If you’ve been running a blog for a while, you’ve probably encountered emails send via your contact system or through whatever public email you have listed. They’ll have a variety of subject lines and text in various degrees of understandable English, but they all come down to one thing: a request.
“If you link to our site, we will link to your site.”
On the surface, it seems like a fine deal. You get a link, you don’t have to pay for it with anything other than a link of your own, everyone is happy, everyone benefits, you move on with life. However, there’s a problem, and that problem is the Reciprocal Link Issue.
Understanding Link Value
In order to understand reciprocal links and the issues they bring, you first need to understand exactly how links have value in the first place. Obviously, it’s an SEO thing, which is why you’re here, and is why people ask for these links in the first place.
Links have value assigned to them by Google, the grand overlords of all things web search. This value points from the linking site to the destination site. The destination site is the one that gets all of the value, and that value is in part determined by the size and general potency of the linking site. This is why a link from Forbes is going to be much more valuable than a link from a no-name WordPress.com blog I set up today.
There are other factors that modify the value of a link. They are:
- The relative values of the two sites. A link from that no-name site linking to Forbes will be basically worthless for how little it brings to the table. A link from one no-name site to another may have some minor value.
- The relationship between the two sites. If site A and site B are both owned by the same person and are part of the same content network, their links to each other may not be as valuable.
- The relative industries of the two sites. In other words, how relevant the sites are. An SEO site linking to another SEO site will pass a lot of value. A site about dog training linking to a site about classic cars is mostly irrelevant and may be counted as spam.
- The position of the link. A link in the body of an article is potent. A link in the navigation or footer is less so. A link hidden away where most users won’t see it is almost worthless. Hidden links can be viewed as spam too.
- The meta status of the link, i.e. nofollow or noindex. A nofollowed link means the link should not pass value. It’s an all-or-nothing flag, though, so you can’t force a link to pass partial value.
- The trust of the sites in question. If a site has been caught using black hat techniques in the past or is under the effects of a Google penalty, their links may be temporarily or permanently rendered worthless, or could even be considered spam and detrimental to the destination site.
So, there are a lot of modifiers, but here’s the thing; most of them are recent additions. It used to be, years ago, that a link was a link. They had a more or less fixed value. The general size of a site made a link more valuable, so links with better PageRank were highly valued over links with low or hidden PageRank, but that was about it. People sought links where they could get them.
To a certain extent, this thinking still continues today. It’s why you get reciprocal link requests in your email, and it’s why you still see lists of sites where you can get links that have PageRank attached, even though that ranking hasn’t been publicly updated in two years or more.
The Reciprocal Story
Reciprocal links were one way low quality site owners would attempt to boost their sites. It was a technique also often used in circular link building, link wheels, link pyramids, and other schemes. Boost a site directly, or boost dummy sites and use the higher value and ranking of those sites to boost a core site even further. It was all gaming the link system and it all lead to that list of factors above.
Reciprocal links work on the assumption that you either assign no value to a link out – in which case you think of the incoming link as essentially free – or that you think all links hold the same value.
The thing is, that’s no longer true. Most of the time, when you get a reciprocal link request, the site owner is running a site you wouldn’t want to look at. Their sites are spam, are thin, are basic, are boring. They’re mostly unrelated to your business, too, which means your links to them aren’t going to do much even if your site is high quality.
What you need to keep in mind is that a link is essentially a vote, a recommendation, as to the quality of the destination site. A link on your site is you telling your readers to check out the site you linked to. You’re saying “I vouch for the quality of this site, check it out.” In almost every case, this is true. If you don’t want it to be true, you will tell people. You will tell your readers by saying “this is a spam site, I’m just linking as an example.” You will also tell Google by nofollowing the link. This removes the effective value of the link while still being able to use it.
There’s also the issue of link building in an artificial manner. Google has a pretty firm stance about artificial link building. They don’t want you to do it. Any form of link building that violates their terms of service is a bad link and can hurt your site, generally by getting the value of those links removed. It’s not a penalty, so much as the removal of an excess in value you shouldn’t have had.
The bottom line, if you don’t trust the site that wants you to link reciprocally, just don’t do it. It will hurt Google’s trust with your site.
