Word of mouth: It’s the powerful reason why affiliate marketing and influencer marketing programs are so popular. When your potential customers trust a brand that trusts you, they convert.
But in the eyes of Google, affiliate marketing can get tricky. One misstep could not only tank your existing organic traffic, but even lead to a major penalty that could remove your site from search altogether. Let’s take a closer look.
So, what is digital affiliate marketing?
For those companies not yet involved in the affiliate marketing game online, here’s a primer.
Digital affiliate marketing refers to the relationship between a merchant and an online publisher, usually a business or influencer. The online publisher agrees to reference the merchant online in exchange for a commission when a visitor converts using a specific code or link that they host on their site.
Benefits for the customer vary, but typically an affiliate code will give buyers a discount or a special promotion as an incentive to use this special code or link.
Perhaps this takes place when a visitor buys a product through a link on a blog, or when someone signs up for a service via a “Top 10” list on an independent site. No matter the format, affiliate marketing relies on the relationship between the publisher and the merchant.
Affiliate marketing relies on trust. So do search engines. Here’s where that gets complicated.
My affiliates link to my site, which helps my SEO. Right?
So, you’ve talked to an SEO. You know that the number of sites linking to yours is a major ranking factor, and you’re not wrong. Search engines look for relevant links to your site on other authoritative domains, and it’s one of the biggest ranking factors in the search algorithm.
If affiliates are linking to your site from their own, it’s crucial they use the right type of link.
If your affiliate links have a rel=’nofollow’ tag attached to them (or come March 2020, a rel=’sponsored’ tag), and you’ve removed any affiliate-only landing pages from the search index, your affiliate marketing program is likely helping your SEO indirectly because visitors who convert will often search directly for your site somewhere in the purchase process.
If your business is service-oriented, your converted users from affiliate sites will often navigate directly to your website when they use the service. That’s a win for SEO because the number of direct visits a website receives is another major ranking factor.
If your affiliates use the wrong type of link, you’re opening your business up to a major search penalty.
A search engine’s goal is to show users trustworthy content that fulfills a need on the very first search. Whether someone is looking for an answer to a question, information about a product, even job opportunities in a particular area, users trust search engines to show them relevant content that fulfills that need.
Historically, Google has used two types of links to help search engine bots determine how much impact that link should have on the site’s ranking in search: Follow and no-follow links. (Now, sponsored and user-generated content links exist, too.)
When a search engine sees a followed link, it actually follows that link to the site and then uses it to associate a relationship between the two sites. A vote of confidence of sorts. The message is:
“Hey! I love this product and I trust it, you should too!”
“This was such a helpful study. Here’s where you can read more.”
When a search engine sees a no-follow link, it does not follow through to the linked site. it’s like a sign on the door that says it’s a paid relationship or relationship that shouldn’t hold as much weight. To users, they look the same, but to a search engine, the message becomes:
“Hey! I love this product and they’re paying me!”
“I’m not sure how trustworthy this is but I think visitors should be able to read more.”
It is explicitly against Google guidelines for affiliate links to have a followed link attribute, because if ‘votes of confidence’ can be bought, search engine results can be manipulated, and they lose that trust-factor.
What if my affiliates are using followed links?
If those affiliate links are followed links, it’s likely that your affiliate marketing is hurting your SEO. Even if your traffic isn’t suffering now, you’re opening up your business to a major Google penalty, called a link penalty.
Sites hit with a link penalty run the risk of being completely removed from the search engine, forever.
Well, not really. Just until you have the major resources it takes to remove that penalty and get the search engine gods to smile down upon you once again, which for BBC in 2015 likely cost them 3.52 million visitors per day.
It’s also possible that affiliate-only landing pages on your site are appearing in search, even if you’ve taken other methods to remove it. (Robots.txt – we’re looking at you.)
When many followed links point to a particular page online, the search engine may choose to index it even though it’s not where you want users to end up when they search for you. So, users may be finding a promotion that sells your product at 70% off when they’d actually convert at full price – not great for the bottom line of your business.
What options do I have to fix my affiliate strategy?
If your affiliate links are followed, there are a few different ways to fix it.
Ask your affiliates to adapt
Reach out to your affiliates and ask that they add a rel=’no-follow’ attribute to the link that leads to your site and include the no-follow attribute on any affiliate links generated from here on out.
Disavow those sponsored backlinks
If that’s too resource-intensive, there’s a workaround that allows sites to manually disavow their affiliate backlinks in search console. It’s recommended that all backlinks be audited a few times a year (or more) to ensure that no spammy backlinks or affiliate backlinks slip through the cracks.
Bring on a partner to optimize your affiliate strategy
Stepping back to look at the bigger picture can help turn an existing marketing initiative into one that assists others. A digital communications partner can help scale your existing tactics and allow you to leverage your internal team members where they matter most.
Affiliate marketing strategies that work in tandem with SEO act as a one-two punch: with affiliate sites lending general credibility and direct site visits, and SEO lifting the site pages you want users to see when they’re searching for you.
In March 2020, this could all change with the introduction of rel=sponsored
For now, Google has stated that the follow / nofollow rules above are still the standard, and no companies need to change their currently nofollowed links.
In another blog post, we’ll cover how new link attributes like rel=ugc and rel=sponsored can be integrated in your digital marketing practices moving forward to boost your SEO.
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