In this article, we’re going to discuss in full detail an SEO concept called reciprocal linking and discover how reciprocal links can influence your search engine rankings.
What Are Reciprocal Links?
Reciprocal linking is when a site links to yours, and in return, you link back to them. It sounds a bit like “You scratch my back, I scratch yours”, but the concept is more than just that.
Here’s an example of how it works:
- A high-traffic blog in your niche mentions your site in one of their posts, using an anchor text link that contains your relevant keywords.
- You read a blog post in which your site was mentioned. Then check out other posts from that blog and decide to link to it from one of your site’s articles.
…and vice versa.
Reciprocal links, also known as ‘two-way’ links, date back to the earliest days of SEO. It’s built on the concept that when two sites trust each other’s content, they would naturally link to each other.
While many modern SEOs frown upon two-way links nowadays, the truth is that it’s just a part of normal browsing and online publishing behavior.
For example, do you remember the last time you found a valuable article on the web and you just had to share it or link to it from your blog? A few days later, the author of the article returns the favor by checking out one of your blog posts and mentioning/linking to it on their site as well.
That’s reciprocal linking at work.
Does Reciprocal Linking Still Work?
It’s no secret that backlinks still serve as the foundation of off-page Google SEO. Getting links from quality sites is important because Google sees this as a vote of confidence for your site.
As in any other type of backlink, the same principle above applies to reciprocal links.
Forget about manipulating the search engines. What Google wants to see are reciprocal links that happen naturally. For reciprocal links to positively impact SEO rankings, there should be proof of trust established between two high-quality sites. Most of all, the links generated should not appear like they are part of a link scheme (more on this later).
For example, if you link to an authoritative domain and you naturally get a link back from that site, Google interprets this as a positive recommendation for you. In turn, the authority of your site will tend to increase as well as your rankings on search engines.
However, with Google constantly tweaking their algorithm with updates and refreshes, many digital marketers are led to believe that reciprocal linking no longer works.
This is far from the truth. In modern SEO, reciprocal links still packs a punch today if done right. But to be effective, you need to focus on building natural links from quality sites and avoid participating in outdated link schemes.
SEO Benefits of Reciprocal linking
Reciprocal links have a lot of SEO benefits which provide even more reason for you to implement them in your online marketing campaigns. Here are some of the most notable benefits:
- Reciprocal links help pass link equity from an authority site to your site
Also called ‘link juice’ or link equity in archaic SEO terms. This refers to the amount of domain authority and page authority that flows on a quality site. When a quality site links to you, that link juice flows or passes on to your site as well, making it more favorable in the eyes of search engines.
- Reciprocal linking helps you create a diverse link profile
In simple terms, your link profile is defined as the overall combination of links that can be found on your site. Google wants to see that you have a diverse link profile just so you are ranked highly on search engines.
For example, you need to have a good balance between inbound and outbound links. If dozens of sites link to you but you are not linking to any external sources within your content, Google sees this as a potential red flag.
On the other hand, if all that can be found on your site are outbound links (links that point to external resources), you run the risk of being seen by Google as a link farm. This, in turn, can hurt your rankings.
- Reciprocal links can help you get more referral traffic
Even if your site doesn’t receive an instant boost in search engine rankings, you will benefit from increased referral traffic from your reciprocal links.
Here’s how it works:
Get a good backlink from an authority webpage that is already ranked highly on search engines, then watch as some of their traffic spill over to you. This is not just possible, it is inevitable!
As people check out the resources and links mentioned on a website whom you’ve had a link exchange with, they will end up visiting your site too. While on your site, the web visitors also find a link that points conveniently to the original site that referred them to you. Everybody benefits.
Criteria For Reciprocal Links To Work Effectively
Despite the power of reciprocal linking, you can’t just slap a few of these backlinks together and then hope to rank well on search engines overnight. This strategy will only work if you follow certain criteria. It must adhere to Google quality guidelines and have been proven in the search engine marketing world to be effective.
For starters, here are some basic criteria that you need to follow for your reciprocal linking strategy:
- The site you are getting a reciprocal link from should be relevant to your niche. While it’s great to obtain a link from a high authority website in the weight loss niche with lots of organic traffic, it serves little to no purpose if your site is in the automotive niche. These are two sites that are totally irrelevant to each other. Google would easily frown on this and look at it as a link scheme.
