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August 31, 2007

Link Reciprocation – How Does an Entire Industry Get It Wrong?

Nothing in SEO invokes as much vitriol and outright misguided advice as link reciprocation. I do understand how we got to this point, and it is a sad state of affairs. The current situation with reciprocation and the beliefs that surround it does reflect on the entire SEO industry, and not positively. That is because there are a lot of people who don’t do it properly, and thus, don’t understand it. Then they make all kinds of claims about how it works. Much of this gets passed along as gospel in the SEO world, where recruiting “true believers” is a common goal among the name brands.

The real problem here is that reciprocation can be done properly, and it can be done very improperly. Those in the latter column tend to be the spamming, ask-for-a-link-from-anyone, three-way link swap crowd, and they are very visible. Especially to people who do not want to reciprocate, or want to do it correctly. The spammers are in your face. The fact is, the spammers live outside of the world of proper reciprocation.
Legitimate site owners who are just trying to do the right thing tend to avoid these pests like the plague. That fact is not obvious to people who do not have much experience with reciprocation. Let’s compare it to the massage world. There are two kinds of massage, and the legitimate practitioners have to fight a PR battle every day. In fact, illegitimate “massage” is not even massage. The same situation occurs with link reciprocation.
To truly understand reciprocation, we have to review the World Wide Web before there were ANY search engines or at least before search engines began using links as a significant ranking criteria.

Thousands of niche-category site owners exchanged links graciously with other sites of interest to them and their visitors. They did it because it was good for everyone involved.
Gracious link reciprocation between two sites that have a reason to do it is one of the original, fundamental web marketing practices.

That fact is irrefutable.
These early exchanges grew to the point that the listings needed to be categorized. Thus, properly categorized directories began to crop up on these sites. Software tools emerged to facilitate the effort and make it manageable. These directories served a good purpose, and the niche sites with the largest directories gained a lot of credibility and repeat visitors. They’re called hubs, and it does take work to manage them. This is not free.
It is curious that the dot.bomb sites never did much of this. Their lack of gracious participation in their community was palpable. Most of them vanished with their ability to buy overpriced advertising.

Similarly, large corporations prefer to be islands unto themselves on the Web. Link reciprocation was always a decidedly grass roots practice. Before search engines used links in rankings, the SEO advisors and other high-brow marketing types ignored link reciprocation, while small site owners with their eyes wide open did not.
Nowadays, confused SEO gurus refer to these link directories as “link farms” and other derogatory terms, with no concept of where they came from, and what they can accomplish for a site, in terms of repeat traffic and direct traffic from the links coming back from other related sites. Having no real experience with a practice allows ignorance to run rampant, especially in an industry where admitting to a lack of knowledge is rare.
Lets get real
But enough theory. Let’s apply all of this to an example that represents a very real life situation. Let’s say that an young airbrush artist decides to focus on motorcycle and auto-racing helmet painting. Many artists are already in that market, so it is already competitive. It is also quite global in scope. You could service the entire planet, from just about anywhere
With a very limited budget, it simply makes sense for this budding business owner to establish their presence within the motorcycle and auto racing communities effectively as possible. When they look around, they will see that a lot of sites in those niches have link directories (some going back over ten years now) and they offer to reciprocate with other motorcycle or auto-racing sites. Again, the cost to participate is simply gracious reciprocation.
Many of these prospective link partners will be rather substantial commercial enterprises, and well-known in the motorcycle and racing world. Some will be clubs and organizations. Most of these sites do not have forums, nor does the site owner sit around and post “articles” about other vendors in their marketplace, nor do they run RSS feeds, or play the other modern-day SEO games. They have a business to run, so their link offer is limited to a listing in their directory, yet it is also a very accessible link.
The bottom line is, if you want a link from their high traffic, well-regarded site, then gracious reciprocation is the ONLY way to get it. Take it or leave it.
In those two realms of interest (motorcycle and auto-racing), there may well be over two thousand sites that make just such an offer.

Should this new helmet painter ignore every one of those marketing opportunities, just because some SEO guru says it is “bad” for them to go out and get those links? That is a preposterous marketing concept, and it flies in the face of all common sense. Yet that is exactly what most SEO advisors are telling their clients today. It’s the world turned upside down.
Again, to the unaware of the world, they fail to grasp that the very act of asking for the links from sites that publicly invite such requests might just generate a large number inquiries and positive feedback for an airbrush artist. Maybe newsletter mentions. Maybe bulk orders. Only people who have actually done this kind of reciprocation work on real sites can fully understand the power of it. A link request to a related site that invites them is also a press release. It creates a lot of awareness, especially for unique products and services.
Further, how many of these directly related links are “too many”?

None. Gaining hundreds or even more than one thousand links from other sites within a related realm of interest is a very powerful marketing weapon. Those who are the most diligent also gain the most benefit. A thorough reciprocation effort alone may well negate the need for any additional marketing investment for our airbrush artist, if it generates enough business to consume the production capacity.

That is quite possible.
As well, this worldwide awareness will spill-over and thus create a lot of non-reciprocated links as well, as people find and appreciate our helmet painter.
It is also quite likely that the helmet artist will receive good feedback and a lot of repeat traffic from his site visitors for putting together a very nice, useful directory for their industry.

The directory itself can be used as a marketing tool, by featuring the new listings in an email newsletter. So what if some of the listed sites do not graciously reciprocate.
A good directory is a good directory, and it has value. It is not a “link farm”, except to those who have a very limited, SEO-centric understanding of marketing. YAHOO! started as a directory. So did a lot of very well-regarded niche sites, or the directory was a main feature of the site. Is YAHOO! a link farm? Or do they have some kind of mandated right to do it that others do not? Again the “link farm”

Logic fails.
You will notice that in this example, search engine ranking has not been mentioned. Not once. It is inconsequential to the primary goal, but yet it may well prove to be a very substantial, secondary outcome in terms of traffic. Examples of this kind of result are not hypothetical. They exist everywhere, in every realm of interest, for those willing to look.
It is quite unfortunate that most of the information that is put forward about link reciprocation is put out there by people who have very little understanding of the practice when it is done properly, it’s historical significance on the World Wide Web, and the positive benefit that it can bring to a site owner. It establishes the site as a vibrant and gracious participant within their realm of interest.

That, in turn, creates enormous goodwill, and can lead to all manner of good outcomes.
The current trend among SEO advisors is to advise clients to link to nobody else, if they can get away with it. All to satisfy their very narrow, myopic SEO theories about one-way linking and PR bleeding and bad neighborhoods, and all the rest. That is not what the World Wide Web is about. None of that kind of talk existed before engines began evaluating links. That is all just gaming. Yet gaming what passes for good SEO advice these days.
For those of us who have some real perspective and experience with real world reciprocation, and view it independently of SEO considerations, we can only hope that this kind of misguided advice will someday die it’s rightful death, as site owners who are being swayed by anti-linking snake oil will eventually see that it may well be holding back their own marketing efforts in a very substantial way. Especially against competitors who simply ignore these SEO pundits, and instead, just do what makes sense and needs to be done for their own business.
In other words, good luck to the helmet painter who takes the advice that “reciprocation is bad” from some big-time SEO guru and then follows it. How many years and how many unnecessary dollars will they spend learning otherwise, while their competitors benefit? In fact, they may never catch up.

Author:¬† Anonymous Link¬†Builder contacted SiteProNews after we published Suicide in Cyberspace – Your Outward Links Can Kill Your Rankings. He wishes to remain anonymous due to fears his client’s websites might be effected by this article.