Somewhere around 2006 I started doing most of my internet marketing and search engine optimization work for federal agencies. Because the websites we were working for were .gov sites, this raised a whole bunch of restrictions and challenges. One was that we couldn’t just link out to whoever linked to us.
At the time, many link-building campaigns assumed that reciprocating links was the norm. Anything else was, at the least, impolite. But I took the approach that many websites would want to link to our content, if only they aware of it. As much of the content was solid, evidence-based public health information, many places in fact did want to link to it.
At about the same time, Google instituted another algorithm change. This one significantly downgraded the value of reciprocal links. Some people believed that Google was actually penalizing links for being reciprocal, but this was hype. The truth goes back to the most important part of link-building in the first place, but something that keeps getting over-looked as people find new algorithm wrinkles: is the link relevant to an actual human? If I have a website about hiking, but I have a bunch of links to, say, dentists, Google is not going to give those links any weight. Not because they are part of a reciprocal exchange, but because they have not meaning to my actual visitors.
Links can go back and forth between two topically related websites, and provide input to Google’s algorithm. Google will look at both. But if one link is in there purely for reciprocation, it will likely be discounted.
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