Link Building’s Cult Of Reciprocity

A big part of my professional life is spent teaching and training corporate clients how to become self sufficient at in-house link building and content publicity. Those readers here who have heard me speak at conferences may remember how strongly I have stated my position that to be effective over the long term, you must take as much control as possible over your link building activities, because outsourcing 100% of your link building and content publicity will not work. Why? Because no third party will ever be able to devote the needed passion and hours and creativity to unearthing the best possible link building and publicity opportunities that are available for your specific site than… YOU.

Since I spend a good part of every week developing and presenting custom training sessions, one part of that training is asking for feedback about topics to be covered during the session. And almost every time, I am asked to include a section about reciprocal links. Reciprocal links is a remarkably polarizing topic. Some folks are anti reciprocal linking, some are vehemently pro reciprocal linking. Some claim recips are the road to rankings ruin, while others say they help improve rank. And those who really dig deep into the link analytics even propose that there is a certain “magic trigger” percentage that turn your reciprocal links from good to evil in the eyes of the search engines. Not so. I’ve been in meetings where people from the same online marketing staffs argue over everything from what to name their links pages to whether or not to kill them off completely.

Here’s what I can share with you based on more research and experience than I admit is healthy.

Like all other linking related absolutes, the rules of reciprocity cannot be perfectly defined. Here’s a great example. Many folks tell you that having a very high reciprocity percentage is a red flag that the engines can use to devalue your links. The thinking being if 100% of any sites 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 my junky site and I’ll link to your junky site”. Yes this is theoretically true. But like anything, the devil is in the details. For some subjects, it would be perfectly normal, almost expected, that the link reciprocity percentage should be close to 100%. One of my favorite sayings is “the more nichified your subject matter, the more likely it is you will have 100% link reciprocity with other sites with that same 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, I’m amazed at how many people miss the key point about what this means. Reciprocity is not a fixed number. A reciprocal links percentage cannot be set in stone. What’s reciprocal spam for one topic is perfectly natural in another topic.

Study the backlinks to a few related sites, such as,, 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 a far broader subject and found the same 80% or higher reciprocity rate, that IS suspicious. For example, if the subject matter is online casinos, where there are millions of sites and hundreds fighting a to-the-death battle for SEO supremacy, it would be an absolute red flag if we found any given ten sites were linking back and forth to each other with 80 to 100% reciprocity. In fact, I’d argue that 80% reciprocity among a collection of online casino sites was a telltale sign that they might just be run 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.

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 life long 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.

Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy to a monthly private newsletters on linking for subscribers. The Link Week column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column


About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via

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  • Halfdeck

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with reciprocal links, as long as manipulative intent is either non-existent or undetectable.

  • Sante

    Very interesting point of view I share. There have been cases where reciprocals have worked very well and others where it miserably failed – In general I believe that if if it is done properly it can help – I said help – ranking efforts.

    A PS to you Searchengineland guys – LOGGING IN TO COMMENT SUCKS – A complete waste of time !

  • eric_ward

    If the motivation for reciprocity is to improve rank rather than improve user experience, then undetectable or not, that’s link spam. I’m not arguing the ethics one way or the other, and everyone has a right to earn a living, and some niches are so competitive that staying white hat is futile. That said, links granted or sought based -solely- on potential positive algorithmic impact, rather than user value, are links that have the potential to do more harm than good.


  • Sante

    I agree entirely with you: in fact if you do it keeping the user in mind, it’s hard work and can give great satisfaction.

  • Halfdeck

    “If the motivation for reciprocity is to improve rank rather than improve user experience, then undetectable or not, that’s link spam.”

    Of course it is, but if the intention is undetectable then it won’t do any harm, now, will it (at least to the sites benefiting from the link spam)?

    But here’s the thing; manipulative link exchanges are very easy to detect algorithmically in comparison to paid links. That’s why I would never advise a client to go out looking for reciprocal link exchanges.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Sante, in about two or three weeks, commenting will move over to be via our site. It should make it be much easier though you’ll still need to log in. Sorry — it stops spam dead and isn’t going away.

  • Mike Nicholson

    I have always been of the view, that if get limited and relevant reciprocal links, then it’ll always help in increasing both the page rank and search engine rankings.

  • Patricia Skinner

    Building links is just so hard you’ve gotta be passionate about your cause…great post!

  • Patricia Skinner

    It all boils down to ethics and honesty. If you’re on the level you’re on far safer ground than if you’re trying to (metaphorically) pull the wool over the search engines’ eyes. :)

  • rickvidallon

    Let us remember what Larry Page said, “Every time you create a link,” Google founder Larry Page told the hushed audience, “you’ve created a citation. But if you just try to count citations on the Web, which is what a lot of search engines do, you run into problems. “The important of a web site, particularly a web page, is based on the sum of all pages linking to it. That if Yahoo linked from their homepage to your homepage that’s a big deal.”

  • Jamesbb

    Great article, very informative. I wonder would the same rules apply in a network if there was a three/four/five way link system implemented? Would that potentially be traceable?


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