What are Reciprocal Links and What do Search Engines Think of Them?

When web sites link to each other, either directly or indirectly through a number of different pages, a search engine might consider those links to be reciprocal links. If you’re familiar with some of the mythology and folklore surrounding search engine optimization, you may have read or heard that reciprocal links are bad, and that search engines don’t like them.

The truth is more complicated than that.

What about blogs that link to each other on every page in their blog rolls? Or links between sites owned by the same owner that are reasonable, such as a storefront on a different domain, or a blog at a different domain or subdomain associated with a site, or a group of sites from the same company or organization that focus upon different topics?

What about sites that cover similar topics or provide complementary goods or services and find that it’s helpful to link to each other for the benefit of their visitors?

What do search engines think of resource pages, where sites include pages of links and descriptions to other sites that they think their visitors might find helpful and useful? What happens if some of those sites link back? Does it make a difference if those resource pages include a statement on them that they will list your site on their page in exchange for a reciprocal link back?

Search Engine Warnings on Links Between Pages

The major commercial search engines do provide some information about linking in their guidelines:

Google’s page on Link Schemes warns site owners that some kinds of linking might impact the ratings of their web sites negatively, including:

  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)
  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank

Yahoo, in their Search Content Quality Guidelines, provides examples of content that they don’t want included in their search engine, such as:

  • Sites cross-linked excessively with other sites to inflate a site’s apparent popularity (link schemes)

Windows Live Help, in their page on Guidelines for successful indexing, include amongst their list of “techniques that might prevent your website from appearing in Live Search results,” the following:

  • Using techniques, such as link farms, to artificially increase the number of links to your webpage.

How helpful are these guidelines to most searchers or webmasters or bloggers?

Chances are that some percentage of the people who use Google, or have their websites indexed by the search engine are familiar with PageRank, but may not know what these guidelines mean by “link schemes” or “link farms”.

Why are search engines so concerned about links between pages?

Classifications for Search Ranking Signals

When you perform a search at a search engine, the pages that show up in response to your search appear are ranked and ordered by the search engine based upon a large number of signals used by the search engine to try to provide you with pages that might best match up with what you intended to find on the Web.

That kind of ranking is a challenge for search engines because there can often be many thousands or millions of pages that might contain the words that you used to perform your search. They want to try to provide the best pages that they can at the top of the results, or at least better pages than the other search engines are showing.

These different signals that a search engine might used to determine the order of pages in search results could be classified a few different ways.

Content Based, Link Based, and User Behavior Based Ranking Signals

One set of classifications consists of breaking those signals into three different types: content based, link based, and user behavior based.

Content based signals look at the actual content that appears upon the pages of a web site. Link based signals pay attention to the links between your site and other sites on the web. User based signals look at data that indicates how people might react to the pages of your site, whether they are viewing the site directly, or seeing it in search results at a search engine.

Query Dependant and Query Independant Ranking Signals

Another way that search engines might classify the signals that they use to rank pages can depend upon whether or not that signal is related to a query that you might use to search with or not. This way of classifying those signals breaks them down into two different groupings – how important they might consider a page to be, and how relevant a page might be to a specific search term or phrase.

Signals that look at the importance, or “quality” of a page might look at the quality of the content of a page, or the number and perceived importance of links to that page, or how people use the page such as bookmarking it, spending time on it, annotating it in some way, or using it in some manner that might not be tied to a specific query. These kinds of signals for ranking a page are often referred to by search engines as query independant signals, because they don’t rely upon a query that might have been used to find that page.

Signals that look at the relevance of a page might look at how relevant that page might be to a specific query term or phrase, what words might appear in links pointing to the phrase and in words surrounding those links and associated with them, and in how people might use the page in a way that is associated with a specific query term or phrase such as clicking on a link to the page when it appears in search results for a specific search for a specific term or phrase, or spending a certain amount of time on that page after a search brings them to it. These kinds of signals for ranking a page are often referred to by search engines as query dependant signals because they do rely upon a specific query used to find a page.

Mixing Signals and Reordering Page Rankings

A search engine can use a mix of a good number of signals to determine in which order it might show pages to searchers in response to a search. It might also take those ordered results and reorder them before presenting them to searchers based upon other factors involving those pages, such as which country the searcher might be from, which language they have indicated they prefer to see results in, and many others.

I’ve written about how and why a search engine might reorder search results a number of times, including the following two posts:

Links Between Pages as a Ranking Signal

While there are many different kinds of signals that a search engine might use to rank web pages in response to a search, one of the important differences between web pages, and pages that you might find in a collection of documents on an intranet is that web pages can link to each other with hyperlinks. Those links can be a help to search engines in identifying which pages might be the most important ones, if it pays attention to those links. The premise behind using links as references to other pages comes from thinking about citations in academic papers and how they refer to other resources.

When someone writes an academic paper that will be reviewed by their peers, they will often include a list of citations to other academic papers as sources of references or data relied upon in their paper. It might be assumed that an academic paper that is referred to frequently by other papers is important. It might also be assumed that papers referred to by “important” papers are also important, even if they aren’t referred to by lots of other academic papers themselves.

