit with a reciprocal linking request, ask yourself these four questions.
Is it a Link Exchange Scheme?
Many SEOs and link builders will tell you that reciprocal linking is always bad. You get no value from the link, Google will see it as spammy, and you should run away in terror, whenever you receive such a request.
There are even rumors that Google has discounted reciprocal links.
They say, if a site links to you, and you link back to that site, neither link will carry any weight, and it may even negatively affect your site.
This way of thinking is ridiculous.
But there are instances when I’d stay far, far away from reciprocal link requests— when they’re part of a link exchange scheme.
Now, back in the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for a bunch of webmasters to get together and form a blog network in which they would weave a tangled web of reciprocal links to each other, hoping to boost search engine visibility for their sites.
Google has since cracked down hard on those networks.
Google’s link schemes page says, “Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” is a red flag.
Here’s what that page had to say about reciprocal link schemes, when it was more verbose:
“Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. However, some Webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results.”
Google is worried about link exchanges that try to “game the system.”
These are reciprocal links that provide no value for users.
To some extent, people outside of the SEO industry will view what we do as trying to “game the system.”
I view it as marketing.
But good marketing must provide value for its target audience.
Linking to a website that has nothing to do with your own, just to earn a link, definitely counts as gaming the system.
Even if the request isn’t part of a greater link exchange scheme, Google may see it that way if your website and the other website are not related.
Think of it from a user perspective– would clicking that link be valuable to either site’s users, or would they just add clutter to a page?
I appreciated this perspective from an article at Hobo-Web:
“Linking is the foundation of the web. Without links, there would be no web as we know it, no Google even, so never be scared of linking to useful sites or pages. In fact, Google WANTS or, at least, EXPECTS you to do this and will thank you for it at some level…. Probably.
Bear in mind reciprocal links with a website may indicate to Google the two sites are ‘related’ in some fashion. Do you really want that?”
So, do your best to avoid these link schemes. If you get an email back, saying your link depends on awarding a link to an unrelated website, especially one that seems shifty or spammy, it’s best to take the loss and move on.
Is it Natural?
The next question you should ask is, “Would the reciprocal link be a natural fit for my site?”
This should be an easy question to answer if you consider your audience.
Usually, for a real link builder, the answer to this question will be “yes”, since you’re sending outreach to other websites that relate to your own site. There are exceptions to this rule.
If you’re trying to get a link from a news site, or if you’re trying to get a link from a general “lifestyle” type site, your link may make sense in the context of one piece of content, but be irrelevant to other pieces of content. It’s all about using common sense.
In either case, it should be easy to determine if the reciprocal link is a natural fit.
This post, over at SEOChat, sums it up nicely. Here are some highlights:
“There are many good and valid reasons to consider reciprocal links. Under the right circumstances, they can help your site in the search engines, and provide benefit to your visitors as well. Good old fashioned link trading works well, provided it’s done correctly, and with the right goals in mind…
When considering a reciprocal link arrangement, use the following rule of thumb, and it will create the best results. Think of the interests of your visitors first and ignore the search engines…
… Providing outgoing links, to other useful and informative sites, raises a Website’s value as a resource. Visitors will regard the site as a source of useful links.”
If you’re doing any SEO work, including building links, always take search engines into account. But that bit of advice about considering your audience is priceless. Put yourself in their shoes, and the answer will become obvious.
But then, we get to one more hurdle– what if you have too many reciprocal links? Will it damage your search engine visibility? Will Google see you as spammy?
What percentage of your links should be reciprocal?
As with almost every question, regarding Google’s algorithms and SEO, there’s no definite answer.
Again, use common sense.
In this article, Eric Ward talks about how some websites in the bat rescue/science/health field will have a link reciprocity percentage of almost 100%.
He also mentions, how in this case it’s natural.
If you work in bat preservation, you want to share information about bat preservation. You value other people’s work, because it’s relevant to your own. It makes sense that each of these sites links to every other site doing similar work. They care about bats, and their visitors want the most possible information about bat preservation.
Eric also gives another example– sites that sell NFL Jerseys.
“Now, if I examined five or ten sites devoted to another (broader) subject and found the same 80% or higher reciprocity rate, that IS suspicious. For example, if the subject matter is NFL jerseys, where hundreds of sites fight for SEO supremacy, it would be an absolute red flag for the engines if we found any ten NFL jersey sites linking back and forth to each other with the same high RP as our bat example.
In fact, I’d argue that 80% reciprocity among a collection of NFL jersey sites was a signal they might just be operated by the same people. That’s the very definition of a link network and link spam, yet the reciprocity percentage was no different than my bat examples. The only difference was the subject matter.”
Usually, you’re competing for dominance in the SERPs. I don’t recommend giving reciprocal links to everyone who comes your way, even if they’re asking for a link exchange, because you contacted them first.
If a reciprocal link is a surefire, natural fit, though– I say, go for it.
Is it Logistically Possible?
For many link builders, the third question is the big deal breaker. You also have to ask yourself if a link exchange is logistically possible.
You might not offer a reciprocal link if:
- You’re an agency link builder, working on behalf of a client;
- Your website doesn’t have a ‘resources’ or ‘useful links’ section, and there’s no good spot to place the link;
- You work on an in-house marketing team, and you either don’t have access to the website, or there’s too much red tape in the way.
In these cases, you may want to add that reciprocal link, because you get one of the links you wanted, and because it serves your audience.
But you just can’t, so you have to walk away from the whole thing.
Sure, sometimes, you can contact the right people and make the link exchange happen. But that can be a time-intensive process, and it’s not always worth the effort.
This is often difficult and heartbreaking. Building links is hard and having to throw away a good link for any reason is frustrating.
If you’ve worked as a link builder for any amount of time, you’ve likely experienced having to turn down a reciprocal link request, because it just wasn’t logistically possible. It stinks, but it’s okay. You just have to move on.
If a link exchange is the difference between earning a killer link and not earning it, though, I’d urge you to go through the channels and make it happen. This is assuming it’s a natural link from a relevant site.
Are You Otherwise Offering Value?
Finally, we come to the most difficult of the four questions.
Is someone asking you for a reciprocal link because your content, your linkable asset, or even your website just isn’t valuable to them or their audience?
Think about it.
Successful link building is about providing value to the target site. If you’re not providing value, you’re not getting a link.
They need to get something out of the deal, too.
If the only value someone can see in your link request is the possibility of them getting a link, you may need to reevaluate your linkable asset.
In other words– it’s not them, it’s you.
If you get a ton of reciprocal link requests, especially from smaller websites, you probably need to rethink what you are offering.
One way or another, you have to provide value.
I don’t think all of your links should be reciprocal. Usually, and unless you run a bat preservation website, I don’t even think most should be reciprocal.
But when you’re building links daily, you’ll encounter these requests. If a link exchange provides real, natural value to both parties, I think it’s something you should strongly consider.
Reciprocal linking is not a link building strategy, but it’s something you’ll be exposed to fairly often.
I recommend taking it on a case-by-case basis and using common sense. A few reciprocal links won’t harm your website, and they may provide real value to your audience. Like most aspects of link building, reciprocal linking is neither all good nor all bad.
It is what you make of it.
If you have questions about reciprocal linking, ask me in the comments.