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Reciprocal Linking Revival

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 7th June 2011

Wait. Before you throw me to the wolves and announce that I’ve lost it, yes today I’m going to be talking about reciprocal linking, and no I haven’t gone mad. Reciprocal linking is when two websites link to each other, which is thought to cancel out the value of the two links, or as a worst case scenario can have a negative effect if done on a scale that indicates an attempt to manipulate Google, such as in the form of link farms. What this doesn’t mean is that we should spend every moment fearing giving a link back to anyone that links to us, or never linking out to anyone.

It’s all about value

For example if Koozai were linked to in a piece from the BBC, we would want to tell everyone about it. However tradition reciprocal linking states that we should under no circumstances link back to the BBC, or the link we have gained will lose it’s effectiveness. Which is madness. We’ve no doubt linked to the BBC countless times from this blog, would we then have to go back and remove every BBC link on the blog for fear they would cancel out our new link? Surely not.

After all the BBC is a large website with a high authority. Gaining a link from them is far harder than gaining a link from our website. Therefore if the search engines look at the power of our two websites it isn’t an exact match. Thus the link we achieve is of considerably more value than if we were to give the BBC a link back. We would have to give the BBC hundreds of identical links before there would start to be any flags raised as reciprocal linking.

With directory sites, there tends to be little value. Most are very low quality sites, with little value. It’s easy to get a link from these sites and the search engines can see it (after all they tend to have thousands of pages which just contain links). So linking to these weak directory sites is actually of more benefit to them than you, and its not worth the risk.

It’s about context

The BBC is quite an extreme example, and doesn’t mean that if you get a link of equal value to your own, or lower value that you should never link to the piece. It’s about the context you use when making the link. The main problem with reciprocal linking is when people have a page of links, and your website has another page of links that then points to the original linking site. Clearly this is of far less value than an article of depth with one or two links. It’s also a much clearer attempt to game the system.

By comparison if we got a link from another digital marketing blog on a good quality article that they had written, it makes sense we would want to link to it. If we’re scared of reciprocal linking, then we’ve never link to them, which would miss the opportunity to highlight another industry player that has given us credit. If we want our brand to grow we need to be seen in over relevant blogs, and by linking to their inclusions of our brand it makes us stronger in return. So in this context giving a link back, is the right call.

Just look at blogs that have pingbacks – they list the sites which have liked to their article. Google even do this on their own blog. They are linking to websites that link to them. It’s technically reciprocal linking, but if you consider the publication date of the original article, the dates of the followups and the context of the pieces it’s clear which site has the most value and wrote the content first. In this scenario, reciprocal linking is actually helping Google to authenticate who wrote the article first. It’s improving rankings, not ruining them.

It’s about the links

Another factor to consider is the link that is used. If you have a link in the footer of your website that points to a site who has a footer link back to you, then clearly that adds little value. In this context you should use a ‘nofollow’ tag or remove the link. Link networks are often found and penalised because they ask people to include reciprocal linking code that is identical on every site that uses it. This makes the link easy for search engines to identify and remove the value for.

However, if you are naturally linking to a site it could be to any page on their website, with any anchor text of your choosing. Search engines will then look at all the links this site has and will notice a mixture of different links. Likewise the link you get from the other site will differ in location and anchor text. This difference is what’s important. Lots of identical links aren’t as good as a mixture of different links. They’re also less likely to be seen as reciprocal linking.

So share the link love

Don’t be afraid to link to other websites, or to be proud of those that link to you. If someone says they will only give you a link if you give them one in return then clearly that’ll still be an issue. I’m not saying that reciprocal linking is good, more that you shouldn’t restrict your own internal linking practices to such an extant that no one ever gives you a link back. One of the best ways to get links from other places is to talk about them on your own blog initially. You can’t then remove the link if they link to you in the future. If anything that would look worse when the spider reindexes the page, and damage any relationship built with the linking site.

So go out and link without fear. The link you leave today, may be a great link back tomorrow.

What do you think? Is reciprocal linking a definite no-no, or just misunderstood?

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...

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