Those assumptions about citations in academic papers is one of the influences behind PageRank, which takes advantage of the hyperlinks between pages on the Web to determine which pages are important.

Academic citation literature has been applied to the web, largely by counting citations or backlinks to a given page. This gives some approximation of a page’s importance or quality. PageRank extends this idea by not counting links from all pages equally, and by normalizing by the number of links on a page.

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

While links between pages on the Web might be helpful, search engines are also concerned and suspicious about links between web pages.

There are site owners who have worked to take advantage of links between pages to make their pages look more important than they actually might be. Their primary focus hasn’t been to share links that provide value to people who visit their sites, or transparently connect to other sites that might be under their ownership or control, or link to pages that they value based upon the content of those pages. Instead, they link solely to manipulate link based ranking signals to try to get their sites to rank more highly for search results.

Yahoo’s Patent Application on Excessive Reciprocal Links

A newly published patent application from Yahoo discusses how it might look at those links between pages for reciprocal links, and attempt to determine whether those links exist to manipulate search results. The patent filing is:

Identifying excessively reciprocal links among web entities
Invented by Timothy M. Converse, Priyank Shankar Garg, and Konstantinos Tsioutsiouliklis
Assigned to Yahoo
US Patent Application 20090013033
Published January 8, 2009
Filed July 6, 2007

Abstract

A method for identifying reciprocal links is provided. At a particular host, the set of hosts which link to the particular host and the set of hosts to which the particular host links are determined. The intersection and union of the two sets of hosts are also determined, and the sizes of the intersection and union are calculated.

The concentration of reciprocal links at the particular host is calculated based on the sizes of the intersection and union. A ratio of the intersection size to the union size is used to determine the concentration of reciprocal links. The particular host’s rank in a list of ranked search results may be changed as a result of identification of a high concentration of reciprocal links.

Related Yahoo Patent Filings Involving Linking

This patent filing on excessive reciprocal links notes that it is related to a couple of other patent filings from Yahoo.

One of them is Using Exceptional Changes in Webgraph Snapshots Over Time For Internet Entity Marking

A method that search engines can use to keep an eye on who is linking to whom is through the creation of something known as a link graph or web graph. A link graph is a visual representation of the web that views a web page as a node, and links between pages as edges, or lines between those nodes. The Exceptional Changes in Webgraph Snapshots patent application looks for changes to that link graph over time to try to identify suspicious activity. The abstract from the filing tells us:

Techniques are provided through which “suspicious” web pages may be identified automatically. A “suspicious” web page possesses characteristics that indicate some manipulation to artificially inflate the position of the web page within ranked search results.

Web pages may be represented as nodes within a graph. Links between web pages may be represented as directed edges between the nodes. “Snapshots” of the current state of a network of interlinked web pages may be automatically generated at different times. In the time interval between snapshots, the state of the network may change.

By comparing an earlier snapshot to a later snapshot, such changes can be identified. Extreme changes, which are deemed to vary significantly from the normal range of expected changes, can be detected automatically. Web pages relative to which these extreme changes have occurred may be marked as suspicious web pages which may merit further investigation or action.

The other patent filing is one that pays attention to links from sites that it has already identified as “suspicious,” Link-Based Spam Detection. A snippet from that one:

In this section, the concepts of a spam farm, inlink page ranking (commonly referred to as “PageRank”), and trust-ranking are described.

A spam farm is an artificially created set of pages that point to a spam target page to boost its significance. Trust-ranking (“TrustRank”) is a form of PageRank with a special teleportation (i.e., jumps) to a subset of high-quality pages.

Using techniques described herein, a search engine can automatically find bad pages (web spam pages) and more specifically, find those web spam pages created to boost their significance through the creation of artificial spam farms (collections of referencing pages). In specific embodiments, a PageRank process with uniform teleportation and a trust-ranking process are carried out and their results are compared as part of a test of the “spam-ness” of a page or a collection of pages.

While these other two patent filings focus upon links between pages, they don’t look at how excessively pages or domains might link between themselves directly, or indirectly through a number of pages or domains like this newly published patent application does.

It’s quite possible that the processes described in all three of these patent filings, as well as a number of others, might be used together to try to keep the use of linking as a ranking signal from being abused.

Reciprocal Links and “Suspicious Entities”

As I mentioned above, you may have read or heard that reciprocal links are bad, and that the truth of the matter is more complicated than that.

The Yahoo patent filing gives us their definition of a reciprocal link:

A web page contains a “reciprocal link” when one of its “outlinks” is also one of its “inlinks”. That is, a reciprocal link exists when a web page links to another web page which also links back to the web page.

So, a reciprocal link exists whenever two sites link back and forth to each other.

The patent also tells is that it will also consider links that are circular as reciprocal links. For example, a page from site A points to site B, a page from site B points to Site C, and a page from site C points to site A.

If the links between pages (or domains or hosts) is a small percentage of the links on each page or domain or host, the process described in this patent filing may not kick off. I say “kick off” because this is an automated process rather than a manual review at this point.

If the percentage of links is larger than than, a number of steps might be taken by the search engine.

The sites might be reviewed manually by “human investigators” or they might be examined by a program from the search engine that has been trained to look for signals of suspicious activity.

