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Reciprocal links are (still) not dead

Reciprocal links are not dead. Weren't dead before. Aren't dead now. 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.

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 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

Google's result page:

  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's result page:

  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's Result page:

  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.

Guest author: Stoney deGeyter, Pole Position Marketing

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October 2007 search engine articles