As the name suggests, reciprocal links are backlinks that you exchange with another website. It’s like saying, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
It can look different in different contexts, but the objective is the same:
Link exchanges are designed to generate backlinks and improve search rankings.
And though that may sound very simple and straightforward, there are – unfortunately – some caveats and strings attached.
Exchanging and swapping links is somewhat controversial. It’s considered a divisive topic within the SEO community and has traditionally been shirked by those who prefer to stay away from link building and instead focus on the technical side of things.
But here’s the truth: You can’t be successful with SEO if you don’t embrace link building in some form or fashion.
Reciprocal links might be laced with controversy, but it’s all about how you approach it and choose to execute.
What Does Google Have to Say About It?
Google talks a big game when it comes to link building schemes.
And while we could summarize their stance, it’s better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
As Google explains, “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.”
Google even goes so far as to mention specific link schemes that negatively impact site rankings in search results.
Buying/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.”
“Excessive link exchanges” – which are defined as “link to me and I’ll link to you” relationships.
Partner pages used exclusively for the sake of cross-linking to other sites.
Any large-scale guest posting campaigns and article marketing.
Using automated services, programs, or tools that are designed to create backlinks to your site.
Requiring links as part of a contract, arrangement, or terms of service with a third-party.
Google has a number of other rules and requirements, but these bullets provide a pretty good basis for understanding how Google feels about link exchanges.
However, Google’s wording also leaves the door open for some interpretation.
Notice that Google doesn’t say “all” link exchanges negatively impact site rankings. It says “excessive” link exchanges.
Google’s own algorithm appreciates and values linking – so they aren’t telling people to stop linking back and forth. Their goal is to curb the spread of irrelevant links that fail to add value to the reader.
And if we’re honest, Google isn’t as savvy as you might think – at least on this front.
Unless you’re out there blatantly peddling links for all to see, Google doesn’t always have the capacity to tell the difference between an organically earned link and one that was swapped. They might have an inclination, but it’s difficult to prove.
Who Uses Link Exchanges?
If you listen to your traditional run-of-the-mill SEO, they’ll tell you that link exchanges are bad news.
But that’s a pretty basic, one-dimensional viewpoint.
The truth is that reciprocal linking is very common.
Ahrefs even ran a study on the practice where they analyzed a random sampling of 140,000 domains that had a minimum of 10,000 organic visits per month. (In other words, they looked at websites that ranked well on Google.)
Here’s some of the data they collected:
74 percent of websites have reciprocal links
27 percent of websites have at least 15 percent overlap between sites they link to and sites that link to them. (In other words, one-quarter of all websites get 15 percent of their inbound links via reciprocity.)
Even Ahrefs found that 19 percent of their domains link back to them.
This simply tells us that link exchanges are common – not necessarily that they’re always a good practice.
It’s kind of like saying, “Everyone is doing it!”
Mass participation doesn’t necessarily justify participation.
But then again, it shows that it’s possible to leverage link exchanges without experiencing any ill effects.
How to Use Link Exchanges (Effectively)
Effective link exchanges require purpose and attention to detail. You can’t be lazy or haphazard.
Here are some helpful tips and techniques to keep in mind as you go down this road:
1. Focus on Relevance and Quality
Backlinks make the internet go round.
Think of links like massive highways that run between cities. They’re used by internet users to travel from one page to another.
Google has no interest in penalizing the right types of links. After all, they lead to better user experience. (They also provide an easy reference point for which pages are considered trusted sources of information by experts within their respective industries.)
What Google wants is relevance and quality.
Filter all of your linking – reciprocal links included – through these two filters.
Relevance means linking to/from sites that have overlapping subject matter and/or target audiences.
For example, a car insurance website could easily link to a travel planning website where they talk about taking road trips, an auto body repair shop, or even a page from a bank or credit union that talks about financing car purchases.
A link to an ecommerce sporting goods website or blog about video games would be far less relevant (and more likely to get flagged).
Quality is the second factor. Google uses its PageRank formula to determine how authoritative websites are.
If you have lots of links from websites with low domain authority, this doesn’t do you any favors. However, links from high-ranking websites that have quality content will certainly benefit you.
2. Always Research the Domain Ahead of Time
If you’re contemplating doing a link exchange with a website, you should do a little research on the front end.
Here are a few recommendations on what to look for when vetting domains:
Use the Ahrefs tool to determine if the website has a domain rating of at least 40. (The higher the better. Anything below 40 isn’t going to yield a ton of value.)
What’s the website’s monthly traffic look like? Having at least 5,000 organic visits per month is a good threshold to aim for.
Is there a strong connection or correlation between the content we’re planning to swap or exchange?
Is there direct relevance between the website’s audience and my own?
If a website checks out on all of these fronts, it’s unlikely that Google would flag the link. This means it has a pretty good chance of passing along value.