The patent application does tell us that pages or domains or hosts might have a high percentage of reciprocal links for legitimate reasons:

For example, a particular web page may have many reciprocal links with a group of web pages because these web pages discuss the same subject matter in a complementary fashion and the web page authors have found it expedient for those web pages to refer to each other.

In another example, two groups of web pages refer to each other reciprocally because those groups belong to two company web sites where the companies are part of the same conglomerate.

A review of those pages might lead to a determination that they are “suspicious,” which could lead to an automatic demotion of those pages or domains or hosts in search results.

Some pages might be included in a “white list” of web pages or hosts or domains as automatically excluded from being identified as suspicious. These are sites that are known to be “popular” and “legitimate.” Not surprisingly, the patent application uses Yahoo.com as an example. :)

In an alternative approach, pages or domains that have been identified as “suspicious entities” might not be automatically excluded or demoted from search results, but may be further reviewed based upon their content. For example, the page may be explored to see if it contains words related to pornography or prescription drugs.

Conclusion

The use of links by search engines as a ranking signal to determine how well a page might rank in search results is just one of many ranking signals that a search engine may use, and it is possible that site owners might attempt to have links pointed to their pages only to increase the rankings of their pages in search results.

The three patent filings that I’ve referred to in this post are just some of the ways that a search engine might try to identify when people are attempting to inflate their rankings through linking solely for the purpose of manipulating their rankings.

Chances are that if the links on your blog or site are open and transparent and reasonable (rather than excessive), providing value to your visitors, and reasonably cover similar topics or complementary ones, to sites that might link back to yours, that a search engine might find them to be legitimate. If you include indications on your pages that you will link back to others who link to you to boost rankings in search results, you may have more reason to be concerned. If you engage in link farms or link schemes or reciprocal link programs, a search engine might find your pages to be “suspicious,” and may be taking a closer look.

If you want to dig deeper into this topic, here are some papers from Yahoo researchers on detecting spam pages by looking at links:

I mentioned above that search engine ranking signals can be classified as content based, link based, and user behavior based. A few of the papers above look at both links and content to find web spam. Another recent approach from Yahoo looks at user behavior and query logs to find spam pages:

Added: David Harry also wrote about this patent application and reciprocal links in a thoughful post titled: This just in; reciprocal links are pointless

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81 thoughts on “What are Reciprocal Links and What do Search Engines Think of Them?”

  1. Lol… was reading this one last night after I dropped by here. It’s funny, I can almost feel the authors frustration when I read things on adversarial IR… smell the smoke coming out of their ears.

    And to be honest I do feel for them in some instances… I’ve never been a fan of recips nor shady link building in general, prefer clients create quality offerings that people will ‘want’ to link to… but regardless, the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no getting him back in. Link building is a reality.

    I had been collecting and going through a bunch of adversarial IR stuff lately and wanted to do a post… just sooooo much that it’s hard to make an effective post. Look at all the info here just on link spam

    Anyways, great stuff as always… more goodies for my collection. I will still likely post on this one Monday as it is mostly done from last night. As seems to be the trend, the direction is unique enough that we shouldn’t be creating an echo effect out here.. lol.

    Have a great Saturday night Bill… (not makin me come here again tomorrow are you?)

  2. Reading all the detailed theories above gave me many doubts regarding my linking activities.
    It made me think that focusing on what we write is more important to lift up any suspicion to our sites than counting how many inbound links we have :D

  3. Link farms and link scheme sites as well as artificial reciprocal linking is becoming obvious as you gain experience being in SEO. My advice is: be natural. That’s all. I learned a lot from observing natural linking patterns, blogs linking to each other etc.

  4. Thanks for the excellent post. I recently wrote about this subject (not nearly as in-depth or as well) – I receive enough requests for reciprocal links from inappropriate web sites to make it clear that a lot of folks just don’t understand this.

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  6. It’s such a great post. Reciprocal links are not the best choice it seems. :-(

  7. Hi Dave,

    I’ve always been a fan of building quality pages that people want to link to because they find value in them as well. In the days before search engines were as common as they were, there was value in submitting links to directories and other resources that people actually visit and will follow links from, and I still believe that’s true today. But linking solely to gain links shouldn’t be necessary, and I don’t think there’s a need to do that.

    Enjoyed your post on the topic, and I’m adding a link to my post pointing to yours. Thanks.

  8. Hi ipung,

    It’s good to question the approaches that you take from time-to-time. Innovation in how you do your work, instead of just following along with what you might think everyone else might be doing is a good thing. Creating quality content is often a pretty good start…

    Hi markinter,

    I agree with you on natural linking – make it easy for people to want to link to you – there are some pretty good lessons to be learned from bloggers who start engaging conversations that can be shared and added to on other blogs, with links back to the original.

    Hi Darren,

    Thanks. As the patent application notes, search engines do find some reciprocal links to be reasonable and legitimate. It’s the ones that are excessive, and that seem to be aimed at manipulating search results that they don’t like. If a couple of bloggers from good quality blogs who cover topics that are often related somehow provide some links back and forth to each other, that’s likely not a problem. A number of splogs that link back and forth solely to try to manipulate search rankings is another matter.

