Why Subject Specific Reciprocal Links Will Always Be Useful

It’s hard to believe it has been over two years since I wrote Link Building’s Cult Of Reciprocity over at SearchEngineLand. Reciprocal links remain a polarizing topic.

Is a U-turn OK?Most SEM’s who were anti-recip remain so, at least based on what I read on the blogs and columns. Among those who were for recips, I’ve read more than a couple change their position and state they are no longer of any value. Some continue to propose a “magic trigger” percentage exists that somehow turn your reciprocal links from good to bad in the eyes of the search engines.

Here’s an update to the original, with my current thoughts on reciprocal links in red.

There cannot be an absolute and the rules of reciprocity cannot be perfectly defined (in other words, if you tell me that if I go over 33% reciprocity with my inbound link profile, I will tell you that’s insane, besides being incorrect). Having a high reciprocity percentage is thought to be a red flag that the engines can use to devalue your links. The math is simple. If 100% of any site’s inbound links are reciprocal, then those links can’t really be trusted as an indicator of quality, because it could simply be a case of “you link to me and I’ll link to you” (this can and does happen, but it isn’t a quality specific occurrence. Great sites do it as do crappy sites. A great site that reciprocates links with other great sites does not harm itself in any way).

For some subjects, it is perfectly normal, almost expected, that the link reciprocity percentage should be extremely high, approaching 100%. The more nichified your subject matter, the more likely it is you will have a high RP (Reciprocity Percentage) with sites that have the same or similar subject matter.

baby fruit bats show their love for reciprocal linkingCase in point? The Southeastern Bat Diversity Network, an organization with a goal to “conserve bats and their habitats in southeastern North America through collaborative research, education, and management.” Very noble indeed. I’ve always felt bats needed help.

If you take a look at other top sites within this subject area, you start to notice something. The other sites devoted to bats have a tendency to link back and forth to all the other sites devoted to bats. While this should not be surprising, many people miss a key point about what this means. Reciprocity link spam cannot be determined by a fixed number. A reciprocal links percentage cannot be set in stone. What’s reciprocally spammy for one topic is perfectly natural in another topic.

Study the backlinks to a few related sites, such as BasciallyBats.org, Batcon.org, BatResearchNews, and North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR), and you see that each of these sites tends to link to the other, and vice-versa. The reciprocal linking percentage across the top five sites is over 80%, and for the top three, it’s 100%. And this reciprocity percentage is perfectly natural, believable, and in no way an attempt to fool any algorithm or improve rank. These sites link to each other because they share the same passion for a very specific topic and want to make sure those people visiting and reading their content find the other sites about the same topic.

Now, if I examined five or ten sites devoted to another (broader) subject and found the same 80% or higher reciprocity rate, that IS suspicious. For example, if the subject matter is NFL jerseys, where hundreds of sites fight for SEO supremacy, it would be an absolute red flag for the engines if we found any ten NFL jersey sites linking back and forth to each other with the same high RP as our bat example.

In fact, I’d argue that 80% reciprocity among a collection of NFL jersey sites was a signal they might just be operated by the same people. That’s the very definition of a link network and link spam, yet the reciprocity percentage was no different that my bat examples. The only difference was the subject matter.

Let’s rephrase and repeat that.

“…the reciprocity percentage was no different between my bat example and my NFL jersey example. The only difference was the subject matter”

Thank you blend apparel for the photoWhich brings me back to my disdain for absolutes. You simply cannot make any sort of absolute statement as to what constitutes reciprocal link spam. Nor can you say that reciprocal links are always good, always bad, always suspicious, always helpful. They are never any of these, and they are always all of these. What you have to do is look at each case, at each site, and recognize the logical natural linking potential and reciprocity tendencies.

It’s not rocket science either. Some of what you just read seems so obvious to us longtime link builders that it’s easy to forget. The cult of reciprocal links advocates and enemies would do well to call a truce and stop looking for absolutes, and start looking for illustrative examples to help each site know if, how, and when to implement reciprocal links properly, or at all.

Link well, friend.

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  1. Adam Foh says

    Another way to detect possible reciprocity link spam is the similarity of the IP addresses of the different domain.