- Your reciprocal link exchange partner should be a non-competing site. It is very rare for a direct competitor to agree to a reciprocal linking exchange with you. This is because of a conflict of interest, such as them not wanting to share traffic to their competition. To make the most out of reciprocal linking, reach out to sites with a similar content theme to yours but are not selling the exact same types of products and services you offer.
- You should only agree to link exchange with websites that have good SEO metrics. You should be picky about who you want to exchange backlinks with. If their site is associated with other sites carrying a bad reputation, think twice about moving further. Instead, look for sites with a good domain and page authority, has a steady social media following, and have stellar content on their webpages.
Tools like Ahrefs, MOZ, and SEMRush will help you study the SEO metrics of prospective websites you want to build reciprocal links on.
When To Avoid Reciprocal Linking?
Just like any link building tactic, a reciprocal linking strategy can be abused. As a white-hat SEO practitioner, it’s important that you become wary of situations where you should avoid reciprocal links like the plague. Here are some of those instances:
1.When a webpage screams low-quality content
When it is obvious that a page has outdated, scammy, and even plagiarized content, don’t even attempt to earn links from it. Just like in real life social interactions where you can become guilty by association with dishonest individuals. You can get Google slaps for getting links from spam pages. So don’t even think of trying it.
2.When the linking site is, in fact, a link farm
Some sites appear to have high quality content at first glance, but if you take a closer look they are actually link farms. A link farm is a site that charges a fee for having your link appear on one of their pages.
The problem with link farms is that they have dozens, even hundreds of clients at their disposal. This makes the value of backlinks on their site questionable. Link farms frequently gets hit the most. Google goes about penalizing sites for violating quality guidelines
3. When the linking site performs black hat SEO tactics
In relation to point #2 above about link farms, some sites try to temporarily jack up their SEO metrics (domain and page authority). They do it by using black hat tactics. This gives them enough time to get as many clients as possible to buy backlinks from their site. Try to avoid getting reciprocal links from such sources.
When Google detects the black hat tactics used by the untrustworthy site, in many cases it gets slapped. It can even be deindexed from search engines. And the links found on the deindexed site? Possibly demoted on search engine results as well.
Reciprocal Linking Examples
Here are some examples of reciprocal links you can typically find on the web:
- Online directory links. For your link to successfully appear on a quality online directory, usually they would ask you to link back to your site from a page on your site. This practice is more prevalent in the ancient time of SEO (before 2012). It no longer carries the same effect today. If you want to continue doing this today, make sure you only do so on quality sites.
- Roundup articles. There are sites that publish ‘best content of the week’ type of posts in a specific industry or field of interest if one of your articles get listed in one of these roundups. The next natural thing to do is to link back to that roundup from your site (to brag about it to your readers). This creates a reciprocal link.
- Links from Recommended URLs Section. Common in link building outreach, many webmasters build reciprocals through the “Recommended Links” section of their site. The webmaster links to your site from their recommended links section, and you do the same. If you keep recommended links in minimum it can still work. You should only list a handful of handpicked quality resources on your page.
High Quality Reciprocal Linking Case Study
Brian Dean, the founder of Backlinko, is one of the most respected experts in the SEO and link building field. In many of his blog posts and lengthy guides, he often links to Ahrefs.com. He mentions it as one of the top tools that he uses to implement his ‘Skyscraper Technique’.
Many of Brian Dean’s readers eventually ended up using Ahrefs as well, giving lots of traffic to the latter website based on Brian’s expert recommendation.
Ahrefs began to take notice of Brian Dean. It ‘reciprocated’ the gesture by creating a feature article on their own blog about the Skyscraper Technique. And guess what? Ahref’s in-depth guide links back to Brian Dean’s original post!
This is the article posted on the Ahrefs blog. The links found in that article are reciprocal.
This is a great example of two sites existing within the same ecosystem and recommending each other in a natural way. The reciprocal links are not generated from link schemes. They are generated but a pure intention to add value to online users.
What Google Says About Reciprocal Linking
Google did not specifically say that reciprocal links are prohibited. However, it is possible for Google to interpret your reciprocal linking strategy. That is as a breach against their Webmaster Guidelines if they violate any of these rules:
“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links,
or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links, or sending someone
a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link “
Clearly, Google prohibits reciprocal or any link purchase for that matter. Offering free products that require your users to embed your link on their site are also not allowed.
Here’s the big one:
“Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages
exclusively for the sake of cross-linking”
Here, it didn’t say that link exchanges are not allowed, only excessive ones are. Google indirectly tells webmasters that it is all right to do reciprocal links within reason. If you have hundreds of reciprocal links on your site for one partner domain, and there is little to no user value for doing so, then that’s an entirely different story.