    Hi Sallie,

    You’re welcome.

  9. We have drastically slowed down on link building, the only links on our site are the links that were there pre-removal of recip links on Googles help pages. I’m thinking of just removing them already.

  10. We personally do tend to rely a lot on links for ranking because the nature of our site makes it dificult to post original content. we take our product descriptions from publishers, as does all of the other site within our industry (ie. duplicate content). We do try to do a few original author profiles and reviews which are unique to our site but father time tends to restrict us to the bare minimum.

    Wouldn’t it be great if there were hard and fast rules regarding linking, reciprocal or otherwise, that were standard across the entire web. Then we would all know where we stand and be able to optimize our sites based on a level playing field. right now the rules appear to be “grey” at best.

    great Article. Very informative and I’ll take a lot from it.

  11. Thanks, Dave.

    If blogs are part of a decentralized social network, then links back and forth are a natural result of conversations. I suspect there’s at least one patent filing out there somewhere from someone that looks at those as well.

    Hi Diamonds.

    I think that there may be some value to having links from your site out to other sites on the web. It may help the search engines know more about your site by seeing whom you link to. Something to think about.

    Hi Buy Books,

    Using product descriptions from publishers, like many other sites choose to do as well, creates the risk of being filtered out of search results, with other sites showing for those pages. I know that time contraints make it near impossible to come up with unique content, and that often the publisher descriptions can be the most helpful content for actual visitors.

    Some sites do provide visitors the chance to add reviews, like amazon.com, and that can help provide additional content that makes pages unique. Adding some unique content of your own is a good idea – shame that it does take so long. There might be other things that you could do to attract visitors and links, like a blog or blogs that present unique perspectives on titles for sale in your store.

    I’m not so sure that it is a good idea, or even possible, for a “standard set of rules” regarding linking. The ones I wrote about above present Yahoo’s take on reciprocal linking, and there likely is some difference between their view and Google’s, or Microsoft’s or ask.com’s.

    Also, many people who link on the web do so because they just want to reference something they’ve seen on another page, and those links are created without concern of what a search engine might think of them. Others are done with a commercial intent, where people are attempting to advertise at sites that share audiences that might be interested in what they offer, and again aren’t much concerned with what search engines might think.

    The web is more than just search engines, and there are more ways to get visitors to come to your pages than just Google, or Yahoo, or live.com, or ask.com. If you link to provide value to your visitors, and provide valuable information and interaction on your pages that people will link to, then issues involving links that search engines might find manipulative are much less likely to be found on your pages.

    Hi People Finder,

    I agree completely. Visitors to those pages are more likely to follow those links, and search engines may be more likely to give those links more weight as well.

  12. Hi Webmaster

    I wrote about that in the post, but it might have been easy to miss. The patent application mentions that kind of linking as well, and considers it to be a reciprocal link as well. As I wrote above:

    The patent also tells is that it will also consider links that are circular as reciprocal links. For example, a page from site A points to site B, a page from site B points to Site C, and a page from site C points to site A.

  13. I have reviewed my site and found that there are pages that produce reciprocal links accidentally. Thus, i place a nofollow on all of the links towards related pages. I also placed nofollow on all my navigation links and i have felt the increase in rankings and search engine traffic.

  14. Hi Charles,

    I don’t think that I would recommend placing nofollow on internal links within your own site for navigation links and links to “related pages.” Instead, I would take a careful look at the way pages are linked to within the site, to produce a site architecture that makes it easier for people to find the pages that you want to emphasize on your site for those visitors, through links.

    You may have some pages that you don’t want search engines to follow, such as login pages, or “add a review” form type pages or “email to a friend” type pages or shopping cart pages, or others that are useful to visitors, but aren’t information rich and shouldn’t be indexed by a search engine. Those are often pages that you would want to use a meta noindex/nofollow tag on. Using a nofollow in those links might be something that you could consider doing, but I don’t like associating my own pages with the connotation that originally went with the nofollow value that the link being pointed towards is “not trusted.”

    Reciprocal links are links to other sites, rather than to pages within your own site, so this patent application really doesn’t apply to internal links within your own site.

  15. Hi aniroy1986,

    It would be great to see people spending more time on building something that provides more value to people who use their sites than creating link farms.

  16. Thanks for the detailed info regd. reciprocal link.

    But my concern here is in 3 way link exchange some webmasters link our website to irrelevant website and they ask for their website which is related to our website services. In this case i use to reject their request. But they still place our website in the irrelevant websites and keep on asking for links.

    In this case, will the irrelevant linking will affect my website?
    In search engines point of view how these links are treated?
    How can i avoid those links from affecting my website rank?

  17. Cool, thanks for that info. I hadn’t seen anything anywhere from Yahoo and MSN on the subject so I’m glad you posted those quotes from them. I had really been wondering what they though about the subject. Id just speculated they thought the same as Google. That turns out to be pretty close – and people where telling me that they where totally different (I didn’t listen). Just shows you should not listen to others – get the info form the source.

  18. Hi cdsseo,

    Yes, the patent application does mention three-way linking as something that the search engine might look at and consider reciprocal linking. If something is mailing you, asking you to participate in a “3 way link exchange,” chances are they are asking a number of people, and those links may stand out to a search engine.

