Reciprocal Links

I’ll link to you, and you may connect to me. Good or terrible link-building strategy? Let’s investigate.

I must admit that I have a certain attachment to links that are reciprocal (otherwise known as link exchanges). They were the first “SEO hack” I ever used in my professional life.

Let me quickly recount that incident:

I was an EDM DJ with a growing interest in SEO ten years ago. I had some knowledge of SEO theory, but I hadn’t yet applied it. In order to address this, I started my own website, where I regularly posted a playlist of recently released electronic dance music. It served as a platform for me to practice my SEO skills.

It was the most embarrassing thing ever when I established my first website. Its deactivation is not surprising.

To cut a long tale short, I quickly understood that I required links from other websites if I wanted Google to send me relevant traffic. I first became aware of reciprocal links at that time.

I located a few dozen sites that were similar to mine and made an offer to trade site-wide connections with them. They concurred. The issue? Mutually beneficial links were and continue to be against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

However, I quickly came up with a solution to this issue.

My outgoing sidebar links are incorporated in an iframe rather than being placed directly on my website. The outcome? Although Google was unaware that I was linking to my blogging buddies, they could see that I was doing so.

Don’t judge me for pulling this prank, please. I had a weak moral compass because I was new to SEO.

I assumed I was rather intelligent, so it goes without saying. That was up till my blog didn’t receive any traffic from organic searches for more than a year.

To be honest, I can’t say for sure if a penalty for attempting to deceive Google caused my lack of organic traffic. My blog might have just been placed in a sandbox. However, that was the first and only time I tried to use link exchanges to create backlinks. I have not since done it.

enough about me now. Let’s begin the research you came here to see.

I’ll link to you, and you may connect to me. Good or terrible link-building strategy? Let’s investigate.

I must admit that I have a certain attachment to links that are reciprocal (otherwise known as link exchanges). They were the first “SEO hack” I ever used in my professional life.

Let me quickly recount that incident:

I was an EDM DJ with a growing interest in SEO ten years ago. I had some knowledge of SEO theory, but I hadn’t yet applied it. In order to address this, I started my own website, where I regularly posted a playlist of recently released electronic dance music. It served as a platform for me to practice my SEO skills.

It was the most embarrassing thing ever when I established my first website. Its deactivation is not surprising.

To cut a long tale short, I quickly understood that I required links from other websites if I wanted Google to send me relevant traffic. I first became aware of reciprocal links at that time.

I located a few dozen sites that were similar to mine and made an offer to trade site-wide connections with them. They concurred. The issue? Mutually beneficial links were and continue to be against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

However, I quickly came up with a solution to this issue.

My outgoing sidebar links are incorporated in an iframe rather than being placed directly on my website. The outcome? Although Google was unaware that I was linking to my blogging buddies, they could see that I was doing so.

Don’t judge me for pulling this prank, please. I had a weak moral compass because I was new to SEO.

I assumed I was rather intelligent, so it goes without saying. That was up till my blog didn’t receive any traffic from organic searches for more than a year.

To be honest, I can’t say for sure if a penalty for attempting to deceive Google caused my lack of organic traffic. My blog might have just been placed in a sandbox. However, that was the first and only time I tried to use link exchanges to create backlinks. I have not since done it.

enough about me now. Let’s begin the research you came here to see.

How common are reciprocal links on the web?

The best way to know if reciprocal links do more harm than good is with an experiment:

  1. Create a bunch of websites
  2. Build similar backlink profiles for them all
  3. Wait until they start ranking in Google for some keywords
  4. Build a particular number of reciprocal links to some of those websites. Leave a few of them intact as your control group. Observe what happens next.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone do an experiment of this kind. It should come as no surprise that doing so would require a lot of labor and resources.

Furthermore, we don’t conduct such studies at Ahrefs; instead, we merely analyze the data we currently have.