The Problem with Reciprocation
I just linked to Search Engine Land in the previous paragraph. Now imagine they publish a post tomorrow linking to this site, even this blog post. From the outside, what’s the difference between that and a reciprocal link? There’s nothing, right? No outside indication points one way or another about the intention or the interaction behind the link. I didn’t go and ask them for this hypothetical link, but Google has no way of knowing whether I did or not.
This is the inherent problem with filtering reciprocal links, and it’s what leads to the question in the title. Is it bad to link to sites that link to you? No, not necessarily. Can you imaging what kind of world we’d live in if no site could link to a site that linked to them without damaging themselves? Sites would scramble to gather links in and would refuse to link out for fear of invalidating their incoming value. It’s no way to sustain a link web of value.
Reciprocal link building is just an excuse Google can use when they remove the value from bad links on your site. If they see a bunch of links to sites that have nothing to do with your site, and they see all of those sites link back to you, it’s pretty clear that something went on there. You aren’t likely to be using your classic car blog to link to a foodie blog and a spammy blog about dogs and a blog filled with stolen content, right? The only natural explanation, as far as Google is concerned, is that the link was somehow artificially created. Either they approached you or you approached them about a link swap or link share plan, or money was involved in some way. In any case, it’s not a relationship that Google wants to foster.
Keep your links natural, and only link to sites you trust, and you won’t have an issue with reciprocal links.
Filtering Links to Maintain Value
Here’s the thing; a lot of legitimate webmasters are on the prowl for legitimate links, and they’re going to find your site and approach you about a link exchange in some way, shape, or form. They do this because it’s effective to build links, if you do it the right way.
In fact, there’s nothing wrong with establishing a partnership with another blog and exchanging links on occasion. You can even do it with relative frequency without hurting either one of your blogs. There’s no difference from Google’s perspective between planned link exchange, and links swapped back and forth when one site owner sees that the other linked to them.
However, before you think about accepting a link exchange, you need to filter the link. You need to make sure it’s something that you’re willing to put on your site, and that won’t hurt you. Here are some basic criteria, but you can also just use a gut feeling. If the offer seem spammy or illegitimate, don’t do it.
- If the email talks about the benefits to your Google ranking, be skeptical. Legitimate partnerships know links have SEO value, but will instead bring up how your businesses are compatible and how you might be able to forge a mutually beneficial relationship.
- If the website they’re asking you to link to looks spammy, just ignore the request. If the site is terrible, a link from it isn’t going to do you any good, and if the site is actively malicious, has stolen content, or is a participant in a flagged private blog network, it can be detrimental to your site to perform the link exchange.
- If the site is in an unrelated industry, ignore the request. Relevance is a big part of link value these days, and linking to and irrelevant site isn’t going to do much. Getting a link from an irrelevant site will at best give you a tiny bit of value, but more likely will give you nothing.
Here’s a special situation; what if the person asking for a link is a friend of yours? Maybe they don’t really know better, but their site is in an entirely different niche. If both you and this friend are members of the breakfast club, but you have a site about dog training and they have a site about model airplanes, that link isn’t going to do anything. You might be tempted to give in simply because they’re friends, but knowing that the link wouldn’t help either of you is a good reason not to give in.
At the end of the day, you really just need to ask yourself one question. “Is this site something I would recommend to my readers, and is it something they would care about if I did?”
If it’s not something you would want to recommend to your readers, don’t link to it. They aren’t going to be happy when they click a link you created and they find it to be a terrible spam site. If it’s not something you think your readers would like or would want to convert to, it’s not something you should link.
Again, links are a vote of confidence, a recommendation, for the site on the other end. Accepting a reciprocal link request is just saying you’re going to exchange recommendations without considering the audience. If the site isn’t something you would genuinely recommend, don’t make the link.
By the same token, however, you don’t need to be afraid of linking to a site that already links to you. You don’t need to scan for reciprocal backlinks, because many of them will exist, and they won’t be detrimental. You certainly don’t need to delete links just because the linkee linked back to you. Have no fear; those links are just fine. It’s really only when the quality and value of the site is low that the link becomes worthless or detrimental to you.