The important thing to remember is to make sure you are doing the link exchange to provide a valuable recommendation to your audience. Don’t play games with Google algorithm with useless interlinkages.
The problem though is that Google’s guidelines are a little bit vague.
It is possible that you are not doing anything wrong to your best knowledge, but Google can still interpret your SEO strategy as a link scheme.
That’s why it’s important to only participate in a link exchange when you’re 100% sure it won’t violate Google’s guidelines.
The way to do that is to be extremely picky with the sites you exchange links with. Avoid bad neighborhoods on the web and focus on creating quality content for your readers.
Consequences Of Low Quality Reciprocal Linking
If you participate in a low-quality, spammy reciprocal linking activity and Google catches you, there are some bad things that could happen:
Demotion of your site on search results
The pages where the spammy reciprocal links. They are being shown and can be demoted in search results. If it used to appear on page 1 or 2 of Google, you might find your site on page 9 all of a sudden.
In Google’s own words: “In less severe cases, we sometimes target specific spammy or artificial links created as part of a link scheme and distrust only those links, rather than taking action on a site’s overall ranking. The new messages make it clear that we are taking “targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.”
To tell you the truth, you’re one heck of a lucky person if this is the only slap you will receive from Google.
Google Algorithm Penalties For Reciprocal Link
Its algorithm can automatically penalize your entire domain if they detect excessive and unnatural reciprocal links. They can demote all your site pages on the SERP rankings.
The clearest indication of this happening is a sharp drop in your organic traffic in just one day. You can see this data from your Google Analytics dashboard.
The feared ‘manual action’ from Google is the ultimate nail to your website’s coffin (in organic results, at least).Google, in the worst case scenario, can de-indexed, or your site will totally disappear on SERP rankings for specific keywords.
You will know that Google has slapped you with a manual action because you will receive an email notification from them about your ‘unnatural links’.
The only way to deal with a manual action is to perform a thorough site cleanup. Remove the bad links – including low-quality reciprocal links. Then request a reconsideration from Google. Recovering from a manual action can take months or even years. In rare cases, sites don’t recover at all.
How Common Are Reciprocal Links In 2019?
The popular SEO tool, Ahrefs, released a study recently about the commonality of reciprocal links in 2019. Over 112,240 top-ranking pages were analyzed using 11,240 non-branded keyword searches with an average of 5,000 to 10,000 monthly searches.
The study revealed a shocking truth:
- 43.7% of the top-ranking pages, which is almost half of all the URLs analyzed, have some reciprocal links.
- On average, out of every 10 websites analyzed, roughly 4 to 5 sites have two-way links in their link profile.
- In the top 10 search results, you can find sites with reciprocal links
This Ahrefs study is eye-opening because it shows that reciprocal links do not equate to spam. In fact, they are normal by-products of the web.
If you maintain a quality website or blog and develop a habit of linking to useful sites around you, pretty soon some of those sites will link back to you. It is a natural process that has nothing to do with manipulating search rankings.
Unfortunately, many SEO practitioners have demonized reciprocal links when in fact it is a very useful strategy for expanding your influence in your niche.
43.7% of top ranking pages in Ahref’s study are proof of that.
The topic of reciprocal linking is a divisive one in the SEO community. While many now swear against it, there are others who still get positive results from it. One thing we know for sure is that two-way links aren’t going away anytime soon.
For your reciprocal linking strategy to work, you need to approach it in the same way that you would any link building strategy:
- Focus on getting links only from quality sites that perform white-hat SEO
- Improve the quality of your own site’s content. Link out to useful resources, tools, or articles that your audience will find useful. If the site you linked out to returns the favor and links back to you, it’s an added bonus.
- Avoid bad neighborhoods. On the web such as link farms and sites that manipulate their domain authority just to convince you to buy a two way link from them.
- Use reliable tools such as MOZ, Ahrefs, or SEMRush to study the SEO metrics of your prospective link sources. If something feels wrong about their stats or the way they manage their site is questionable, move on to the next one.
- Aim to diversify your link profile by having a combination of one way, two-way, nofollow, dofollow, anchor text, and exact match URL links among many others.
Lastly, reciprocal links have a message hovering above its head, saying “Proceed With Caution”. If you manage to do that, your efforts can pay off in the form of improved search engine rankings and organic traffic.