Why Reciprocal Links Will Always Be Viable (LinkMoses Resurrected 5)
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.
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 I'll be penalized, I will tell you that's insane, and incorrect as well). 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.
Case 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 BasicallyBats.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"
Which 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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The Link Building Best Practices Q and A is provided free by Eric Ward. For sites with high value content, I offer several fee-based strategic linking services on a project basis.