What are reciprocal links?

To answer this question I'm going to start at the very beginning, to make sure no one gets lost. If you know some or all of this already, feel free to skip ahead. A link is a word or phrase on a webpage that you can click on, and it will then take you to a different webpage.

An outbound link is when you link to someone else's site from your webpage.

An inbound link is when someone else links from their site to yours.

Reciprocal links are when you agree with the other webmaster to exchange links - i.e. you link to their site and they will link to yours.

(An important note I want to make here, which may seem obvious but I have been asked a surprising number of times, is that you don't have to ask permission to link to someone's site. A website is by definition in the public domain - if someone is publishing information in the public domain, they can hardly then get upset if you point it out to people. Quite the opposite, as I'll explain below, you are doing them a favour. So don't waste their time by emailing asking permission to link to their site)

So why bother with reciprocal links? Well, apart from the obvious benefit that you could gain traffic from related sites that click through to yours, inbound links are the original basis for the Google algorithm, and therefore the Holy Grail for many Search Engine Optimisers. Google uses a 'democratic' system to rank pages, counting each link to a website as a 'vote' for that site. But it's not quite as simple as that. The votes of some sites have a heavier weighting, so for example: if The Guardian newspaper linked to you, it would count as a more important vote for your site than if your mate Dave linked to you from his wedding website.

However, Google is moving away from this method and it is only one of many ways of rankings websites that is in their toolkit. A reason for this is that some webmasters abuse the system and set up huge networks of websites, created simply for the purpose of linking to each other. They charge small webmasters a monthly fee and guarantee them high Google rankings, but this practice degrades the experience for visitors as they bounce from directory to directory, never reaching a final destination. Therefore, Google blacklists websites it discovers doing this.

Despite these caveats, it is still worth building a dedicated partners page or even section, which is unobtrusively linked to from your homepage, and having limited numbers of links to related sites listed, on the condition that they link back to you. Try to make a decent proportion of these 'deep' (not just to your homepage) link too.

Happy canvassing!