Link Exchanges: The Pros & Cons of Reciprocal Link Building
Attracting new readers, leads, and customers to a website they’re not familiar with isn’t easy. If it was, you wouldn’t need blogs like this. The more sites that spring up, the more competition you’ll face.
That doesn’t mean growing your audience is impossible. Taking steps to improve your overall SEO will eventually help your content rank higher in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). This generates momentum which fuels truly rapid growth.
Link building can also drive more traffic to your site, reciprocal links being one method. Reciprocal linking agreements involve partnering with other website owners (sometimes unofficially and informally, as you’ll learn in a few moments) to share each other’s traffic. You link back to their sites a certain number of times, they link back to yours. Everyone wins.
Theoretically, at least. However, the topic of reciprocal links and just how valuable they can be is a somewhat controversial one.
Reciprocal linking agreements (or link exchanges) have pros and cons. This blog will cover some of the more noteworthy, helping you better understand if driving more traffic to your site with reciprocal links is a good idea.
Table of Contents
The Pros of Reciprocal Links
There’s no absolute answer to the question of whether reciprocal links are useful or harmful. Potential benefits of reciprocal links include:
They’re Budget Friendly
Getting people to notice your new site is a major challenge. The Internet is crowded as it is. Vying for the attention of users who’ve never heard of your brand before isn’t necessarily an easy task.
One way you can jumpstart a site’s growth is by paying for ads. However, you may be on a tight budget right now.
Consider taking advantage of reciprocal links if so. Entering into an agreement with someone else to link to their site if they link to yours costs essentially nothing. It’s a strategy worth keeping in mind during the early stages of your brand’s growth, when funds are probably limited.
Reciprocal Links Build Backlinks
Google’s algorithm prioritizes a wide range of factors when determining how authoritative a given site or page is (and thus where it should show up in relevant SERPs). One factor that appears to have become increasingly valuable in recent years is a strong backlink profile.
When another reputable site features a link back to yours, it indicates to Google’s algorithm that your content is at least decent enough to convince others to promote it. This boosts the chances of your content ranking highly in SERPs.
Reciprocal Links Allow You to Network
Ideally, you want to avoid giving business to the competition when linking to someone else’s site. You should try to enter into an agreement with someone who operates in your niche but doesn’t offer a direct alternative to your products or services.
That said, odds are good those you enter into reciprocal linking agreements with will cover topics that overlap with your own in at least some ways. If you own a recipe blog, you probably won’t be linking to, say, archery sites very often.
(Although stranger things have happened.)
Connecting with people in the same general industry or field as you is always potentially beneficial. There are very few downsides to having a robust professional network, and more than a few upsides.
Reciprocal Linking Can Deliver Results Fast
While there are many legitimate methods of improving your site’s rankings, they can take time to yield results. It’s tough to be patient when progress maybe means your site got 10 new unique visits last month instead of the usual seven.
This is one reason reciprocal linking arrangements are so attractive to many website owners. A well-planned and implemented reciprocal linking strategy can help you grow your audience much more quickly than you might if you relied on other methods.
However, there may be a price to pay for taking a shortcut. Without dismissing the benefits reciprocal links can offer, as the next section of this article explains, there are ways reciprocal links can have the opposite of their intended effects if you’re not careful.
The Cons of Reciprocal Links
Reciprocal linking agreements and strategies aren’t universally helpful. Before deciding if reciprocal links represent a smart way to grow your site, consider the downsides:
You May Miss Out on Conversions
The Internet is full of distractions. Users respond accordingly. There’s a reason the average amount of time a user spends on a given page may be as little as 15 seconds.
Keeping users on a page long enough for them to make a purchase/sign up for your email list/share your content on social media (you get the picture) is critical. This doesn’t merely involve offering engaging content on user-friendly pages. You also need to limit distractions that could stop a user from taking a desired action.
Sometimes, links can function as distractions. If you’re often linking to someone else’s pages, there is a relatively good chance many of your site’s visitors will click on those links.
Keep an eye on conversions when first experimenting with reciprocal linking. If conversions seem to drop off right around the time you start linking to other sites with greater regularity, you probably need to try a new strategy.
Google Is Anti-Reciprocal Linking
This is one of the most important points you need to remember if you’re thinking seriously about reciprocal link agreements: Google considers excessively exchanging links with others to be a type of “link scheme.” Too much reciprocal linking is against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines because it could be seen as a form of unfairly manipulating Google’s ranking system. If you get caught violating Google’s policies, your site may be penalized, potentially rendering your links as useless as your old Hotmail account. This is the most important statement in this entire post! Reciprocal links are highly risky. Period!
To avoid Google’s wrath, start small when deciding how many weekly or monthly reciprocal links you and another site owner will include in your content. You can increase the number over time if you find there are no significant consequences.
