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What Are Reciprocal Links? Are They Harmful to Your SEO?

Backlinks or links, have consistently remained an SEO ranking factor. That hasn’t changed; what has though, is how they’re evaluated. Search Engines, specifically Google, have tremendously evolved over the years on how a sites’ backlinks are assessed. In fact, quite recently, Google announced two new link attributes, while updating its guidance on nofollow.

With everything going on, people are likely falling on the two ends of the spectrum:

  1. Either they’re becoming extra careful in the way they’re giving and receiving backlinks.
    OR
  2. They’re investing more in their overall backlink efforts.

Whatever the case may be, link building tactics are definitely getting more spotlight. One of them, is reciprocal links or reciprocal link building.

What Are Reciprocal Links?

Reciprocal links, as the name suggests, are a form of link exchange where websites link to each other to mutually benefit each other out. In other words, it’s a straight-up Quid Pro Quo in the sense that, I am giving you a backlink, and in return, you provide me with one.

Do Reciprocal Links Hurt Your SEO?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a direct yes or no answer. But as you may have guessed, they can hurt your SEO in certain situations. Although, before we cover those, I want to point out that reciprocal links are naturally occurring, and is in fact, quite common — in which case you have nothing to worry about. This holds more true for bigger websites, but it’s not extremely unreasonable for smaller sites too.

Let me give you an example. Throughout my blogs, I naturally link to sources, and references that will help my users. Sometimes, I also do it in the name of proving my credibility. It’s more like this: Don’t believe me–>check out what this other trustworthy website has to say; in essence, they’re saying the exact same things.

When I “naturally” link out to these websites, I am setting up a platform to get a reciprocal backlink. How exactly?

  1. Any Good SEO likes to check up on new backlinks and new referring domains regularly.
  2. Let’s say I linked out to a big website, and they noticed a backlink from my site to theirs.
  3. Cool; now I have their attention.
  4. Assuming they found my article insightful, they might, also, “naturally,” give me a backlink either in one of their future posts, or probably in the same article I gave a backlink to. Technically speaking, they don’t have to link out to the same article, but anywhere on my site. Maybe, overall, they find my site useful, and they just sort of, call out my homepage.
  5. In the end, eventually, If I receive a backlink from the site that I gave a backlink, in theory, we can call it a reciprocal link.

In my example, have I acted in bad faith? The answer is no due to the following reasons I apply — when doing so:

  1. I never reach out to these websites informing them that I’ve linked to them.
  2. I never reach out, asking them for any backlinks.
  3. My links are relevant. For example, if I am talking about SEO, and I constantly link to other non-relevant websites such as movies, games, etc., that can hurt me.
  4. Intent: This is a big one. The primary reason I link out to other websites is because:
    • I think it will prove my credibility.
    • I think it will help my users.
    • Not because I want to get more links. My focus is on providing value to my users; not SEO.
    • Do I expect backlinks in returns? Sure; any SEO loves backlinks. But, do I care? No.

As a matter of fact, to a lot of people I’ve talked to, I’ve gone as far as claiming that I am never going to spend any efforts on Link Building. Because, by definition, it becomes unnatural at that point. Will it help my case for SEO? Yes. Will it help me quickly? Probably not, but at the least, I won’t be losing sleep. That said, as an expert who’s been practicing SEO for quite some time now, I know that I can get away with certain types of link building methods, but I simply don’t want to bother with it. I’d rather focus my time & energy on content. And in the meantime, whatever I get, I’ll take.

In What Situations Are Reciprocal Links Harmful?