    Links pointing to your site shouldn’t hurt the rankings of your pages, especially if you’re not linking back, or linking to a site that is linking to them. But it’s difficult telling what a search engine might do in that situation.

    The best approach to limit the risk of harm may just be to try to attract a wide range of different types of sites to link to your pages, such as:

    • Highly trusted directories like the Yahoo Directory,
    • Well-known business-to-business directories if appropriate,
    • Memberships in legitimate trade and business organizations that might link back
    • Participation (sponsorships, donations, co-promotions) in respectible online and offline community and/or charitable events
    • Meaningful participation and actual conversations with people who might use your goods or services in forums, blogs, and social networks
    • Co-owned related sites that might target different audiences and provide different services or goods
    • Sites that offer complementary services or goods, such as a tax lawyer and a certified public accountant linking to each other

    Those are a few examples, and you can probably find many other legitimate opportunities to link to others and attract links.

    Reciprocal links by themselves aren’t necessarily bad – people do legitimately link to each other. But the search engines have shown that if they find something that looks like a link scheme or a link farm that you are participating in, it may have a negative impact on your site.

  19. Hi SEOsean,

    You’re welcome.

    The Google Webmaster Guidelines seem to get a lot more attention than the ones from Yahoo and Microsoft. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I do like getting information straight from the search engines whenever possible – from the whitepapers and patent filings and press releases that they publish, to the many blogs that all of the search engines offer (I’ve subscribed to as many of those that I could find using RSS.)

  20. Hi,

    Thanks for all your info.

    Lets continue the work with the above suggested points and wait for sometime. Let me see if this helps to maintain my website rankings.

  21. William thanks again for a fantastic post.

    I’m pretty sure that reciprocal links won’t do the site too much harm, but pretty sure they do little good either. I’m still out on the “don’t link to bad websites” bit… mostly as these shady sites still tend to rank (well, for a while at least).

    I think links start to gain real value as they gain clicks. I’m sure that most of the Google Webmaster tools help validate the quality of your site. If nobody ever clicks on a link on your website isn’t that a sure sign that it’s a pointless/worthless link?

    I know that Jim Boykin is anti naming a page “links”. I however have had a few of these pages rank for keywords. Mostly because every link on that page was to a valid website and the page itself became a genuine resource for visitors to my website.

    Unfortunately the search engines are just machines and can still be fairly easily tricked, for a time, but at the end of the day it’s not so much what or even how you do it… but rather why. If you are still trying to improve your visitors experience then even outbound links can be a valuable factor.

  22. Hi Robert,

    There are sites that have been banned or penalized for engaging in reciprocal link exchanges and the buying and selling of links for PageRank purposes, so I would urge some caution when it comes to reciprocal links, especially when that linking becomes excessive, like described in the patent application above.

    We really don’t know how much attention Google or the other search engines are paying attention to actual clicks on links. Not everyone uses Google Webmaster tools or Google Analytics or the Google toolbar. We do know that Google is collecting search history and browsing history for many people, but that’s a much more complex undertaking than crawling links.

    I’ve used a few link pages on sites as well, because they do provide value to visitors, rather than because I was trying to do anything manipulative. Outbound links can be valuable to the visitors of a site.

  23. William

    Right now I know that Google are THE search engine in South Africa. I’m pretty sure they track every search, where it leads you and your final destination. I’m pretty sure that most machines are pretty much cookie’d up to the eyeballs.

    Agreed, linking for search engine gain has been frowned upon. Excessive linking suggests that the page offers little so is usually penalized. It’s still argued as to just how many links on a page are counted. Although it seems to be accepted that the higher the PageRank of a page the more links are followed, usually leading to more deep pages being indexed. The flip side of this is that nobody ever really links to a links page offering it little to no PageRank. This pretty much leaves this page useless.

    Waffle… waffle… but my point here is that if you have a useless page, it becomes an “omitted result”. Once a site has a fair number of omitted results I’m sure that’s when the real penalty will come in. After all, would you recommend any product that’s half useless? Fair enough I say.

    Paid links… well that’s a whole other story ;)

    Thanks again for a great post.

  24. Hi Robert,

    I have seen pages that provide links to other resources get linked to because they provide a great deal of value to visitors. In addition to links, they describe why the links listed are included on the page, and how they can help visitors. Creating a links page that can be that popular can take a fair amount of work, but it is possible.

    I understand your point about “omitted results” pages, but I’ve also seen many sites that have pages that don’t have links to them from external sources, and yet those pages don’t seem to trip any penalties from the search engines. I do like to ask myself, when building a page, if it is something that others would considering linking to, and trying to provide people with a reason to do so – I think that’s a healthy thing to do.

    Thank you for a thoughtful comment. :)

  25. Interesting read, thanks for providing it. the upshot seems to be that links can be helpful, but to take time and care with them, not overload your site with them. That i can appreciate. I guess a point for me would be to find out where the “tipping point” is for a bot to decide if a site is legit or not. I dont want any links i add to cause a good website to end up with an incorrect classification.

