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Reciprocal Linking - Updated

To Link? Or Not To Link? That is the question...

Updated - Google's Matt Cutts Explains Directory Linking

Reciprocal linking can provide a benefit, but it is not without a cost - any reciprocal linking program must be managed.

Interview with Jodi Golisek.

The Internet & Its Purpose

The purpose of search engines is to provide the most relevant responses (websites results) to queries (searches), and more specifically, to attempt to do so in order of importance. A search engine achieves that goal by spidering websites via numerous methods, most significantly, by following links. Reciprocal linking is the exchange of links between two (or more) websites. So, reciprocal links ought provide a means of associating websites focused on similar (or even exactly the same) topic. Reciprocal links accomplish that goal. And that goal is the backbone of the Internet - to provide links from one place to another about subjects that are completely related, somewhat related, or even totally unrelated.

Scaling The Results - Or Discriminating Between Competing Interests

From a search engine's standpoint, one of the major downfalls inherent to reciprocal linking programs is the lack of discrimination. If a search engine determines the popularity by the number of inbound links, a well-run linking program on all websites would prevent discrimination because all sites would be equally linked, and therefore, equally weighted.

Understanding Popularity

A side note about popularity. It may help to understand popularity from the various viewpoints. Popularity from the viewpoint of inbound links as an isolated factor measures the number of links TO a website. However, popularity has long been falsely identified. Popularity is not just the number of inbound links to a site, but rather the quality of those inbound links AND the quality of the page to which the inbound link is pointing, the weight of the inbound link AND the relevancy of the inbound link to the page to which it is pointing, as well as the origin of the inbound link in relationship to the destination of the link. If the inbound link is of little or no value (it has little or no quality to its content), it will now be discounted by Google. (Previously, those types of links counted, but a bunch of bad apples in the orchard abused that measure =). If the inbounds are from the same IP (Internet Protocol) address - the thing that looks like this - chances are likely that the inbounds will be disqualified. ANY reciprocal linking with ANY website must be handled with care; even innocent mistakes can have a very negative effect. The basic rules remain - natural quality contextual linking to quality content and separation of reciprocal linking pages.

The Reciprocal Link

"Inbound links" are just one of factors considered by search engines in producing search results. Some reciprocal linking campaigns focus on one-to-one relationships (two sites exchanging links one for another), but others create more complex schemes by exchanging links between three or more websites. If the linking is natural, those links often appear at different times, but if the linking is part of an attempt to spam the search engines, the links often appear at relatively the same time. As well, even complex schemes may reflect patterns that are detectable by the search engines.

Does that mean that you should not reciprocate any links? No, refer to the purpose of the Internet - to form a web (a spider web), which allows a person to click on links and go from point A to point B - from Paris to Princeton in the click of a button. Reciprocal linking is not an evil act in and of itself, but reciprocal linking for the sole purpose of spamming the search engines to cause them to believe that a site is of more value and more importance than is truly the case is spam, and spam is evil.

If you are asked to reciprocate a link, question the purpose of the link. If you will be providing a link to a website that you would refer to others for the purpose of obtaining the services or products or information available from that site, then by all means, reciprocate away (just do so with good anchors). But if you would not refer the other person, company, or service, don't link.


Anchor text is the text that the link is made from. For example, how to organize a website is text that leads to flat hierarchyor directories, and it is the "anchor" of that link. Anchors can be created with photos or text, as well as dynamically. A good anchor defines the intended purpose of the link.

Page Ranking

Page ranking is an arbitrary numerical value assigned by Google. Its purpose is somewhat obscure, but in general, it is meant to represent Google's interpretation of that page's importance, and Google tells us that inbound links are one of the factors considered. If page ranking provides a weighted value, then it is logical to assume that reciprocal linking between sites of differing page ranks would provide weighted values. If that is true, then if site "A" has a page rank of 8 and site "B" has a page rank of 3 - A's link to B is of more significance (in Google and therefore in other results) than is B's link to A.

In practice, when "A" links to "B", "A" may see a slight decrease in its ranking in search results and "B" may see a slight increase. Typically, "A" can regain its position in the search results.

