Cooperative Reciprocal Linking Networks - A Critical Analysis

Every webmaster who has personally tried promoting his or her site understands in some sense the value of reciprocal linking. Reciprocal linking refers to the agreement between website owners to mutually link to each others' sites in order to increase both exposure to each others' visitors as well as link popularity to search engines. Traditionally, this process has been very labor-intensive involving a number of steps to initiate contact, establish acceptable link parameters, and verify and police the reciprocal linking arrangement. Now, a controversial new linking tactic has emerged called "the cooperative reciprocal linking network."

The purpose of these reciprocal linking networks is ostensibly to utilize "unused advertising space available on the web." Here's how it works: the site owner puts a bit of code on each page of his or her site and it serves up hyper-linked text or graphic ads promoting the sites of other cooperative members. Each time a coded page is loaded, the ads change. This is much like how Google Adsense ads work except there is no correlation between the pages' topics and what ads are served--in other words, the ads are not contextual.

Although dynamically generated, these text ad links can be crawled by search engine spiders. In this sense, the ad linking network can be thought of as an automated method of reciprocal linking capable of providing a boost to each member site's link popularity.

Participation in the reciprocal linking network is generally free (hence the term "cooperative") and what one gets out of it depends on what one gives into it. If a webmaster agrees to display five ads per page and his or her site has 100 pages indexed by Google, then that webmaster's site is given a weight of, say, 500 (5 x 100). The higher one's "weight," the more often one's ads will show on other sites in the network. In order to be an eligible page, the page has to be indexed. The reciprocal linking network checks this using Google's application program interface or API.

So what's the controversy? Reciprocal linking network critics contend that because the links are crawl-able by search engine robots and the fact that ads may be irrelevant to the page's topic area, this is akin to having some sort of reciprocal link farm or scheme designed to influence the web page's link popularity and search engine ranking. Indeed, one well-known individual's web page showed up for a while in Google at No. 4 for the term, "eBay" purely because he designed his link ads so that the anchor texts had the word "eBay" in them. Carried across thousands of reciprocal linking participants in the network, it had automated the reciprocal linking process and, at the same time, boosted his page's link popularity for that particular term.

One would think that this is a bad thing from the search engines' perspective, right? Not quite. GoogleGuy, the unofficial Google spokesman who regularly posts to website marketing forums, responded to a thread at one forum on this topic. GoogleGuy said he was concerned about linking out to "bad neighborhood" participants in the network (like some Polish site that was apparently cloaking the cooperative ads). GoogleGuy did not say that the network was bad because it had the potential of manipulating rankings, rather he said the worry was "bad neighborhoods." So, does that mean that if the bad neighborhood problem was under control then the reciprocal linking networks are sanctioned? Maybe...

Here's how I look at these cooperative reciprocal linking networks: what if Google didn't exist? What if no search engine existed? What would I do to advertise my site? I would have to participate in reciprocal linking with other sites. But reciprocal linking willy-nilly would not cut it; it would have to be targeted, topic-based reciprocal linking. I would link reciprocally with other like sites. Would I participate in reciprocal linking networks if there were no search engines? Absolutely! It would greatly ease my reciprocal linking time. But the reciprocal linking networks are untargeted as they are currently configured--this is clearly something the operators need to address.

In conclusion, reciprocal linking via cooperative ad networks is a great idea. Google and the other search engines should not have any issues with them in concept. But concept is not reality; in reality, people are joining these networks and trading "weight" to influence link popularity and rankings in the search engines. So, it's not a perfect solution to the busy webmaster's reciprocal link management problems. Is participating in a reciprocal link network spamming the search engines? I don't believe so because the search engines have not clearly defined exactly everything that is or isn't a spamming technique, and in this business, whether a technique constitutes spamming or not often comes down to a question of degree.

(c) 2005 Philip Liu - All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Philip Liu is a freelance author and publisher currently based in New York City. Philip publishes regularly on his websites, Cell Phone News + Reviews (focusing on cell phone news, rumors and reviews from around the world), and DTVScoop - Plasma, LCD TV Reviews + News (focusing on digital television news and reviews).

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