More importantly, make sure your reciprocal linking strategy is based on sharing links when it makes sense to do so. When you link to someone else’s site (and vice versa), it should be because there’s a practical reason to do so in that context. Don’t randomly link to an article on “10 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Raised in Orphanages” in a blog entry about “10 Kitchen Hacks You MUST TRY.”
All that said, this isn’t meant to discourage you from giving reciprocal linking a try. Those who’ve researched the topic have found that many high-ranking sites across a range of topics feature at least some reciprocal links. While this doesn’t necessarily confirm that reciprocal links will help a site grow, it does give some reason to believe reciprocal links aren’t inherently harmful to a site’s ranking.
But, you may find the opposite to be the case and that Google could eventually end up punishing reciprocal links in the future (and not just ignoring them).
You Need to Trust Your Partners
Finding someone who you can trust to enter into a fair reciprocal linking agreement with may be difficult if you don’t have any close friends or colleagues who also run sites similar enough to yours to justify reciprocal linking.
Any agreement you enter into must be designed to be as mutually beneficial as possible. Ideally, you should link to a partner’s site about as often as they link to yours. However, again, you also need to make sure you’re linking back to a partner’s site and they’re linking back to yours only when it genuinely makes sense to do so. You don’t want to force links simply to meet a quota. You have to strike a balance between trying to link back to someone’s site about as often as they link to yours without letting a quota dictate your content strategy.
Regardless, don’t rush into these agreements before you’re confident you can expect to get something out of them. Unfortunately, many scammers promise to link back to your site if you link to theirs, but they never actually, well, do.
You might not even want to enter into an agreement at all. Some have found that the best way to use reciprocal links is to simply identify sites whose content offers genuine value to your target audience. Link to those sites regularly, and their owners may take notice, returning the favor accordingly.
Finding Partners Can Be Tricky
Finding link building partners you can trust to hold up their ends of the bargain is already difficult. It can be even more challenging to find partners who are willing to enter into reciprocal linking agreements and whose sites are popular enough to drive sufficient traffic to yours.
It may not seem worth your time to enter into agreements with webmasters whose sites get about the same amount of traffic as yours does. You’d prefer that webmasters who run more well-known and established sites would link back to yours.
However, there’s very little incentive for them to agree to do so on a regular basis. Yes, they may occasionally decide based on their own personal judgment that your content is worthy of linking to, but because they don’t stand to benefit much from partnering with you, they probably won’t be all that eager to formalize the arrangement.
Time is money. Although reciprocal links are technically affordable when compared to other means of spreading the word about a new site, you should account for how long it may take you to find reciprocal linking partners whose sites are reasonably popular, but not so popular that they feel no need to enter into an official agreement with you. This is another reason you might benefit most by linking to other sites in the hopes that their owners will link to yours instead of trying to essentially sign a “reciprocal linking contract” with other webmasters.
Your Content May Be Associated with the Wrong Sites
Carefully review the content of any site you’re considering for a reciprocal linking arrangement before moving forward with one. To some extent, your audience might associate your site with one that offers crappy content if you choose the wrong partners.
True, the degree to which your audience associates your content with the content of those who link back to you may not be enough to completely ruin your credibility. After all, the editors of The Wall Street Journal can’t exactly prevent the owner of Steve’s Stellar Stock Tips Blog from linking back to them. The fact that a less-than-authoritative content creator linked to an authoritative source doesn’t mean that source is now less authoritative by association.
The problem is, your brand probably isn’t as big as The Wall Street Journal. Maybe your audience is relatively new. You’re still proving to them that you can and do consistently deliver strong, trustworthy content. If new members of your audience are made to associate your strong content with someone else’s weak content when they’re first forming their opinions about your overall brand, you may have to work harder to compensate for a negative first impression.
Just remember, there’s an easy way to avoid this problem: thoroughly vet your options when choosing who to enter into reciprocal linking agreements with. Also keep in mind that the people whose sites you’re linking to will want you to publish quality content when linking to them as well. You need to do your part by striving to publish the best content you can.
Reciprocal Links: Right for Some, Wrong for Others
Again, reciprocal links aren’t inherently “good” or “bad.” They serve a genuine purpose in some circumstances. In others, they can actually hurt your site’s rankings.
You need to evaluate the major pros and cons to determine if the benefits of a reciprocal linking agreement outweigh the potential consequences for your specific site. If you’re on a tight budget, you trust your linking partners, and you’re cautious to avoid excessive and unnatural links, you may want to experiment with this way of driving growth. If you have the money and bandwidth to focus on “safer” ways of getting the attention of users, perhaps you should consider other options.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building. Connect with Sam on Linkedin.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building. Connect with Sam on Linkedin.