Reciprocal linking (also ‘link exchanging’) occurs when two or more websites link to each other. This can occur naturally, such as when two websites happen to be linking to one another without any contact or collusion between the webmasters who control them. However, for the most part, reciprocal linking refers to an intentional SEO practice by which websites agree to exchange links for the purpose of increasing referral traffic and website authority. In layman’s terms, reciprocal linking is a kind of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

At first glance this may seem pretty harmless. Surely it’s just a win-win situation if both websites are getting easy links? Isn’t it just a case of plain ‘ol good manners? But there is a dark side, and reciprocal linking doesn’t always look like a case of two good friends “just hanging out”, knocking back a few beers, and exchanging kind words while patting each other on the back. Sure, backlinks are essential to the authority of any website. But not all backlinks are equal: they have to be relevant to your website and naturally-occurring (i.e. earned) to work best.

Googles stance

In their official quality guidelines, Google claims that “excessive link exchanges (‘link to me and I’ll link to you’) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” will negatively impact the rankings of a website in search results and potentially result in a penalty. In our humble view, there are two important points to extrapolate from this admittedly terse explanation:

  • The word “excessive” is key here. It implies that reciprocal linking is more likely to result in penalties for a website when Google sees them doing it over and over and over again.
  • The intention behind a reciprocal link determines the severity of its impact on a website, and two websites agreeing to exchange links “exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” isn’t the same as two websites exchanging links for legitimate and natural reasons.

The takeaway here is that unnatural and excessive reciprocal linking should always be avoided. We understand it can be tempting when a blog approaches you with a juicy “link-for-link” offer, but its really not worth the potential risks.

Here’s a quick reference point for all the millennials out there: have you ever seen someone on Facebook going through an egotistical phase and essentially laundering hundreds of likes on their profile pictures by offering “like for like”? Do you remember how desperate it looked? Remember how suspicious their badly-lit, badly-framed, badly-captioned mirror selfies looked with 300+ likes tacked to the bottom? Yeah, reciprocal linking is pretty much the same thing, only instead of bored teenagers exchanging likes on profile pics it’s websites exchanging links. In cases where Google sees two (or more) websites linking back and forth and it looks forced, they may devalue those links and (in the worst cases) give penalties to the offending websites.

Is reciprocal linking ever okay?

How do you know whether or not a certain case of reciprocal linking is acceptable in the eyes of both Google and users? Bear in mind that Google tends to frown upon practices that are neither helpful, valuable, or relevant to users – if it displeases users, it probably displeases Google too. When a reciprocal link exists solely to fulfil the terms of an exchange it is more likely to appear contrived, useless, and forced, kind of like some painfully obvious product placement in a film. But if a reciprocal link actually serves a real purpose and acts as a valuable resource for users, does it really matter that it has been reciprocated by the website being linked to?

Ultimately, to answer the above question (and there is no easy answer), it’s a matter of intuition. Are the websites involved in a link exchange at all related to one another? Is the link going to be relevant and valuable for the users clicking it? Will users benefit from its inclusion on your site? And have you engaged in reciprocal linking in the past (remember that word: “excessive”)? There is of course a defined mechanism behind the whole business of backlinks and linkspam. But you don’t need to think like a machine to avoid Google penalties and make users happy: when there’s a spammy smell in the air, reciprocal linking is probably a bad idea.

That said, the best way to get high-quality links to your website is, well, as always, Google says it best:

“… to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

Exceptions to the rule

There are certain cases where it could be advantageous for two websites to link to each other. Although these matters are never black and white, it’s worth considering some examples of this. One type of situation in which reciprocal linking may occur quite naturally is when two parties are working together in a business capacity. For example, it is common to a see backlinks to website designers or development agencies at the bottom of certain websites’ homepages (although such links should not be used in the footer as this risks being unnatural and spammy). In such cases, whoever is responsible for designing or developing the website in question may want to return their client’s favour by giving them a link back, usually in the form of a case study.  Even in such cases, however, you should be careful not to overdo it.

Reciprocal linking may also occur when you link to a page because it has a link to your website. For instance, if a business has been mentioned (and linked) in an article from a trusted source, there’s nothing wrong with that business showing off the article in which they were mentioned. Yes, this would mean posting a reciprocal link to your website. But since it’s a natural response to a naturally-occuring link the chances are that there will be no major repercussions. In fact, we’d encourage it – let your customers know how great you are!