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Your Mamma Don’t Dance and Reciprocal Links Are Not Dead

Reciprocal LinksYeah, you heard me… that was a slam on your mamma. But that hardly matters now, let’s talk about reciprocal links. They are not dead. I know it and you know it. But for just a second let’s pretend otherwise.

A while back there was quite a bit of scare mongering going around the SEO industry about how reciprocal links were dead. I had a potential client once tell me that so-and-so-big-name-in-the-SEO-industry told them that reciprocal links were dead. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it here again. There is nothing wrong with reciprocal links. It’s all about how you use/implement them that matters. No, reciprocal links are not dead and now I have the proof.

Last year I decided to run my own test so I could refute what I already knew to be true. Yeah, I know, who cares about reciprocal links now, right? The fear tactics have run their course and, frankly, nobody is engaged in old-school mass reciprocal link swapping (for the love of God people, if you’re still doing that, knock it off!) But for the sake of science and posterity, I now, over a year later, present the results of my (almost forgotten) reciprocal link test.

The Set-Up

On one of my sites I created a master testing page. From this page I linked to eight new pages created specifically for this test. Each of those pages contained a few paragraphs of content with the word “reciprocallinksarenotdead” linked to an external web site. The goal was to watch the search results to see what sites appeared in the SERPs for our test term.

For the sake of creating a good testing ground, we linked to four sites that linked back and four sites that didn’t. From here we split things up even further by linking to two sites in each group to that we considered to be “high authority” for their industry, and two that we considered to be “lower authority” for their industry. We then split this again using one to link using the target site’s keyword in the link and the other not. Got all that? No? OK, let me put it to you this way (the links below take you to the test pages):

Links to reciprocal linking sites

  • Link to a low authority site using keyword
  • Link to a low authority site
  • Link to a high authority site using keyword
  • Link to a high authority site

Link to non-reciprocal linking sites

  • Link to a low authority site using keyword
  • Link to a low authority site
  • Link to a high authority site using keyword
  • Link to a high authority site

The Sting

I started out checking up on this daily seeing if Google, Yahoo or MSN cached the pages linking out and then watching if/when they showed up in the SERPs. The result was quite a roller coaster ride. One day the test pages would be cached and the next day the cache date was from several days prior. This happened frequently. The same thing with the SERPs. One day all the test pages would show up and the next day gone and then the next day just just some of the test pages showed up and the next others, but not necessarily the ones from the previous day. It was interesting to watch.

After about several weeks of daily monitoring I started to cut back to every few days, then weekly then, well I kind of forgot about it with the occasional thought “Hey, I wonder how that test is going”, in which I’d take a quick look and forget all about it again. Here we are now, over a year later and I think I can confidently display the results as definitive.

The Results

Note: These were the results as of Friday, July 12, 2007, I notice that there has been some shifting in results since then, so your mileage may vary.

Google results

  1. Low authority, non reciprocating site
  2. Low authority, non reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  3. Low authority, reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  4. High authority, reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  5. Test page linking to #9 below
  6. Test page linking to #2 above
  7. Low authority, reciprocating site
  8. High authority, reciprocating site
  9. High authority, non-reciprocating site (keyword in link)

Google supplemental results show the remainder of the testing pages. Missing from SERPs: High authority, non-reciprocating site

Yahoo Results

  1. Low authority, reciprocating site
  2. High authority, non-reciprocating site
  3. High authority, reciprocating site
  4. Test page linking to #8 below
  5. Test page linking to #2 above
  6. Low authority, reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  7. Low authority, non-reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  8. High authority, reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  9. Link to a blog post that uses keyword as part of the URL

Missing from SERPs:

  • Low authority, reciprocating site
  • High authority, non-reciprocating site (keyword in link)

MSN Results

  1. High authority, reciprocating site
  2. Test page linking to #10 below
  3. Test page linking to #1 above
  4. Low authority, reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  5. Low authority, non reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  6. Low authority, non reciprocating site
  7. High authority, reciprocating site (keyword in link)
  8. High authority, non-reciprocating site
  9. High authority, non-reciprocating site
  10. Low authority, reciprocating site

The Happy Ending

We can conclude from that that, all things being equal, reciprocating links have no more or less value than one-way links. Yeah, I know, we all read Matt Cutt’s post about how excessive reciprocal linking can hurt, and I’m sure Matt is right. But the key word there is “excessive”. If all you do is look for low-quality reciprocal links that ad no value to any user’s experience then, yes, that can, and should do you some harm. But don’t be afraid of reciprocation. If someone links to you out of kindness, feel free to link back to them out of gratitude. It’s not going to hurt you one bit and the link to you won’t be devalued. Just be sure you’re adding value, not reciprocating for the sake of reciprocating.