  2. says

    Great post. I have a value point to add that may be useful. I actually use reciprocal linking quite often, but not for the purpose of getting links. What I am basically building directory of webmaster who are interested and care about their sites rankings. So I then take that list which grows larger by the day and use it to email other webmaster in different categories when I have reports or something of interest they may want to consider linking to. If they have a great quality site, I will also invite them to guest post with some useful content. The truth of the matter is that I have seen a lot of really great quality sites that incorporate reciprocal linking in their linking strategies. I just know that the fact that they are not weary of having my links in their website means that they will be open to featuring my content, or posting a link to an article that I quoted them in.

  3. says

    That makes absolute sense Eric. I have a local discussion website and I’ve often wondered should I be swapping links with people willy nilly and whether or not this will affect my search engine placement. I think the key message is ‘keep it honest and you’ll be fine’

  4. says

    Hey thanks Eric for the article.

    I get link requests every day from what I consider to be low quality link farms. Once in awhile I do engage a reciprocal link if the site is relevant to mine. However I have remained nervous about this kind of link. Your article gives me a bit of confidence but I will still remain cautious about this form of link sharing.

  5. says

    Eric, the only problem with reciprocal links is when they are placed on pages crowded with other links and only links, no other content, like the usual link exchange pages. The value of these reciprocal links tend towards zero.

    However if you link, for example, from a blog post to another site and this site links from their product info site to your blog site, all nicely related and within content, there is absolutely no problem, in fact I believe that the value of these links are close to the value of one-way links.

  6. says

    Eric to ekb…I think Google is always looking for ways to detect the “untrustable”. It will never be perfect, IMO, because of the nature of man. Greed attracts people willing and capable of finding holes in the system.

    Eric to SEO David…Agree, but, I don’t like it when sport inteferes with my chances to find something truly important. It doesn’t bother me if a bunch of NFL jersey stores want to beat the hell out of each other for position one. I just choose to not work with them. But, if a parent is searching for educational materials for their special needs child, I don’t want to see spam in the results, neither does Google, and if I do see it, odds are an SEO company with no ethics did it.

    Eric to Gennady…I don’t reco use of recips as part of an SEO strategy. That puts the engine ahead of the user. Recips are part a user experience strategy. If you think “content experience” first, you will be better off than letting engines control what you do and don’t link to.

  7. says

    IMHO, it was never really about any red flags, percentages, hard/fast rules, etc. To me, it is about efficacy. Do those reciprocal links help? I believe they may help for indexation purposes (distribution of PageRank/link juice) throughout the site, but I dont believe there is much rank value being passed. How do these bat sites rank for some of the top bat terms? Even if they rank OK, I dont see how most bat terms can be very competitive or that authoritative .org’s would have a hard time ranking for them.

  8. says

    The problem is that people like absolutes. They like to know the rule and to follow it. They don’t like to navigate through caves, feeling their way through the darkness (I have no idea what people have against spelunking!). However, SEO is a sport – you compete for a fixed number of spots and the ones who do the best job combining many elements win. If there was a simple set of absolute rules to follow, then there would be 100 sites ranking in the top 10 for “bats” and perhaps 1000 sites ranking in the top 10 for “NFL jerseys”, which would be both mathematically impossible and incredibly sweaty.

  9. says

    Once again the voice of reason.

    There are simply too many myths that seem to suggest SEO depends on the direction of the wind and the phase of the moon. Good old common sense (which actually isn’t that common) seems to get lost in the spin.

    Thanks again.


  10. says

    Great post, but there’s one question that niether you nor anyone else — including, I suspect, Matt Cutts and Serge Brin — can answer.

    Can Googlebot consistently and accurately tell the difference between your example of a “perfectly normal” high reciprocity ratio site about bats and your “spammy” high reciprocity ratio example, the self-promoting football jersey sites?

    Another question, which Matt and Serge should be able to answer is this: If Googlebot can tell the difference, does it or any other entity at Google — humanoid or silicon — give a damn?

  11. Anonymous says

    great post Eric! Link exchange is alive and well especially among small businesses in niche themes!