The first question you have to ask and answer about whether to embark on a reciprocal link exchange program for your website is “why”. After all, it’s work, time and money. It has to stand up to business analysis. I’ve been doing reciprocal linking for websites since 1996. In that time, I’ve seen this work evolve from one that was primarily a way for niche interest, hobbyist-oriented sites to reach out to each other, to one that is now a business function, often driven by the need for quality traffic exchange, and good search engine results.
Web Promotion Before Google
Before Google came along and put the focus on link popularity, only the savviest businesses were running link directories and pursuing links with other relevant sites. Most businesses ignored reciprocal linking.
The prevailing wisdom was that a business website should not link out to anyone else, if they could help it. The concept was that you should capture visitors, hold them hostage, and never, ever cooperate with anybody else. This has been proven wrong.
What’s interesting, though, is that the purpose and linking methods that worked well for those niche sites in the pre-Google days still work well today. It is important to keep this in focus, as there are now a lot of people out there who are trying to do this work using misguided methods, for misguided reasons.
First and foremost, linking should be pursued as a branding function of your business. If other websites that are relevant to your business are running link directories, and offering to list yours for free, then it makes sense to get your site listed. In as many of them as possible. That is just basic Common Sense 101.
In order to get these links, the accepted protocol is to first list the other site on your site, then make the request for a link, using the proper method of submission (via email or online form, if one is provided). This work is specifically termed “directory-to-directory reciprocal linking”.
“Linking should be pursued as a branding function of your business.”
Before people started playing games with PageRank and Alexa rankings, and other tangential matters related to linking, most linking took place between sites within relevant realms of interest. Asking for links outside of your realm was not only rude, but it was almost always a waste of time. Relevancy was the primary criteria, and as long as there was some sound reason for the exchange, and each webmaster approved of the other’s site, it was done. It’s a private exchange between two willing parties, and it should not be judged by others.
The Linking Challenge
The challenge here is that there is a lot of data management work involved in managing directory-to-directory reciprocal link exchanges. So when search engines started to reward sites that had links, the search engine optimization (SEO) crowd, which had largely ignored linking, suddenly needed them in order to succeed.
The SEO crowd began to devise all manner of strategies that were designed to allow them to get the results they wanted, but with as little linking work as possible. We’ve seen theories that only links from pages with PageRank (PR) 4 and higher were “worthwhile”. People claimed that un-reciprocated links were “hurting” your rankings through “PR-leakage”, a concept that has been proven to have no merit. There’s even more bizarre stuff out there, but you get the idea.
Over time, it is becoming clear that the websites that have ignored all of these complex theories and still treat linking as a branding function of the business, whereby they simply continue to pursue relevant links with quality sites, are still doing the best with the search engines. I see this all the time. Traditional linking with quality relevant sites works. Sites that link with quality sites relevant to the same industry get the double benefit of having their sites listed in as many relevant locations as possible, thus getting quality traffic directly from the links, while enjoying considerable search engine benefits.
The Long Term Commitment and Payoff
Treat this work as a branding function of your business. One that never ends. Commit to it, with tools, a budget, and dedicated human resources that will do it properly. Look at it as a long term necessity that really does pay dividends.
It may not be the easiest thing to manage, but many website owners consider reciprocal linking to be the single most cost-effective marketing investment that they have made in their sites. There are other ways to get links to your site, such as the outright purchase of links, or the pursuit of content citations back to your site. But on a cost per link basis, directory-to-directory reciprocal linking is a very favorable investment, when done properly.
Google has risen to the top of the search engine world, in a large part because their algorithm that takes linking into account. It is highly unlikely that they will turn their back on it, and recent indexing changes at Google have only further supported traditional, honest linking practices.
On a more fundamental level, linking is the very foundation of HTML. Which stands for Hypertext Markup Language. The term Hypertext specifically refers to text that is linked and “active”. That is, you can click on it in an HTML browser, and the browser will take you to that location on the World Wide Web. The attraction of text-based linking was the founding reason behind HTML and the World Wide Web. Prior to that, people using the Internet had to enter their destinations manually using arcane codes. HTML and browsers made it easy to navigate the Web.
“Traditional linking with quality relevant sites works.”
It’s very basic, really. The World Wide Web is a new and unique medium. It is a computer network, based entirely on links between pages. The more links you have, the more opportunities you have for people to visit your website. Links are literally the currency of the World Wide Web.
All of this comes down to choices. As it stands right now, those who make no effort to link their sites in some way will only continue to fall further behind their competitors. Since directory-to-directory reciprocal linking is the most cost effective way to get this done, then it should be very high on your list of necessary tasks, if you are serious about promoting a commercial website. It goes with the territory.
Dirk Johnson has been managing link campaigns since the mid-1990s, and writes for various sources on web promotion and linking. His advice and commentary is regarded as “expert through experience.” Dirk’s approach to linking has been more traditional in scope, treating it as a branding function, and not a search engine optimization function. He operates LinkStrategy.com www.linkstrategy.com.