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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 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 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.
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