Interesting Story About Page Rank & Duplicate Content

One of our clients contracted a small website with one of the major legal directories. During the fulfillment process, the directory company copied the content from our client's website onto the new site that they were building, submitted a request for exclusion of the client's website, and then submitted their newly built site with the client's old content. The results were quick; Google responded, transferring our client's old website page rank to the now new directory's website. While we immediately ordered the directory to cease and desist, pull down the content, and submit a direct request for exclusion of all of the pages that they had copied (that action can be taken in a webmaster's Google dashboard), the outcome was that the directory's website (now a skeleton) had a page rank of 4; meanwhile, our client's homepage had a page rank of 0. In that we had never seen anything even remotely similar to that type of action ever occur previously, we took immediate corrective action including contacting SEM guru's Tim Stanley, Bruce Clay, Danny Sullivan, SEMPO, and Matt Cutts.

Today, Google has reinstated the site's page rank. However, for four months, the site's home page was ranked as zero, yet the site remained in the top five results, if not the first result for all key searches.

The Upside Of Reciprocal Linking

In addition to helping accomplish the actual purpose of the Internet - to find information - reciprocal linking can increase a page ranking value. However, the degree to which reciprocal links will enhance page ranking has more to do with the previous discussion regarding the value and quality of the link than it has to do with just getting popular.

Another way to look at reciprocal linking is to associate it with the human factor (often called human emulation in the search world). If you needed a criminal defense attorney and (rather than go to the net) you asked 15 people for a referral, and all 15 people gave you 15 different answers, who would you call? Now, if 13 of the 15 people referred you to the same criminal defense attorney, who would you call? That is the benefit of reciprocal links - they refer you to another website. That is also the benefit of paid placements. But more over, it is the benefit of gaining omnipresence on the web - being everywhere people look - which is the entire basis of Internet marketing.

Paid Placements As Reciprocal Links

Paid placements are advertisements. They are usually placed on a well trafficked website with a link back to the advertiser's site. Often times, they appear in directories. From a marketing standpoint, paid placements are of great value for all parties. For the advertiser, they put the service, law firm, company, or product - whatever is being offered - in front of people looking for that accountant, lawyer, process server or law book - whatever is being sought. The user benefits by being able to find that thing she or he seeks. The site offering the advertising benefits by making a profit for their hard work in getting traffic to the site. It would seem that all parties benefit. And because the paid advertising is helping in achieving the goal of the Internet - finding what you seek when you seek it quickly and easily - it would seem to fit into the stated goals of search engines.

Reciprocal Linking - The Down Side

Previously, some less ethical webmasters purchased junk pages upon junk pages of content upon which they bought or sold a link to a website. Google detected that sort of behavior and changed its algorithm this year. As well, Matt Cutts - an engineer at Google who regularly appears in public, at seminars, and who maintains a blog where he will receive questions about Google - asked the entire search engine marketing community to report any website participating in that sort of behavior. (A tongue in cheek note here - Matt asked people to tattle tale just before he went on vacation.) Today, all of Google's webmaster dashboards provide a link to report paid linking participants.

In essence, most directories fall into the paid linking category when they sell a link, banner ad or any form of advertising to a website owner. So, the question is raised as to whether those types of links are considered to be 'bad links' by Google's definition. If the current organic results are an indication of that answer, and those results do not include the,,, listings that were there at one time, then the answer would be a quick yes. Even if an affirmative answer can be assumed, the reality is that Google is ever changing and that which appears today can appear very differently tomorrow.

Update: Above, we mention the fact that Google is always watching! We originally published this article asking if Google intended to recognize or discount paid placements (i.e. directories). Matt Cutts answered the question and we didn't even have to send it to him. Matt clarified that paid directories are not among the paid links that Google seeks to rid from the results. Those types of links are very useful to Internet users - they help folks find what they want and need. Thanks for the clarification, Matt!

Reciprocal Linking Management

Reciprocal linking programs MUST be managed, and while that is not a downfall, it does require time and planning. Dead links often result in negative consequences including lower ranking search results positions up to complete removal from search engine results, with the latter being much more frequently the outcome than the former. As well, if "A" were to create many links to many other lesser ranking sites, it would be very likely that the results would be more significant. "A" would be wise to couple any reciprocal linking campaign with additional "good SEM" (search engine marketing) campaigns. Reciprocal linking is not a bad thing so long as it is not abused.

"A" could also create a separate area on the website (perhaps under a directory) for reciprocal links, and use the "no index, no follow" syntax. In addition to the comments made by the editor regarding the "no follow, no index" syntax, branding on the web also has a positive effect.


In instances where a non-paid reciprocal linking program exists, we manage it on separate pages from the main website utilizing "no index, no follow" syntax so that it does not appear as spam to the search engines.


You may also enjoy reading, "About the Google Dance"


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