3. The Best Link Exchanges Are Natural
Though it’s certainly possible to exchange links without having any sort of previous connection with the blogger or webmaster on the other end, it’s not preferred.
The best link exchanges are the result of well-cultivated relationships.
In other words, you’re much more likely to get SEO value if you know the business and have interacted with it before. That’s because they view you as an organic source of information and insights – not someone who is simply asking for a quick link.
4. Your Content is Key
Not only does the relationship need to be natural and relevant, but so does the content.
Backlinks included in blog posts should be totally relevant to the topic at hand. If they seem out of place, it raises questions about authenticity.
But it’s not just Google that will frown upon these links.
Users/readers will, too.
They aren’t going to click on a link that doesn’t offer relevant value as it pertains to the original article or blog post.
There are a couple of different approaches you can take to ensure your content is always relevant.
The first (and preferred) method is to develop quality content and then target only blogs and websites that are very closely related to your subject matter.
The second strategy is to find the websites you want to obtain links from and to generate fresh content that’s specifically tailored to their website (and possibly even a specific pages on their website).
5. Use Your Competition as Inspiration
Did you know that you can actually take a peek behind the scenes and study what your biggest competitors are doing?
With tools like Ahrefs and Moz (among others), you can dig in and see precisely where your competitors are garnering backlinks, which pages are working for them, etc.
This does a couple of things for you.
It shows you which websites they’re generating links from (providing you with viable candidates to be link exchange partners).
It helps you see which content assets are generating the most links. You can use this information to shape your own content strategy moving forward.
If nothing else, keeping an eye on your competitors allows you to see where you stand, where you can improve, and what’s separating your website from theirs.
What Not to Do (Mistakes and Poor Uses)
Now that we’ve discussed the right way to approach link exchanges, let’s highlight a few of the mistakes you don’t want to make:
1. Have Other Linking Tactics in Your Strategy
Link exchanges can work, but they shouldn’t be your only method of obtaining backlinks to your site.
It’s best to think of reciprocal links as one element of a big picture strategy.
You also need to use other tactics like guest blogging, social media, and technical website optimization. A failure to account for other aspects (such as these) will limit your link building results and make you more susceptible to being penalized by Google for manipulation.
2. Don’t Over-Optimize
Google takes anchor text very seriously. When exchanging links with a third party, make sure you’re very clear about how you want your web page to be linked.
Overly optimized anchor like “best restaurant” is much more likely to get flagged than something more intuitive and long-tail, such as “top-rated restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida.”
3. Don’t Move Too Fast
It’s tempting to want immediate results, but link building takes time. It doesn’t matter if you’re generating reciprocal links or if you’re doing it all 100 percent organically.
However, you must be gradual and meticulous in your approach.
Acquiring too many backlinks in a concentrated period of time will make you appear spammy and disingenuous.
The better approach is to pick up a few links here and there – spread out over many weeks, months, and years. This is much more reflective of how the marketplace works.
4. Avoid Fiverr Backlinking Services
Perhaps you’ve heard about cheap services you can use to generate backlinks for your website.
Sites like Fiverr have hundreds of so-called SEO professionals who will help you build reciprocal links with other websites.
But do they actually work?
The bottom-line is no they don’t work.
They might work in the sense that you’ll generate backlinks, but it’s the origin of the backlinks that’s the issue.
When you pay someone $5-$25 for dozens/hundreds of backlinks, you’re not getting quality links from high authority websites.
You’re getting crappy links from link farms and private blog networks (PBNs) – which are both things Google hates.
In the early stages, you might like the results. But after a few weeks or months, you risk penalization.
SEO and link building expert Neil Patel goes so far as to say, “Do NOT use those services. Google will ban your site faster than you can say, ‘I didn’t know I couldn’t do this.’”
5. Be Mindful of Your Link Percentages
Keep an eye on your numbers and analytics.
One thing to be especially mindful of is your overall link percentage.
In other words, what percentage of your links are coming from exchanges?
While there’s no hard and fast principle, the general rule of thumb states that you should have more than one exchanged link for every 10 links you garner from natural sources.
6. Avoid Site-Wide Link Exchanges
A few years ago there were websites practicing site-wide link exchanges. (Trading dozens of links in one fell swoop.)
As you can probably guess, Google didn’t appreciate this. They saw it as spammy (which it is) and quickly nixed the practice.
Google almost certainly has parts of its algorithms that flag this behavior. While it’s fine to have multiple links to and from the same website, they should be natural and gradual.
You’re far better off focusing on cultivating relationships with a variety of domains than you are concocting some master plan for gaming the system with a single website.
What’s Your Link Building Strategy?
Link building gets a bad rap from outsiders.
But these are people who typically have a very shallow understanding of how link building works in concert with other elements of SEO and digital marketing.
If you talk to someone on the inside, you’ll discover that it works.
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.