Search engines realized that these types of links weren’t really an honest vote of recommendation for the websites being linked to but rather just a way for businesses to boost the rankings of their websites. As a result, less weight was given to what were labeled reciprocal links – a term which covers the scenario just referred to. As it became common knowledge that reciprocal links had been devalued, many small businesses gave up on them. Some even went to the length of deleting all of the reciprocal links they had in case they incurred a penalty against their site.
It’s a myth that reciprocal links result in a penalty though. A penalty is very different to a link being devalued. Reciprocal links still provide value to the sites involved, however, the level of that value is less than before. Some value is better than no value, and so it would be a mistake to ignore reciprocal links altogether. Even if there was no value in terms of helping search engine rankings, these types of links can still provide another benefit – referral traffic. Each link you have on another site is a way for someone to come across your site. You probably won’t get much referral traffic from reciprocal links, but again, some is better than none.
Not all reciprocal links are equal though. Some are much better than others and you need to be very careful about who you exchange links with. Firstly, you should only exchange links with websites that are in some way related to your own. For example, if you’re a financial adviser you should avoid exchanging links with a travel company. There’s no logical connection there. However, you could reasonably exchange links with a debt management company. Always think before exchanging links – “Would someone else consider this link to be logical? Or would they likely be confused as to why my site and the site of this other business are linking to each other?”
A few links from irrelevant sites isn’t a big deal, but the more you have the more confusing your site’s backlink profile becomes, which makes it more difficult for search engines to clearly establish the topic of your website and which keywords to rank it well for. Too many irrelevant links can look spam-like too, and can raise a red flag regarding the types of link building activities that you’re engaging in. Additionally, the referral traffic benefit disappears too with links from irrelevant sites. Using the above example, no-one browsing a travel website is going to see a link to a financial adviser and click on it, as it’s not relevant to their current reason for being online.
The second reason that you need to be careful about who you exchange links with is because your website can be penalised for linking out to low quality websites. Search engines rarely punish a website for having low quality sites linking to it, as who links to your site is out of your control, but you have total control over which websites you link to from your own. If search engines see that you’re linking out to what they determine to be low quality sites (which isn’t really defined anywhere but is generally accepted to mean sites which the average person would deem to be untrustworthy or set-up to clearly manipulate search engine rankings) then the trust value they assign to your website can be affected.
There isn’t a definite penalty for linking out to low quality websites – your website won’t be removed from search results or demoted 50 places – but it’s a negative signal, and too many negative signals can start to affect rankings. So, if you’re unsure about the quality or trustworthiness of a website then play it safe and don’t link to it. Also, some websites start off being good quality but over time, for one reason or another, they become low quality. It’s therefore important to review every 6 months or so which sites you’re linking to. If you find that some websites that you’re linking to have become low quality then delete those links.
Two other considerations for exchanging links are which pages the links to your website will be placed on and how many other links there are on those pages. Whilst it’s not necessarily bad to have a link to your website placed on a page specifically set-up for links, so long as the other links on that page are relevant, it’s more beneficial to have your link placed on a page that has written content on it. Ideally a link would be on a page that has content that’s relevant to the products or services that you provide, and the less outbound links there are on the page the better. If a link to your website is placed on a page with lots of other links (a rough figure being 50 or more) on it then the benefits to your site gets drastically reduced.
So, now that you know that reciprocal links are of some use, so long as you’re exchanging links with relevant websites, websites that the average person would deem as not being low quality, and links to your website aren’t sharing pages with lots of other links, the question is how to start getting these types of links? The most straightforward way is to simply ask customers, suppliers and partners who have websites to link you. You know you can trust those websites and those websites will be in some way relevant to your own. Another way is to see which websites are linking to your competitors’ websites and ask them to link to you also. If they’re linking to your competitors then there’s at least a chance that they’ll be willing to link to you also.
The last way is to contact (via social networks, emails, phone, etc.) small businesses in industries relevant to your own and ask them to exchange links. The success rate for this isn’t great, and it takes some time and effort, but it does work. Initially communicating with businesses via their Facebook page or Twitter account works best. The key is to do a bit of research on a company and to have them see your business’s name before contacting them. That way when you contact them you can personalise your approach, which improves the likelihood of success. You shouldn’t just send out hundreds of emails using the same set template. That might seem like the easiest way but your emails will mostly get ignored.
If you do take the approach of contacting relevant companies to exchange links, it’s worth first putting forward the suggestion to them about writing an article for their website in return for them linking to you. The reason being that a one-way link from their website to your own will be more beneficial than reciprocal link situation in which you also link to them. Some businesses will prefer this, as they’re getting a free page of content for their site, whereas others will insist on a link back to their own site. If they want you to link back to them also, then see if they’re willing to exchange articles as well as links, as reciprocal links placed within articles pass more authority, and will give more referral traffic, than a standalone link.
As a final point, whilst exchanging links, under the circumstances set out above, is still a valid way of building the authority of your website and attracting new visitors, it shouldn’t be your whole link building strategy. Reciprocal links should make-up just part of your site’s backlink profile. At a rough estimate, 25% as a maximum. As well as exchanging links with other websites, you also need to build links in other ways, such as content marketing, social media, commenting on relevant articles and online directories.