  26. Hi Mat,

    Thanks. I think that those would be some of the main takeaways from the patent filing. As for sites that are “legit” or not, that might be something that comes under one of the other patent applications that I mentioned – the one on Link Based Spam Detection. It doesn’t provide a lot of detail on the legitimacy of sites that might be linked to, but it does go into how a search engine might react to links that it considers to lead to spam pages.

  27. William

    You are absolutely right when you mentioned about the negative effects of manipulative “Reciprocal Link Exchange scheme”. As as an SEO, I feel that getting incontextual link is the most powerful form of linking methods and perhaps the best form of SEO practise.

    But I would say a BIG NO to Sitewide or Blog Roll links. Perhaps I would go for highly relevant llink exchange but natural to some extent. Like I swapped a link for the term “ISP Provider” with an ISP Provider site in exchange of “Broadband Suppliers” for my site. It worked wonders but again relevancy is the key.

    SEOs should be more concerned about the site content & information, give some information worth reading for the users and get some real juicy incontextual links.

    Great stuff William

  28. Hi Shameer,

    I’m not advocating one kind of link over another, but rather writing about Yahoo’s patent application, and some of the ideas and thinking that it appears to tell us about how they might feel about reciprocal links.

    Links do play a role in how a search engine might index a page, but the easiest and first step anyone can take in having their pages show up for specific queries is to create pages that use the words that their audience will search for and expect to see. And those pages should be ones that provide enough information and value that people might bookmark or save them, and refer others to the pages by email or link or even word of mouth.

  29. Hi David,

    The description of the original incarnation of PageRank includes a dampening factor to begin with, and many of the variations of PageRank that have been described in patent filings and whitepapers tell us how links might be weighed differently based upon a wide assortment of factors. It’s possible that links that are reciprocal might be given less weight than links that aren’t. We don’t know that for certain.

    While it’s now a couple of years old, there’s a document that discusses many of the different variations of PageRank in a great amount of detail. If you haven’t seen it before, and would like to dig much more deeply into PageRank, it’s worth spending some time with:

    A Survey on PageRank Computing (pdf)

  30. That’s an in-depth analysis of reciprocal linking! I have used a sensible amount of reciprocal links on my sites which have resulted in much improved rankings, a good pagerank and well respected sites in their subject circles. Obviously, as has been mentioned before, when taken to the extreme such as in link farms and directories, you’re asking for trouble and Google deserves to penalize you.

  31. Thanks, Adam

    It is natural that some sites will link back and forth at each other, especially when they share a topic or a common owner. Having a search engine think that you’re doing too much linking back and forth probably isn’t wise if you want traffic from that search engine. :)

  32. And what about Reciprocal Links between same sites translate in different languages with different domains? One in .com second one in .de or .fr
    Finally you start build a site for users and finish rebuild it for search engines or directly start with search engine philosophies.

  33. Hi Skyline,

    That’s an interesting question. It would be a great one to pose to someone from one of the search engines. I can see wanting to link between pages that provide the same information in different languages, regardless of whether they were on the same domain or a different one. There’s a purpose to doing that, especially when the site legitimately appeals to audiences that speaks/reads those different languages.

    It’s possible that an automated system like the one described in the patent filing might flag the sites in question for a review, since they may see so many links between domains. That review might include more automated processes, or could include the use of a human reviewer, as the patent filing also notes.

    In creating multiple sets of pages in different languages, for different readers, I would be hesitant about creating pages that are strictly translations of the same content regardless of what a search engine might do in that instance. An interesting study on cross cultural design explores some reasons why I say that:

    Metaphors and Website Design: A Cross-Cultural Case Study of the Tide.com Stain Detective

    In addition to cultural differences in how audiences might view web sites, exploring differences in how people speaking different languages might search for what you have to offer may result in finding great terms and phrases that differ tremendously in those different languages, and may point towards an information architecture, and use of content that varies tremendously from one site to another. It might be more appropriate to not link from one page in one language to another page covering the same content in a different language, but rather to link to the home pages of each site that has been created for people in different languages.

  34. Great article, although I did have to read it a couple of times to fully digest the material. It has certainly opened my eyes and made me think twice about my linking strategy and activities. Thanks again, great read.

  35. I read this and had a sudden pain in my chest. Not really – but it still stings. I’m working on a link strategy for – real estate etc. I’ve spoken to many builders who are going to be able to put their properties on the site…but we want a link to their site too to help market our business. All on the up and up….all legitimate. I thought of this as just working links hard. But I’ve come to understand that by allowing our site to link to theirs – that could hurt us…we’re looking at the do not follow code for robots so as not to hurt my ‘link juice’. Still reading…still learning. I need to wrap my head around this. Great article though – well done.

  36. Hi Daniel,

    Search engines aren’t concerned about legitimate reciprocal links, where it makes perfect sense for sites to link to each other. It’s excessive type linking, where the links seem to be there only to boost search rankings that they are concerned about. A rel=”nofollow” likely isn’t going to be necessary on those links as long as you exercise some restraint and moderation in those links. As I wrote in my conclusion to the post:

    Chances are that if the links on your blog or site are open and transparent and reasonable (rather than excessive), providing value to your visitors, and reasonably cover similar topics or complementary ones, to sites that might link back to yours, that a search engine might find them to be legitimate. If you include indications on your pages that you will link back to others who link to you to boost rankings in search results, you may have more reason to be concerned. If you engage in link farms or link schemes or reciprocal link programs, a search engine might find your pages to be “suspicious,” and may be taking a closer look.

