By Edwin Hayward
Reciprocal links form a vital part of any website promotion effort. You have created great content, or offer a superb product or service — and now, you want people to know about it.
The Web is only as useful as the sum of its links, as without links it is just a disparate collection of pages. Links are the glue behind the Web. To ensure that your page has the visibility it deserves, you will need other sites to point to yours.
The process of exchanging reciprocal links is essentially a simple one, but there are various approaches that can be taken in searching out and requesting links, as well as pitfalls that must be avoided. In this guide, I have attempted to provide the information required to smooth the process of exchanging links. Where relevant, I have taken the liberty of drawing on my own sites for examples.
What is a reciprocal link?
Before plunging into the body of the discussion, it is important to define what a reciprocal link is, and perhaps more importantly, what it is not.
A reciprocal link is a text and/or banner link to a site that, somewhere in its pages, carries a similar text/banner link to your own site.
A reciprocal link is a commitment . This link basically says “The site at the other end of this link feels that my site is important enough to link to, and I feel that their site is important enough that I am willing to let visitors leave my site via this link.”
A reciprocal link involves an element of trust . Few Webmasters have the time or patience to constantly monitor the sites that link back to them, so you are trusting the other site to maintain the link on their site, and not bury it under other information or delete it during a site upgrade. Trust me, I have experienced both situations, and it can be frustrating when your own links page is in order.
A reciprocal link is not a quick fix to bring more traffic. I have seen sites with over 100 banner and text links on a single page — now how much traffic do you think the sites featured on that page were getting from those links? I visited some of the linked sites, and most offered the same scenario: a cobbled together mishmash of links and graphics, many of them broken or out of date, none benefiting the relevant sites.
Which sites to link to?
I would strongly advise against indiscriminate linking. By choosing sites relevant to the subject of your site, you maintain the interest level of your visitors in the topic they have just been exploring with you.
With hundreds of thousands of sites out there, there is just no need to desperately exchange links with everyone in sight. Focus is the key to attracting traffic; after all, how many people will click on a link to a genealogy site when reading about sheep shearing?
One decision you have to make early on is: ” Complementary , equivalent or both ?”
If you are running a commercial site, you may not want to link to a competing site. For instance, if you are selling ceramic nose puppies [Thank you, Scott Adams ] you may not want to send your visitors to other ceramic nose puppy suppliers. However, they may be very interested in general sites about nasal decoration and self-expression.
Complementary links are exactly that: links designed to maximise the value of your own site by providing more detailed, or better information than you could hope to on your own site. For example, in the case of my Internet Gold-Rush  site, I could not hope to provide the depth of trademark and legal information required for domain name disputes, so I am very happy to link to other sites that provide relevant information.
Think symbiosis : if you distribute route-planning software, why not try to tie up with sites relating to motoring or the great outdoors. If you provide web promotion information, your visitors may be sniffing out the ground prior to making their on-line debut: target web hosting companies amongst others.
My view is that it is healthy for sites to offer links to competitors. Offline, people rarely make significant purchases before browsing a few alternatives. So by providing choice, you are indirectly stimulating people to buy more. And since your link is also on your competitor’s site [these are reciprocal links, remember!] your own sales may see a boost from visitors coming from the competing site. These are what I would term “equivalent” links.
The best balance may lie in combining the two: provide links to similar sites, and provide links to related sites. That way, you maximise your exposure.
How to present your links
There are many different ways to present reciprocal links. You can clearly designate them as reciprocal links and delegate them to specific areas or pages of your site. You can incorporate links to valuable resources inside your own content. You can choose to separate reciprocal links and other links, or lump them all together.
There is no “right” answer: this depends on the specific site. The important thing to remember is that, no matter what approach you choose, be fair to the sites you are linking to. Do not bury the links somewhere under reams of graphics and text, or attempt to dissuade your visitors from following the links in any way. This includes putting the links inside a single “frame” to effectively keep visitors on your site. If your content is compelling enough, your visitors will certainly be back — and they will thank you for drawing their attention to other interesting sites.
The resources section of my Internet Gold-Rush site provides a good example of one approach to handling reciprocal links. I restricted the links to those I felt would benefit visitors to my site, and rewarded reciprocal links with more prominent placement. Many of the linked sites have thanked me for the traffic they received through my site, so this approach seems to work fairly well.
Hints and tips for finding sites to exchange links with
Finding the right sites to exchange links with is a 1-2-3 process. First, research the sites; second, request a link and third add the relevant information to your own site.
Research is the key to finding sites to exchange links with. Before you go any further, take two clean pieces of paper, and make two lists. There’s no time like the present, so why not do it now while the idea is still fresh?
Jot down in the first list the kind of sites you think your visitors would be interested in. For instance, if you are selling CDs online, your visitors may be interested in general music info, lyrics sites and the like. Try and find as many alternatives as possible — you can always narrow down the list later. Now set the list aside, and forget about it for the moment.
For the second list, draw up a list of sites that would benefit from the information on YOUR site. For instance, if your site offers hints and tips on nature photography, it might appeal to photographers, hikers and animal lovers.
Now take the two lists and see if there are any subjects in common. I am pretty sure that you will find several subjects that appear on both lists. If not, read down the first list and ask yourself if the type of people on that list would like to visit your site. Many times, the answer will be yes.