So what do you think? Is this test conclusive or an exercise in futility?

Stoney deGeyter is the author of The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!. He is the founder and CEO of Pole Position Marketing, a web presence optimization firm whose pit crew has been velocitizing websites since 1998. In his free time Stoney gets involved in community services and ministries with his “bride enjoy” and his children. Read Stoney’s full bio.

12 Responses to Your Mamma Don’t Dance and Reciprocal Links Are Not Dead

  1. Jordan McCollum says:

    Really random question prompted by your subtitles: Have you been watching The Sting lately? (I watched it again Tuesday.) If so, should we have a Joplin soundtrack for this post?

  2. Stoney G deGeyter
    Stoney deGeyter says:

    Lately? No, but I’ve seen that movie many many times as a kid. One of my all-time faves. Yeah, the theme from The Sting would make nice background music here!

  3. Mike Detriech says:

    thanks for your post on reciprocal linking.. My hobby site which sells model airplane parts is linked up with over 400 other related hobby sites through traditional link exchange. I manage my reciprocal links with linksmanager.com. my search rankings are better than ever.

    I get tired of all of the paranoia surrounding link exchange. I got all of my link exchanges slowly over a long period of time. link exchange will always exist as long as their is a world wide web.

  4. astudent says:

    One swallow does not a summer make. One web page does not a linking strategy show. Your results are not statistically significant, and there might be other one page or environmental factors (eg competitiveness of arena). Plus I believe Google continuously tweaks their algos according to NYT article, which would explain the time varying results.

  5. Phil says:

    Here here, astudent! it’s the Google dance yee be a seein! nice work Stoney, but I don’t think it’s that easy to derive conclusive evidence that webmasters can really rely on, it would take a test with hundreds of pages and multiple terms, probably.

    P.S. we should obey Matts Cutts, he is our deity, he is our oracle, he is our guiding light and indispensable wisdom 🙂

  6. Calligaris says:

    I have recently noticed may of top ranked sites in my industry are big on reciprocal links. Number of them have the network of websites sitting on different IPs and they link to each other and rank real good.
    Your article is great and it’s a practical prove that reciprocal links are not dead and probably never will be.

  7. Alfred Malveo says:

    I have linked to sites such as Search Engine Land, Search Engine Guide, Techmeme, Small Business SEM, Search Engine Watch, and the list goes on. I have done so because I either found something resourceful to my readers, something that helped to support what I was writing about or simply due to the fact that the site I linked to was the original source of my own writing. These same sites have in turn linked back to our site for the very same reasons. That is true reciprocal linking. So is this a bad thing? Is Google, or any other search engine going to devalue those links because they are not true “one-way” links? I don’t think so. This is a natural process of the web and search engines are smart enough to understand that.

  8. Stoney G deGeyter
    Stoney deGeyter says:

    Alfred, I completely agree. It would make no sense to devalue those types of reciprocal links. I’ve made that argument in the past, but thought I’d leave it out of the equation above just to keep things simple. I spoke with one SEO guru who told me that he thought the search engines could completely discount all reciprocal links 100% and it would not effect results. I completely disagree, I think it would completely.

  9. LDN Hotels says:

    I’d dismissed recip links not just because of reading about them being bad, but because I’d always associated them with home page, hobby sites(Sorry Mike!). But again it looks like it comes down to, do something for the user and it doesn’t hurt on the SEO front.

    Can anyone think of good sites to target for recip links for a site for hotels in London? I suppose anything a visitor to London wants or needs is ripe for the taking.

  10. Interesting test. I always preferred to avoid reciprocal links for most of my websites because I feel a link page would look unprofessional for a serious business.

    I just associated link exchange with sleazy cheap websites. But if you do really exchange only with relevant websites, then I guess it’s not bad, you even offer more value to your visitor.

  11. Craig Smith says:

    Great post. Often I need to convince clients and colleagues that recip links are not dead and this provides some great data to go from. In "hub" areas within a certain keyword theme, recips can be a great way to boost page rank and establish a level of trust. The real key is what happens after the organic click. The fact that most businesses and retailers are not multivariate testing astounds me.