  37. Hi Bill,

    Great article – I have read loads of vastly differing opinions on the subject but love your approach.

    I have a dilemma though. Our site is designed to help new business start ups in the UK and by it’s very nature needs to promote companies and organisations who offer related products and services. This could easily run into thousands of outbound links, but if I ask for a link back from each of these, it would seem that I would run the risk of Search Engine penalties for excesive reciprocal linking.

    Any thoughts?

    All the best

    Andy

  38. Hi Andy,

    Thank you. Your question touches upon what the search engines might define as excessive. Do they mean excessive as in two (or a handful) of sites linking back and forth to each other a lot on their pages? Do they mean sites that usually have a link back to them when they link out to that site.

    Either way might potentially raise a red flag to one of the search engines, though we’re told in the patent filing that when excessive reciprocal linking takes place, it might trigger a manual review rather than some kind of automatic demotion or penalty. I suspect that in addition to looking at linking patterns, a search engine might also be looking for language that might imply some kind of link exchange going on, aimed at manipulating search results, or language related to topics such as pills or pornography.

    If what you are doing is pretty transparent and reasonable and isn’t aimed at manipulating search results, which it sounds like from your description, then it’s quite possible that the search engines would see what you are doing as legitimate and reasonable. It’s always a good idea to avoid language that might make a search engine think that what you are doing is aimed at increasing anyone’s PageRank, including words like “link exchange” or “reciprocal link.”

    Showing discretion in which businesses might be included is a good idea as well, like you do where you state on your site that “only relevant entries will be accepted.”

  39. Hi Bill,

    Great article, makes sense and you saved me a lot of time as I had no idea that sending out requests to sites for reciprocal linking was a bad idea. Hadn’t done it yet but I thought it was something that I was supposed to do. I’ll cross my fingers and hope they come naturally.

    My site is being set up to be a source of information and resources (mainly links) but looking at it you can tell that it’s a collection not a farm. I do have some fears of the fact that it’s content is mainly links will hurt me with the search engines, but the site I have is the kind of site that I wanted to make. So even if it were to hurt me I don’t know what I could do different. I do feel reassured somewhat by your statement “If what you are doing is pretty transparent and reasonable and isn’t aimed at manipulating search results…seen as legitimate and reasonable.”

    I do hope pages of (relevant)outgoing links isn’t the kiss of death.

    David

  40. Hi David,

    Thanks. Including some reciprocal links on your pages isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but doing so in an excessive manner can be.

    Search engines aren’t trying to stop people from using the Web the way that they want to, but they do get concerned when it looks like people are linking mainly to try to increase the rankings of their pages. It looks like what you’ve created on your site is an information rich resource, collecting and publishing links to interesting and helpful pages, rather than a place where people come to exchange links for the purpose of ranking higher in search engines. I don’t believe that the search engines would think that you are trying to harm them or the search results that they display.

  41. Best reciprocal linking resource !

    Thank you for this thorough article.

    My opinion is that reciprocation must stop when it involves link farms or different linking schemes. Of course you must be careful with whom you’re establishing linking partnerships; and I don’t mean solely to exclude link farms but also to keep an eye on your counterpart’s intentions because there are many webmasters that practice all sorts of linking tricks such as:

    using nofollow tags no index or robots.txt. exclusion;
    removal of links after a short period of time since inclusion;
    301 redirects to sites with high toolbar PageRank;

    In a sound social environment reciprocal links can build trust and credibility. Of course, their linking power is well diminished as compared to one way back links but they provide a lot of potential in terms of referral traffic and viral content promotion.

    Cheers,
    Cristian

  42. Hi Cristian,

    You’re welcome. Thank you for your kind words.

    I agree with you about the intentions of those whom you might link to. Another risk is that you link to a page and the ownership of the site changes hands or the direction of the site changes, and the content of the page that you linked to also changes – not necessarily to something that you really wanted to link to in the first place. It can pay to take a look back at older links to see where they are pointing.

    I’m not sure if there’s a diminuation of the weight of a link when pages from different sites link back to each other (and the linking isn’t excessive). I haven’t seen anything directly from one of the search engines, either in patent or white paper or blog post, that would tell us that they are.

  43. I was doing some research for my clients and this was by far the best post on reciprocal links available. There is so much out there that is misleading. Thanks for your insights. I will use your information to help my clients build sound linking practices. Thanks again.

  44. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your kind words. There is a lot of misleading information on the Web. That’s part of the reason why I like looking at things like patent filings and white papers from the search engines themselves. They may not be the final word on a topic like reciprocal links, or even express the official views of everyone at those search engines. But they are from the search engines themselves, at least.

  45. Excellent read, thanks very much. I’ve found it difficult to find a balanced linking strategy after nosing around competitors’ websites and seeing the lengths some go to for their rank. In my neighborhood at least, some quite shady sites are still being rewarded by Google et al.