You now have your starting point! Circle the common subjects on the two lists, and jot down three keywords you associate with each subject.
Time to go online now…
The next part of the research exercise is to conduct some searches. I would recommend using a meta search engine such as the excellent Inference Find. Alternatively, you could try using a program such as EchoSearch. EchoSearch carries out searches across multiple search engines, concatenates the results and downloads one or more pages from each of the sites it comes across. Set it going, and go and have a cup of tea. When you come back, it will have collected all the relevant sites ready for your investigation.
When carrying out any searches, use all three keywords you selected earlier for each subject. Since you have decided that these keywords most accurately represent the kind of sites you are interested in, sites with all three keywords should have priority.
Now comes the hard work… I said that the process of exchanging links was simple, I didn’t say that it was effortless! Visit all the sites at the top of the search… set yourself a target of 50 or 100 sites, or whatever number you feel comfortable with. Spend 3-4 minutes per site doing a broad YES/NO sift: is the site relevant enough to bookmark, or is it time to move on to the next site?
Once you have finished, you should have 15-20 bookmarked sites. Now go back and visit each site in more depth. Check that the information or services it offers would be of interest to your visitors, that your own site offers useful information for visitors to the other sites, and that there are no nasty surprises lurking in a corner of the site, such as links to adult sites.
With your final shortlist at hand, you are ready to go on to…
Draft a one-paragraph letter to the webmaster or contact person at each site. Be brutally strict with yourself, and keep the information short and relevant. With all the spam floating around the ‘Net, it is vital that you get to the point quickly, and that you show a relevant interest in the site.
I visited your site on Nature Photography earlier today and found it very interesting. I was especially interested in your article on taking pictures of birds in the wild. I run a site about bird spotting [http://URL] and I was wondering if you might be interested in exchanging links with me. I am sure that visitors to my site would benefit from your information when taking pictures of their feathered friends.
I look forward to hearing from you soon,
WebMaster, Bird Spotting Paradise
Ok, maybe this needs a little refinement, and some adapting to individual circumstances, but all the ingredients are there: interest in the target site, reason for interest, and “bait”. The “bait” is very important: you have to essentially sell your site in the space of one or two lines. But you have to sell it in reverse: give the target site a compelling reason for YOU to link to THEM, and the reciprocal link will come naturally.
If you send out 15 responses, and you went through all the research, you can probably expect a 30-50% positive responses. This varies, depending on whether the target site has a reciprocal links policy, whether your own site is professionally presented and whether your approach was compelling enough. But you should feel happy to hear from 5 sites, and anything else is a bonus.
Follow up: DO NOT follow up your letter if you have not received a reply. This may go against the grain, but trust me… if your approach was good and your research was thorough, the target site genuinely is not interested in linking to yours. The reason doesn’t matter — just accept the fact, and move on to the next site.
Finally, once you have agreed to exchange links, sort out details such as the type of link and the location of the link. Don’t be too stubborn, especially when dealing with very popular sites… my own experience [“Reach for the Moon”] shows clearly that even an “unequal” exchange can be very beneficial to your site.
Be prompt, and be accurate. Set up the text or graphical link and test it. Make sure that the graphic loads, and that there is an ALT text tag for any graphics. Ask the target site what text they would like if they have not specified it already. Most importantly, check that the link works, and that it points to the right page.
Once the link is set up, mail the target site a short note, to the effect that the link is now “live” and can be found at http://LINKURL/ Then WAIT. If after a week, your link has still not been added to the target site, send a gentle reminder but don’t push it.
I feel very strongly about this: I run a database of sites that offer free reciprocal links, Missing Link and I have received several emails that have ranged from the abusive to the threatening. My crime: not setting up a reciprocal link for a few days; I freely admitted on the site that I was very busy, and that it might take a week to set up a link. I hasten to add that I have also received over 250 positive emails! Needless to say, I did not include these [very few] sites in the directory. I have no time for people who cannot be polite to somebody they have never even met before. Bottom line: BE POLITE .
Is all of this effort worth it? A thousand times yes, and yes again! Think of website promotion like growing a bonsai tree: the initial quick fix [listing in search engines and directories] is equivalent to purchasing the tree. After that, careful pruning and maintenance [searching out reciprocal links and other avenues of promotion] will lead to great rewards. Do not expect miracles from a few reciprocal links. However, a small, steady program of exchanging links with relevant sites will definitely help to boost your visitor count and at the same time add an extra je ne sais quoi to your own site.
And finally: Reach for the Moon!
When exchanging reciprocal links, dare to think high! Reach for the moon, and you never know… one day, you just might touch it!
One of a small number of sites I approached with the intention of exchanging links for my “A Beta Tomorrow” site was Intuit , the makers of the well-known Quicken line of personal finance software. I was astonished and frankly very gratified that they agreed to put my banner on their beta information page. Although their banner is on the top page of my site, and people must go past a legal agreement to see my banner on their site, I have a dozen times the better deal! I consistently receive between 50 and 200 visitors a day just from their site!
Good luck in your quest for reciprocal links. To send you on your way in good stead, why not check out Missing Link, a database of over a hundred sites that are willing to exchange free reciprocal links with other sites.