I've had a few conversations lately with colleagues about the critical role inbound links play in determining a web page's ranking in search engines. One link building strategy that consistently comes out of conversations like this is reciprocal linking, as in, "if you link to me, I'll link to you." Is reciprocal linking a good strategy for search engine optimization? Does it help? Hurt? Penalize a site? Is it the magic bullet? Link Building Examples
If web page A links to web page B, search engines consider this an endorsement of B by A. The more endorsements of B, the higher the page will rank for the terms used on that page.
A links to B
But what happens if both sites link to each other:
Reciprocal links: A links to B, and B links to A.
Who's endorsing who? Are they endorsing each other? Or are they linking to each other for link's sake? What is the value from a search engine ranking perspective?
Furthermore, what happens if this is scaled up to a large network of interlinking pages:
A blog of interlinked sites.
The above example diagrams eight sites that have agreed to link to each other in exchange for links back. Each page above has seven inbound links. While more sites are involved, the same rules apply as the A to B and back to A example above.
What's a search engine to do with something like that? With no inbound links from outside the link network, how much credibility to any of the web pages have? What if all the sites are owned by the same person who purchased and interlinked many domain names
? How can people endorse themselves? Third Party Links
The links search engines are really looking for are links from sites you can't so easily control. Reciprocal links may help, but they're not going to help as much as one-way links from other sites.
So what's an ideal situation? Create a site that's valuable
-- a site that people will link to without expecting a link back, creating a pyramid of inbound links
. Link back to sites you find valuable and are valuable to your readers. Rather than being part of an orphan blob of marginally ranked websites, shoot to be at the top of the pyramid within your industry:
Pyramid Shaped Inbound Link Structure
Site A looks credible due to inbound, non-reciprocal links.
So does reciprocal linking hurt a site? Will it lead to penalties? No and no. But if search engines see little or no value in this strategy, why bother focusing on it? If your site currently ranks high in search results solely based on using reciprocal link tactics, don't be surprised if your site suddenly drops in the rankings overnight. That wouldn't be a penalty, but a correction.
This does not mean you should avoid reciprocal linking. Just link to sites based on their value to your readers rather than as a strategy to game search engines.
A reciprocal link blob can be offset with quality inbound links to sites within the network from outside the network:
Effective Link Building Strategies
I & J represent 3rd party sites linking to sites in the reciprocal link network.
Evaluate who you're linking to and why.
Drop links to sites that provide no value to your site and site's visitors.
Find sites that will link to you without a link back. Directories are a good option.
And most importantly, create a site that's valuable enough to warrant linking to without a reciprocal link.