Offsite and reciprocal linking effects on search engine marketing

Last week a customer forwarded a message from one of their suppliers asking if they could link to them to help improve their search engine rankings.  They’re asking for a reciprocal link (exchanging links with another site) in this case since the vendor offered to links to our client’s site in exchange.

Sounds like a good time to update what we recommend regarding outbound links from a web site (offsite links) and the related area of reciprocal linking.

Think about every link you add to your web site
You should consider every outgoing link from your web site. Any time you provide a link off your site you risk losing your visitor. They may follow that link and never come back.

We suggest only including offsite links if those sites provide useful information to your site visitors. Anything that makes your site more useful to your site visitors is a usually good thing to do.

However, before you link to a supplier or an industry directory etc, you’ll want to check to see if your visitors can easily learn about your competitors on the site. If so, you may not want to link to them.

Also find out what your supplier’s policy is if your visitor contacts them directly. If there’s a possibility that your supplier might take a lead direct or inadvertently pass them on to a competitor, you may not want to send your site visitors to them.

Be especially wary of exchanging links with other web sites as you risk being “penalized” by search engines if you do “too much” reciprocal linking (What is “too much” is a moving target).

There are some cases where reciprocal linking might make sense, but they are the exception. For example a sail maker in our shoreline state of Connecticut might provide a link to a supplier(s) of rigging hardware to let their visitors know where to find theses items. At the same time one or more of companies providing hardware for rigging might include a link to the sail maker’s site. In both cases each site is proving useful links for their visitors. Of course if ether site starts listing multiple, competing vendors, you may have the situation where it may be risky to link to the site. 

Does outbound linking affect your search engine rankings?
We’re absolutely certain that outbound links can hurt your search engine rankings. Link out to too many off target sites, link exchanges or sites being penalized by search engines (bad neighborhoods), participate in too much reciprocal linking, etc., and you can hurt your search positions.

Also, if you have too many offsite links your site may begin to appear as a site setup mainly to link out to other sites, like a directory or link farm, which could hurt your search engine rankings.

However outbound linking can help search results too.
If you do include links to other sites try to include them within the bodies of the regular pages on the site instead of or in addition to the typical ‘Links’ and “Resources” pages. For example, a site catering to the amateur photography marker might include links to useful photography sites with short descriptions of what can be found on each site from within the bodies of appropriate pages.

By including short descriptions of the related web sites you link to within the bodies of your site pages, not only do you make the listing more useful to your users, you’ll likely add text that includes words and phrases people are searching on. This should help improve the rankings of these pages on your site.

Search engines do evaluate the outgoing links on a web site and while we have no definitive evidence, the common wisdom is that outgoing links can help a search engine determine more about your web site, help them determine what community of related web sites you’re a part of. It’s very likely that linking out to useful related web sites from within the bodies of your web pages could improve your search engine results

In short, focus on building a site that is useful to your users, including links to useful content on the web for your users when appropriate, and you should be fine.