  1. When you keep linking out to non-relevant sites: As pointed out before, everything about the entire linking out, should be natural, relevant, and contextual — including the anchor text. If you don’t pass any of these criteria, do not link out.
  2. When you keep linking out to bad resources: Relevancy and context matters, but so does what website it is. Are you linking out to credible sources, or are you linking out to websites that appear shady, known for giving out blanket site-wide or easy links, has poorly written blog posts, has tons of pop-ups, etc.? Ask yourself, is the site you want to give a backlink to, would you consider it an expert resource?
  3. When you get overzealous with giving backlinks: Don’t go overboard. Don’t include one too many backlinks to a website, or websites. It needs to be natural; it needs to be reasonable; it needs to pass all the other criteria discussed. Acting in this way will give a signal to search engines that you’re striving to keep keeping things natural. If I may be so bold, technically, you shouldn’t feel the the need to strive for anything.
  4. When you keep conducting outreach to the websites you’re giving out a backlink to: This may not necessarily hurt your SEO directly; but, it is equally harmful to earn a bad name in the industry. Do not be a pest to other people. Don’t keep asking for backlinks. Keep your head down; produce amazing content; and let things fall in place, naturally.
  5. When you link out with ill-intent: Sort of a follow up to number 2, but here, you’re acting maliciously with the reason of ill-intent. Say you’re deliberately linking out to websites known for stealing credit card information, personal information, or injecting malware. Participating in such an atrocious act will never help your SEO case, and knowingly or unknowingly, in all likelihood, you’ll get yourself in legal trouble.

In these scenarios, search engines may not necessarily wait for your links to get converted into reciprocal links. If it does, you’re accelerating yourself into the harm’s way. But, even if it doesn’t, these tactics are not advised.

In What Situations Are Reciprocal Links Helpful?

A good rule of thumb here is that any reciprocal link that is earned naturally, will benefit you. All you have to ensure is you’re acting naturally on your end too. Still, there can be some methods that will probably not hurt your SEO efforts. For the purposes of this post, I’ll highlight the two commonly occurring ones. They are:

  1. Ego Bait Links: This can be situations where you feature experts on your posts, and in return, they share your blog post on their social channels, or other websites they contribute to. We’ve all seen these kinds of write-ups circulating on the internet. Articles like, we asked 10 experts on what they think about X, or we interviewed 50 experts on what’s the best way to financial freedom, etc.
  2. Badge Links: Say you’re a big security firm/website, and you have this special section for “Best Antivirus Softwares.” Now, let’s say you featured Company X on your post — awarding them the number 1 spot. When company X sees this incredible honor, they may choose to display a badge on their website saying, we’ve been number 1 on this renowned security website. Badge links can take various shapes and forms, but on a high-level, the concept remains the same.

How Does Google Penalize You for Bad Reciprocal Links?

We’ve discussed some harmful methods of reciprocal links, but how does — Google enforce the “good ways” — so to speak? The risks of shady reciprocal links are:

  1. You get a manual link penalty: This is by far, the worst outcome you can receive as it relates to link penalties. When you get a manual penalty, it means an actual person evaluated your website, and decided to grant you one. A manual link penalty can be a huge setback and recovering from one is extremely arduous. And even if you do, you’re going to be on their radar.
  2. You’re algorithmic-ally devalued: As stated, Google has become incredibly sophisticated in recognizing unnatural link building behavior. All the hard work and money you expend on link building can completely go to waste simply by Google ignoring those links algorithmically. In other words, they won’t help you at all. What makes the whole thing less desirable is that now you’ve started to walk the fine line of being almost manually penalized, and whatever your existing authority is, that has begun to decline too.
bad reciprocal link building can result in a manual link penalty from Google
Being involved in unfavorable reciprocal link building can result in a manual link penalty from Google — a worst possible outcome.

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Conclusion

Reciprocal links are a boon and a curse. To play it safe, you have to simplify the entire process, and keep things natural — at the risk of sounding like a broken record.

Arguments are also made against linking out to your direct competitors, and by all means, avoid it if you can (as long as you can find a better alternative), I believe that it’s okay to do so, if you genuinely think it’s a fitting valuable resource. If anything, it shows respect, and for that moment, you’re forgetting about competition and solely focusing on users. I am not saying go ahead and start linking out to your direct competitors, I am just saying be smart with anchor texts, and sure, keep it as a last resort option. However, if everything in your mind says to link out to them because you couldn’t find a better resource, I think you should. Again, just don’t expect that they’ll give you a backlink in return.

At some point though, you really have to do more research to circumvent giving easy-peasy backlinks to your competitors. Otherwise, you’re not doing justice to the site you’re doing SEO for.

Other Expert Resources

  1. Search Engine Journal
  2. Ahrefs