Reciprocal Linking in SEO was a common practice in the early days of internet marketing. The dark secret — it was meant to game Google’s PageRank search algorithm. Although the specifics of the algorithm are closely held billion-dollar secrets, many SEO specialists have a general idea of how it works.
PageRank in a nutshell
PageRank was developed by Larry Page, one of Google’s founders, who took inspiration from how academic papers were perceived in terms of their level of credibility and authority. The logic is that the most trusted documents tend to receive the most citations from other papers.
A trusted website is likely to receive a lot of referral links from other sites. These links are known as backlinks, because they ‘link back’ to the website that provides the original source of information.
Teamwork by exchanging backlinks
Google’s primary goal is to serve only the best web pages at the front of its results pages, which means it will look for pages with high quality (and quantity) backlinks. Google trusted other webmasters’ judgement of quality websites, but it didn’t take long for SEO specialists in the past to discover this loophole and start exploiting it.
Some websites would simply ‘work together’ and refer to each other, to trade or exchange backlinks as a strategy for link-building. Even Google’s damping factor (which prevents infinitely looping quality links that would break the algorithm) couldn’t stop these websites from increasing their rank through search, in an unnatural way, by increasing the number of exchanged backlinks.
Does Reciprocal Linking in SEO hurt ranking?
More than a decade later, Google has quashed many strategies which seek to rank websites in an unnatural way. PageRank has become more complex with the addition of factors based on the semantic understanding of natural language. This encourages webmasters to focus more on creating well-written content and promoting their sites normally, without reciprocal linking.
SEO and big data service company Ahrefs published a study in March 2020 on how common reciprocal linking is from a sample of 140,592 domains. Note that this study shows the frequency of existing domains by the degree of reciprocal backlink, as measured by the percentage overlap of inbound and outbound links.
The result shows that only 3.39% of domains from the sample have strong reciprocal linking (by 45% to 100%), whereas 26.4% of domains do not have reciprocal links at all — a great majority of the sample. You can find the complete chart on Ahref’s blog.
They suggest that Google has taken action against blatant exchange of backlinks, however this cannot be confirmed directly as their study does not elaborate on the kinds of domains that comprise the last 3.39%. The study suffers survivorship bias, as they’ve explained, and more investigation is necessary to make more confident conclusions on reciprocal Linking in SEO.
In summary: 60.98% of domains from the sample have backlink overlap between 0% to 10%. The majority of domains that exist today do not seem to participate in purposeful link exchange schemes that can potentially lead to penalization by Google.
What Google says about link exchange schemes.
Google’s guideline on link scheming clearly states that “excessive link exchanges… or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking...” is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Do note that Google uses the intentionally vague term “excessive link exchanges.” What Google deems as excessive is up to SEO analysts to investigate, but as Ahref has pointed out, only 3.39% of existing domains in the sample happen to have a very high concentration of cross-linking. There is a great chance that many more domains which have similar backlink profiles were snuffed out by Google’s penalty.
The correct way to link reciprocally — by accident
PageRank is still relevant, and so are backlinks. One of the goals of content marketers is to create content that is worth sharing. This in effect increases the chance for people to refer back to your website. This genuine recommendation of your website’s quality is what Google’s PageRank was built for in the first place.
There is a correct way to link reciprocally, and yes, you’ve read correctly. The only reciprocal links that exist in your website should be unintentional. Rand Fishkin of Moz.com explained this in 2005 (it is still relevant even today).
“...[Just] because recognize that CNN links to NASA and NASA links to CNN doesn't mean that the link should be devalued,” he wrote in his article about reciprocal linking. Such reciprocal linking is a natural by-product of topical discussions. Think of multiple groups of academics researching at the same time, citing each other’s works as they learn from each other in order to gain more findings.
When several website domains talk about the same topic, and in the course of discussion, link to each other’s works, reciprocal linking can occur. It’s notable that this occurs more often among more than two websites. It makes sense; a common topic is unlikely to be discussed among two domains.
As all accidents go, true and natural reciprocal links between two domains don’t happen very often. In addition, the same group of web domains is unlikely to constantly refer to each other for every single topic that they publish as content. This means a reasonable amount of reciprocal linking will fall off of Google’s radar, until it is clear that a group of domains are exchanging more links than necessary.
Is reciprocal linking in SEO a good or bad practice?
Answering this question ultimately begs another question, “How do you perceive what reciprocal linking is?” If your answer is that reciprocal linking is an SEO strategy, then clearly it is a bad practice, as you are purposefully attempting to work with other domains to exchange links, placing the focus away from creating shareworthy and high-quality content.
However, if you see reciprocal linking as a by-product of collaboration with other domains (such as guest posting, research citations, and a free and authentic outreach), then as long as your domain isn’t only dedicated to promoting other people’s websites, nothing bad is likely to happen.
Blogging is tedious, but important for SEO
Blogging is not just for travellers. Businesses must also post helpful and insightful content that can be enjoyed by customers on the Internet. Keeping an active blog is a strong signal, letting Google know that a website is worth their users’ attention.
At Island Media Management, blog writing is a healthy day-to-day operation for the purpose of improving our clients’ SEO website performance. Learn more about our SEO Service and if you want to ask us anything, contact us for free.