What Are Reciprocal Links? (+ Best Practices)
Reciprocal links were once viewed as an effective tactic to boost the standings of a website in the eyes of search engine algorithms.
The thing is, as algorithmic updates continue to change the way search engines view SEO strategies, do reciprocal links still stand up to the test of time?
The answer: as with any that pertains to SEO, it’s complicated.
To explain further, here you’ll learn:
- what exactly what a reciprocal link is,
- how to use reciprocal links in present-day situations,
- and what the reciprocal link best practices are.
What are Reciprocal Links?
Have you ever heard the old idiom, one hand washes the other?
Nevermind if you haven’t, but essentially this phrase perfectly explains what a reciprocal link is – a “you link to me and I’ll link to thee” kinda deal.
To put it plainly, reciprocal links are a mutual exchange in which two parties agree to link to each other’s website. This type of link exchange is carried out in the hopes that it will improve the search engine rankings of both websites.
Essentially, reciprocal linking is a link exchange.
But hang on a minute, aren’t link exchanges against Google’s Search Central Guidelines?
Technically yes. As Google puts it: “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
But as is the case with many things SEO related, it’s a little more nuanced than the above paragraph. Google goes on to point out that “excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” are what their search engine algorithm is likely to penalize.
The word that needs to be highlighted here is: excessive.
Why does Google define it in this way?
Well, think about it. Reciprocal links are bound to occur naturally, right? Of course. In fact, you’d be surprised just how common organically occurring reciprocal links are. For further insight, check this out. Based on a case study carried out by Ahrefs on no less than 140,000 odd domains, only 26.4% of them did not contain reciprocal links.
So seeing as nearly three quarters of domains contain reciprocal links, how can you use them for the benefit of your SEO efforts?
Let’s look at that now.
Reciprocal Link Best Practices
If you could point to one factor that Google values over everything else, it’s the appearance of organicness. Google’s algorithm is completely geared towards finding and weeding out tactics that are used with the intention of manipulating search results.
For this reason, the way in which you approach reciprocal linking should be carried out with this same intention – building links to your domain through organic means. Now, that’s not to say you can’t dust your gray SEO hat off once in a while. Just do it with caution. Remember that anything that appears inorganic and blatantly manipulative, Google is likely to penalize.
I know this may seem a little ambiguous at this point, but I think it’s super important to understand that reciprocal linking is technically a form of link exchange. And as was just pointed out above, Google isn’t exactly fond of this tactic.
With that in mind, building reciprocal links that appear natural or are a one-off is perfectly fine. And could help the authority of your website.
For these reasons, before deciding to integrate reciprocal linking into your link building campaigns, here are a few factors to consider:
- Is the domain you are wishing to build a reciprocal relationship with likely to improve your own site’s organic traffic?
- Does the target domain produce content that’s both within your niche while also being helpful to your audience?
- Is the domain a direct competitor?
If the answer to the last question is yes, reconsider. It’s not a good idea to boost the rankings of your direct competitors. Doing so could potentially boost their SERP positioning and nullify the effectiveness of the authority you are building for your own website.
With all that said, let’s take an in-depth look into exactly how you can use reciprocal links to boost your website’s SEO.
How to Use Reciprocal Links
To really hone into what is considered okay for reciprocal linking, here’s a few proven tactics that will help your site’s SEO but, at the same time, not result in a penalty.
1. Be Sure the Link is Contextually Relevant
The first vetting process you can use to determine whether a reciprocal link will be useful to your SEO efforts is to ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the link contextually relevant?
- Does this link appear natural?
- Will the link be helpful to my audience?
The answers to these questions should undoubtedly be yes.
Essentially, if the link acts as a resource to your readers, adds value to the context of your article, and is authoritative, there is no reason why you shouldn’t consider adding or receiving a link within this protocol. However, if you’re linking to or receiving a link from content that is irrelevant, doesn’t enhance the resourcefulness of a post, or is blatantly an attempt to boost search engine rankings, it’s best to consider taking a different approach.
2. Build Inbound and Outbound Links That Adds Value
Furthering the last point, to vet whether a link is going to add value to a reader’s on-page experience, put yourself in their shoes. While reading an article or guide, if you happened to click on a link to gain further insight into the topic at hand, what would you expect to find?
Something that’s helpful, right?
For example, if I added a link out to a third-party website within this post, you’d expect it to be relevant to link building. Conversely, if I added a link out to a travel blog that detailed the best places to visit in Paris, that’s certainly not going to add value to your knowledge on this topic or your overall reading experience.
For this reason, by linking to content that’s high-quality and is a trusted resource, you’re not just adding value to your audience, you’re also signaling to Google that the points you’re making within your content are backed up by factual, accurate information.
The same goes for inbound links or backlinks that point to your website. If it so happens that the websites you are using as resources link back to your content, it’s a show of endorsement and, as long as it’s not excessive, will boost your SEO standings with Google.
3. Encourage Reciprocal Links Through Natural Means
When it comes down to it, building reciprocal links doesn’t have to involve incorporating any out of the ordinary tactics. Instead, traditional, Google-approved strategies will work just fine. Specifically, you can encourage the chances of reciprocal inbound links by using typical backlink building strategies, like guest posting and other forms of content promotion.
Doing so will encourage backlinks naturally and align with the results that Ahrefs found in their reciprocal backlink study.
4. Use Nofollow Links
Google understands that there are certain circumstances that call for links that may not necessarily fit within their guidelines. This may include ad links, paid affiliate links, and any links that may be viewed as irrelevant to on-page content. These types of links could very well fall under the category of reciprocal linking. If you’re ever worried that a reciprocal link could hurt your SEO efforts, it may just be the time to employ a nofollow link.
When a website links to another website using the nofollow attribute, it tells Google not to pass along any of its PageRank value. This is useful for when you don’t want to endorse a particular website or you don’t think it’s as authoritative as you’d like.
It’s important to note that nofollow links still pass along some traffic and can be helpful for SEO purposes. Google prefers websites to have a wide range of different link types in their backlink profile, nofollow links being just one of them.
The linking landscape has changed a lot since the dawn of Google and SEO. For this reason, it’s important to keep up with the latest algorithmic updates to be sure you aren’t violating best practices.
Remember, reciprocal links can be a valuable tool for improving website SEO. Just be sure to use them in the correct way. Spammy, unnatural links are only going to hurt your website’s rankings and are best avoided. If ever in doubt, keep the tips we’ve discussed here in mind. They will save you the headache of search engine penalization.