How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reciprocal Linking (Part 1)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reciprocal Linking (Part 1)

Last week while requesting links for a client in the music retail industry, I came across a site I knew I had to obtain a link from. The site’s PageRank was nothing impressive, but its content was some of the best I’ve seen on the web about learning to play the acoustic guitar. Even better, the site had a links page where the webmaster had cherry picked some equally impressive sites to link to.

I contacted the site’s webmaster, Glenn, and after a little bit of back and forth, he made an offer for a link exchange with my client, which was gladly accepted. Glenn seemed a bit surprised by this, and wrote me:

“Cool. The way to get is to give. Taylor Guitars was after me to give them a link, but they offered nothing in return. So I refused their request. You get much better results when you make this a two way street.”

I’m not going to get all weepy about Glenn’s “the way to get is to give” remark embodying the Christmas spirit or anything like that, but it is a little sad to see his surprise when a big-name retailer agrees to link to a high-quality resource such as his.

At some point in the history of SEO, someone implanted this idea in our heads that reciprocal linking is organic search suicide… that it not only drains a site’s precious link juice, but also raises a red flag to Google that you’re using shady tactics.

In certain contexts, there is a modicum of truth to these fears. But done correctly, reciprocal linking is a powerful tool for increasing both direct traffic and search rank. Let’s address these two topics separately.

Myth #1: Reciprocal linking causes your site to bleed link juice

Certain pages on your site have more link juice than others. The home page of most sites, for example, will generally have the most external links pointing towards it. This is why the home page often ranks the highest for the most number of searches. The same site may have a few other pages, blog posts, articles, etc. that have garnered enough attention to accumulate the attention of many other websites. These links give individual pages “The Spice”* needed to show up higher in the SERPs.

Every link on your site distributes its wealth of link juice to other pages, whether they are internal or external. A lot of companies hoard link juice in an attempt to dictate the flow of this SEO lifeblood by:

A. Refusing to link to external sites or
B. Placing a rel=”no follow” snippet into the code for all external links.

To be blunt, these are both jerk moves. Refusing to link to other sites gives off an air of superiority that turns many important sites away from linking to you. The rel=”no follow” tag is a slap in the face that says, “I’m willing to link to you, but I don’t want Google to think we’re friends.”

Every SEO should put each site through a simple litmus test I learned from Link Moses himself, Eric Ward, before requesting a link: Would I want a link from this site if the search engines didn’t exist? More recently I’ve started asking myself the additional question, “Would I feel proud to share this site with visitors on my own site?” If the answer is “no,” I move on without any attempt to make contact.

The point is that any site worth its weight in links is maintained by a webmaster, nay, a curator who doesn’t want to associate with anything less than the highest quality sites in their industry. Their reputation is on the line. If they provide a bad recommendation to their users, they stand to loose a lot of credibility. These are the sites you want to be associated with. I can’t stress this enough, so I will say it again more forcefully – These are the sites you want to be associated with!

Glenn knows that he has put years of hard work into providing a quality online experience for his visitors. So it’s understandable that he wants to get the recognition of a major player in his industry. This, my friends, is a sign of passion, which is unfortunately on the decline as fly-by-night affiliate sales sites continue to gain more clout in the top search results.

So what’s the solution to the catch 22 of providing a reciprocal link to a site you feel adds value to the Internet without sapping your own, precious link juice? Obviously you don’t want to provide an external link on one of your most powerful pages. After all, you shouldn’t expect to get a featured link in flashing red text, surrounded by animated .gifs of exploding guitars on their home page.

The simplest solution: set up a links or resources page of your own a few levels deep on your site. Not so deep that the search engines will never index it, but not close enough to the surface level that you’ll be sacrificing the authority of your most important pages. Link only to sites that you see as a legitimate, valuable online resource, and make sure you let their webmasters know exactly where they can find these placements (adding a brief description of each site gives you a few SEO bonus points as well).

Following these rules, you can rest assured that you’ve fulfilled your end of the reciprocal linking and will pass on a reasonable amount of link juice to a quality site that is willing to help out your own.

Next up: Google LOVES reciprocal linking (sometimes).

*Yes, that was a Dune reference, and no, I will not apologize.