  46. Search engines consider reciprocal links as bad only if they are in excess of there limits. If your 90 % of the inbounds link are by link exchange with each other site the case of bad link may come. If you have only 5 % links exchange it is normal and organic

  47. Hi Mike,

    Not sure where you came up with specific numbers and percentages, but you’re probably right that search engines may flag a site for review if they think that something odd is going on in terms of links.

  48. Hi Bill,

    Just wondering what your thoughts were on listing a website on a free directory? I came across your article because as I was deciding on whether or not to use this free service, one of the options asked if I wanted to include reciprocal linkback. I didn’t know what that was, so I researched it a bit. I found your article very clear for a lay person, such as myself. And I also would like to know if using a free directory is a red flag for some other underlying culprit, if you will?

    Thanks,
    Andrea

  49. Hi Andrea,

    I usually don’t submit to directories that require a reciprocal link back to them, and try to avoid directories that focus upon helping site owners “improve” their rankings rather than providing a resource to people who might be attempting to find something on the Web.

    There are free directories that are worth being listed in on the Web, but I would recommend spending some time studying them before submitting, and looking for warning signs such as:

    Do they require a link back?
    Do the sites listed in the directory look like splogs, pornography, and web spam, with possibly some legitimate looking sites thrown in as well?
    Is the front page of the directory focused at rankings or traffic for site owners, rather than as a resource for searchers?
    Does the directory accept every site submitted, or do they editorially review submissions?

  50. Bill,

    Thanks for the great article! We have a ton of reciprocal links (and many of them are unintentional…we link to bands, they link back to us when we play them on one of our shows…so it’s more of a “circular” link like you talked about) this has often made for a sticky situation with us. We don’t want to NOT link to our bands, and we don’t want them to not link to us!

    On the other hand we don’t want to be hurt by linking – this article has somewhat put my mind at ease about this whole matter. Our links are for legit purposes…and if google hates us for it then so be it I guess!

    -D.

  51. Hi Doug,

    I think that’s a reasonable approach to take. If it’s obvious that your approach to linking and being linked to is because the links provide a resource to visitors of your pages rather than an intent to boost rankings for anyone, then you shouldn’t be harmed for those links. Seeing how those links are very relevant to what you write about likely doesn’t hurt either.

  52. The fact that reciprocal link exchange can, in many cases, be legitimate and natural really leaves a great deal of gray area with respect to this subject. It is too bad that “Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging” was the only terminology used on Google’s page on Link Schemes. “Excessive” could mean just about anything.

  53. Hi Mark,

    Yes, they do appear to have limited their definitions of what “excessive” might be. A video that came out not too long ago from Google’s Matt Cutts on this topic was a response to someone who had only a handful of sites linked together, and his response to the owner interlinking those pages was that it might not be a problem because it was only a few sites. If there were tens or hundreds or more sites involved, the reciprocal linking would be something to be much more concerned about. If the owner’s sites were somehow related, that would be helpful as well.

  54. Correct me if I’m wrong, but, with reciprocal linking arrangements, don’t you typically get listed on a low-quality web page that has little or no Page Rank to pass along?

    On the plus side, some reciprocal linking arrangements can be beneficial; and, in general, Google likes to see a diversified linking profile; so a handful of reciprocal links from relevant websites, which aren’t considered bad neighborhoods, would tend to help rather than hinder.

  55. Hi Joel,

    Reciprocal linking itself is simply when one or more sites link to each other, and that’s not an uncommon practice on the Web at all. That type of reciprocal linking can help rather than hinder, as you note. It’s excessive reciprocal linking, aiming at artifically inflating the rankings of web pages that the search engines are up in arms about.

  56. Cheers for the info on reciprocal links. I had been in doubt over their status for awhile now, as to whether they were that bad for rankings or not. Your article has help me get a clear understanding of them. Although it does still in my mind create a grey area to whether they are useful or not.

  57. Hello Bill,
    After receiving a ton of emails proposing reciprocal links for our new website (SEO Vietnam), I decided to have another look at what was available on the net regarding this practice that I have never resorted to before, just in case I was missing out on something.
    I googled “truth about reciprocal links?” and guess who came up on first spot? This post and after reading it, that’s enough for me to consider my research over, thanks for the info, great as always.

  58. Hi Eliseo,

    You’re welcome. I did try to create a post that would work well as a resource on this topic, and I think the many comments and questions that the post has received has helped with that as well.

  59. Pingback: Back links what are they and what they can do for your website? «
  60. Pingback: Reciprocal Links for Search Engines
  61. Recently investing in Open Site Explorer we are moving forward with our first SEO ‘In House’ Campaign. Actively engaging in Article Writing, Directory listings and backlinks. It tends to be in the Grapevine from where I am that reciprocal links do not serve any benefit in regard to SEO! The two way link will simple counter act the outcome from both sides. Hence, since I now have this embedded in my head I have never really taken on board the requirement for reciprocal linking – can this have any significant positive impact on my Domain Authority or trust?

    Interesting article and see that it encourages a number of tekkies on here (me not one of them unfortunately).

    Thanks again

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