Reciprocal Linking: Does It Still Work?

Over the past, arguably one of the most reliable link strategies has been directly exchanging links with a partner websites. Given Google’s relentless attempts to stamp out any ‘manipulation’ in its search results, is reciprocal linking still considered as a valid SEO strategy? In fact can it even potentially harm you in today’s SEO environment? In this article we’re going to take a look at reciprocal linking – what it is, how it works, related strategies, and whether it will still actually help you reach the top of the search results.

What Reciprocal Linking Used to Look Like

A few years ago, it was common for a website owner who knew a little SEO to have a ‘Links’ page on their website (this might be disguised by a title like ‘Friends,’ or ‘Partners’). This was essentially a page dedicated entirely to linking to other sites – on the proviso that those sites also linked back. The idea was that both sites would receive a boost and everybody wins. In the old days, that used to work just fine – but as you’re no doubt aware, Google has been very active in changing the game in the last couple of years.

If done right, link exchanges can still be a powerful strategy – but the way you approach them needs to be very different from how it was done in the past. For starters, let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of what actually causes a link to help your ranking, and then we can get into how to use link exchanging effective in the current SEO climate.

Understanding the Transfer of ‘Link Juice’

Here’s a really important concept that most people have never really understood about how exchanging links worked in the first place.

When you link out to another site, you pass link juice to the page you’re linking to – but at the same time, you dilute the power of other links coming out from that page. This is because every page only has a limited amount of ‘juice’ it can pass, and that will be divided up between the links on the page. The more links out from a page, the less power each of those individual links will pass on its own.

This is very important, because it means when you exchange links you don’t necessarily gain something without losing something. If you’re linking to your partner from a high Pagerank page which only contains their link, and they’re linking from a page with no Pagerank and fifty other reciprocal links, you’re losing on that equation. You’re giving them a lot more ranking power than they’re giving you.

In other words, when you’re looking to exchange links it’s very important to look at factors like the Pagerank of the actual page where your link will appear and how many other links are pointing out from that page (remember, every one of those dilutes the power of the link you’ll receive from that page). High Pagerank plus low outbound link count lead to a strong link – so if you’re exchanging, make sure your link is on a strong page and not relegated to a list with a hundred other links.

The Days of the ‘Link Partners’ Page Are Over

To make a long story short, having a dedicated link partners page on your site is no longer a good idea. For starters, it makes it really easy for Google to identify a pattern of link exchanging on your site, and you may be penalized as a result of that.

Link pages have always looked a little spammy, and even back before the Penguin crackdown began you could get penalized for having a sloppy links page linking to a lot of low quality sites or ‘bad neighborhoods.’ But now, Google has become much more sophisticated at recognising when sites are linking to each other purely for SEO purposes. Putting up a links page on your site these days is almost like an invitation to Google to come and bust you for manipulating search rankings (in their words).

That doesn’t mean the power of reciprocal linking is dead – it just means you need to be a little more strategic and clever about it. You need to adjust so that your strategy won’t trip off Google’s penalization filters, now or in the future.

Reciprocal Link in 2013 and Beyond

One of the most important aspects of utilizing reciprocal linking these days is to make it appear as natural as possible.

As always, the sites you exchange links with should be highly relevant to yours. That has always been a good rule of thumb, and now more so than ever. By exchanging with relevant sites you already tick the first box for being natural, because sites on the same topics tend to link to each other.

The next element of natural reciprocal linking is for links to be embedded within content, rather than on a stand-alone links page. Look at your articles and figure out where your partner’s link would work – linking to another of their content pages, rather than just the home page, can also be effective. Likewise, don’t get all your partners to link only to your home page – get some good ‘deep links’ to your sub-pages too.

Also, make sure you mix up anchor text, both in the way you link to partners and the way you have them link to you. Don’t always use your exact keywords – use synonyms, variations and more natural looking anchor texts. Explain to your link partners that it can be more effective for them to use a less ‘perfect’ but more natural anchor text when you link to them.

Relevance is Still Key

I know we’ve mentioned this already but just to highlight the point: only exchanging links with relevant sites is super important. Google will ping you with a penalty in a heartbeat if it picks up a bunch of reciprocal links between you and sites that have no obvious relevance to yours.

Watching Out for Nofollow Links

Another important factor here is to make sure your link partners aren’t adding a nofollow attribute to the links they give you, which means those links will pass no Pagerank and therefore not help improve the ranking of your site. This means they get something from you without having to give anything in return (except maybe some traffic through the link).

Linkody can be very useful in this respect, because it will tell you whether the links you’re monitoring are nofollow or not. That way if you notice a link partner has changed their link to you to nofollow, you can hit them up about it.

Three Way Links and Link Wheels

Three way links or link wheels are basically linking systems which involve more than two sites. The idea is that because no two sites in the system are linking directly to each other, they’re harder for Google to pick up on.

If you set up a private blog network yourself with a lot of sites randomly linking to each other, there’s little Google can do to recognise it, but make sure the sites are hosted on separate C Class IP addresses (a bunch of sites hosted on the same IP all linking to each other is a big red flag). Generally it’s a bad idea to buy paid three way links or link wheels as you really have no control over what the person selling them is doing in terms of who else she links to from the same sites and how those sites are linked together. When it comes to arranging three way links with other webmasters, bear in mind that Google’s algorithm is getting much better at spotting this kind of thing these days so don’t look at it as a loophole for getting around potential excessive reciprocal linking penalties. Wherever there’s a recognisable pattern in your link profile that seems unnatural, chances are Google can already see it or will see it pretty soon.

Criteria for an Effective Link Exchange

The moral of the story is that when it comes to exchanging links, you need to do so only with relevant, high quality sites and do it in a natural way – the way two high quality sites in the same niche might naturally link to each other in their content without ever even arranging to exchange links.

If in doubt, use the following criteria to determine the difference between a useful link exchange and one that may potentially hurt you:

  • Is the partner site high quality and does it have Pagerank?
  • Does the page where your link will appear have Pagerank?
  • Is the partner site relevant to yours?
  • Are there many other links on the page where your link will appear, and can the partner guarantee a maximum number of links on that page?
  • Do you have control over the anchor text of your link?
  • Does the partner site appear in Google? (If not, it may already be under a Google penalty and linking to it could be harmful to you.)
  • Are you able to have your link embedded in some relevant content?

If you follow these guidelines, you should be able to continue using link exchanges effectively. Remember though, as with all types of link building this is best done in moderation – a lot of reciprocal links, no matter how well disguised, will eventually be picked up as a pattern by Google and your site will take a knock as a result.

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