So that’s what we did. We:

  1. Took 140k websites with 10k+ visits/month from Google (estimated by Ahrefs)
  2. Checked for overlap between the sites to which they link and the sites that link to them
  3. Plotted the results on a graph to visualize how common reciprocal links are

Our thinking was simple: By studying how common reciprocal links are among websites getting consistent traffic from Google, we could get some clue as to the toxicity (or not) of such links.

SIDENOTE.

Only “dofollow” inbound links and “dofollow” outbound links were cross-checked. This formula was used to compute the final percentage: [number of reciprocal domains] / [number of domains to which the target connects out].

These are the outcomes:

In our sample of 140,592 domains, 26.4% lack any reciprocal links. 73.6% do.

Furthermore, there is at least a 15% overlap between the sites that link to them and the sites that link out to them on 27.4% of the sites we examined, or nearly 1 in 3.

It would appear that reciprocal links are a typical outcome of the web, therefore you shouldn’t be hesitant to link to websites that have already linked to you. The same rules apply when requesting links from websites that already have links to you.

However, this study does not actually demonstrate that reciprocal linking is risk-free. That is as a result of its survival bias.

In plain English, this means that any penalized websites were probably eliminated from the start because we only looked at domains with search traffic.

As a result, the only thing we can state for certain at this time is this:

Some websites may rank fairly well in Google if they have a significant number of reciprocal connections.

How common are reciprocal links in Google’s top 10 search results?

Our hypothesis that having a specific number of reciprocal links is quite normal and won’t always result in Google penalizing your website was supported by the prior study.

But how “effective” are mutual links?

This is a significant query. In contrast to total strangers, it is simpler to persuade friends—to whom you may have already linked in the past—to link to you. Therefore, it makes natural that Google would regard connections from friends’ websites less highly than links from other websites.

The best way to prove that is with an experiment:

Create a bunch of web pages with similar backlink profiles

Build reciprocal links to some of those pages. See what happens next.

If you ever perform such an experiment, let us know.

For now, we decided to work with the data we already have and study the commonality of reciprocal links among the top 10 ranking pages in Google. We:

Took a sample of ~10k non-branded search queries (with Keyword Difficulty scores between 40 and 60)

Pulled top 10 ranking pages in Google for each of them

Looked for overlap between the sites linking to those pages (referring domains) and the sites to which the residing website links out

Plotted the results on a pie-chart

Important: Once again, we only looked at “dofollow” links.

SIDENOTE.

Low Keyword Difficulty (KD) scores have a tendency to produce search results with little inbound links. Because of this, we only chose terms with a KD score of 40 to 60. The top-ranking pages might not have enough links if we didn’t do this, which would make it difficult for us to conduct study on them.

These are the outcomes:

Of the 112,440 top-ranking pages we looked at, 43.7%, or nearly half, have some reciprocal links.

This seems to confirm that reciprocal links are a typical result of the web once more. On average, 4-5 of every top 10 organic Google rankings contain some reciprocal links.

However, keep in mind that looking at the top-ranking pages only provides information regarding correlation rather than causality. These pages may have risen to the top of Google as a result of some early reciprocal links from friends. They later acquired more links from other websites as a result of the visibility and organic traffic they had received.

On the other hand, it’s possible that these pages are still ranking despite the reciprocal links. The information we have doesn’t allow us to know for sure.

Should you be building reciprocal links?

The response is mainly based on how you define “creating reciprocal links.”

It’s unlikely to succeed to exchange sitewide links with other websites in your sector. I (Yoda!?) am so certain of this that we didn’t even conduct any pertinent study to try to disprove it. Heck, I can’t even recall the last time I visited a website with a site-wide outgoing link that was even remotely respectable.

But when it comes to establishing connections in your niche by freely connecting out to pertinent resources—and then coming to the attention of site owners as a result of doing so, which may eventually lead to links from them down the road—well, that’s a solid technique in my opinion.

In actuality, whether consciously or unconsciously, the majority of content creators already do it.

Last but not least, if you’re aggressively asking people to link to you if you link to me.

email outreach, then kindly cease. At Ahrefs, we occasionally receive these and detest them. Given how disrespectful they are, we wager that other website owners share this opinion.

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By MuhammadJunaid

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