Tips for SEO Friendly Affiliate Programs

Sharing a SaleLast week we held an affiliate marketing webinar with Shawn Collins (recap and replay available). We covered a lot of ground in one short hour, but one area that wasn’t discussed in depth is how affiliate programs can affect your SEO.

Problem: Duplicate Content Knocks Your Pages from Search Engines

Some affiliate networks provide affiliates with direct links to your site with an appended URL including an affiliate ID. An example would be http://www.yoursite.com/?affid=123456.

When search engines visit your affiliates’ websites, unless your affiliate has added a “rel=nofollow” attribute to the link to tell search engines not to follow the link, the search engine will follow the link and index the landing page — a duplicate copy of your home page, category page or product page, wherever the link was pointing. If an affiliate builds up link juice with keyword-rich anchor text to its own copies of your page (for example, buying paid links on blogs), it’s possible that http://www.yoursite.com/?affid=123456 outranks http://www.yoursite.com. What’s worse is that the duplicate content filter might wipe out your page for showing in results for that keyword/s, especially when you have thousands of affiliates and thousands of duplicate pages. This means you pay commissions on sales from organic search that you otherwise could have attracted yourself.

2 Possible Workarounds

A 301 (permanent) eliminates this possibility as you tell the search engine that http://www.yoursite.com/?affid=123456 is forever the same as http://www.yoursite.com. And yes, any Page Rank the affiliate URL has will be passed on to your site. To do this, you likely have to bring your affiliate program in-house and create a proper tracking system so affiliates get their commissions.

Another workaround tip from Stephan Spencer is to require your affiliates to post a disclosure statement on their Legal Notices page stating that they are an affiliate of the merchant and that neither party is an agent, partner, joint venturer, franchisor, franchisee, employer or employee of the other, linking back to your home page from the statement. Legal Notices are typically liked site-wide and rarely link off to other pages so you get some nice link juice from the page.

Affiliate Programs as an SEO Strategy

Many networks like LinkShare and Commission Junction use 302 (temporary) redirects which will not be followed because the 302 essentially tells the search engine bots that the page will be moved soon, so there’s no need to transfer any link love to your site from the affiliate site. So don’t expect any SEO benefit from these systems.

SEO-savvy affiliates can also block any Page Rank from passing from their site to yours by cloaking, creating their own redirection or no-following links to your site or adding the nofollow attribute to its Legal Notices page (the latter would be a good idea for them to do anyway). If they want to do these things, let them. Affiliate programs are not intended to be a substitute for SEO and link building activities and you don’t want to tick off good affiliates (who more than likely have a clue when it comes to SEO anyway). The 301 redirect protects you from duplicate content issues, and as long as you properly credit referred traffic this is fair to your affiliates. If you get a bit of SEO boost from some, that’s gravy.

Thanks again to Stephan Spencer for sharing his expertise. For further reading on the subject you can check out:

http://www.stephanspencer.com/archives/2005/12/12/affiliate-programs-that-pass-link-gain-pagerank/
http://www.webguerrilla.com/affiliate-marketing/seo-friendly-affiliate-systems/

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10 Responses to “Tips for SEO Friendly Affiliate Programs”

  1. Jestep says:

    I’ve seen several programs that use hidden attributes that don’t append anything to the url.

    However, I would be worried about some sort of Google link buying penalty in these cases. Since Google went on the paid links war path, I think that a ton of affiliate links to a particular website could be takes as trying to manipulate search engines. It’s pretty obvious that they are not natural links, especially since most affiliate programs use redirects. Definitely be careful trying to milk an affiliate program for ranking juice.

  2. @ Jestep,

    That’s definitely a concern that would affect both merchant and affiliate if Google thought these links were unnatural (hence the nofollow attribute).

    My argument to Google would be that these should be considered natural “votes” for a site because the affiliate chose the merchant and is promoting the merchant/products to his/her visitors, thus an endorsement. Of course, you could say the same thing for accepting advertisers.

    That’s why I agree you should not rely on affiliates for SEO juice, but do everything you can to protect yourself from losing your own pages from search engine indices with 301′s, and not get too stressed out if affiliates choose to use no-follows on their links to you.

  3. Catfish says:

    These would be equivalent to paid links in Google’s eyes and I would not recommend setting up your affiliate program this way. It will work in terms of passing PR until Google sees it, but you risk being penalized.

  4. @Catfish

    Welcome! Thanks for chiming in.

    Understandable – I think a lot of FUD has been out there surrounding the latest Google link arbitrage.

    What is your take on a affiliate network using naked linking like: http://www.linkconnector.com ?

    I see no reason why this query string free method of tracking isn’t 100% valid. If a penalty were to be imposed for it, it would jeopardized the entire backlink measurement algo IMHO.

  5. SEO Rob says:

    Google apparently has no issues with this method as long as it’s used in a white hat manner.

    Watch this video.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uC0JvXgLh88

  6. @ SEORob – thanks for the video link.

    Google’s guidelines is that you don’t do any linking (paid or free link exchange or any other methods) with the sole goal of increasing your page rank.

    Now if you do, say a blogroll exchange with your blogger friends, you can expect that to count towards your overall page rank / link popularity which is gravy, but not the main reason you did it. You would have done this anyway. You are voting for the sites as they’re your buddies or respected bloggers in your niche.

    I see it the same way for SEO friendly affiliate linking. Affiliates have the choice to link to you, and the primary purpose is not boosting page rank, it’s a nice side effect if it does, though.

  7. Koki Mourao says:

    I need help and advice. I just started doing SEO for a credit card offers affiliate company and I believe I landed in a big pickle.

    Most of our partners do not add their own content opting instead to use ours. Some have their own domain, but some host under our main domain in a subdirectory structure.

    Due to legacy issues and bad negotiation/business model the affiliates don’t have or want to link back to us or even allow a noindex,follow tag on their templates.

    The only thing I could do is to on the robots.txt file disallow those folders. But that is not enough, Google will still find the same content on other domains.

    Now that duplicated content is becoming a serious issue obviously our content value has decreased…

    How can I tell Google that I am the original content provider? Am I the only one in this situation? Please help.

    Thank you

  8. Hi Koki,

    You find yourself in a common situation that many merchants may find themselves in when they use stock-product descriptions from the manufacturer.

    I have read on the net that Google will consider the first instance the content appears – like if you publish it first no one can outrank you. I have tested this out myself back in the day when I used to syndicate my own articles on various websites. Usually the winner is not the first to publish something, it’s likely the site with the highest trust/Page Rank.

    So how you can protect yourself if your contract does not stipulate that affiliates CAN’T use your content on their sites is a tough one.

    On one hand, if they rank well and convert, you still make money. It’s not as bad as your competitors using the same descriptions from a neutral 3rd party (like a manufacturer).

    On the other hand, you’d rather outrank your affiliates, I’m sure.

    All I can suggest to you is to force affiliates to use their own descriptions and failing that, add your own reviews to your credit card descriptions to make the page different. There are ethical issues for writing your own reviews, but this can be an expert review, not a consumer review – which is fine.

    The best credit card affiliate sites that I have seen are also heavy content publishers. You can link to the product page descriptions from content articles or blogs or something – but the nature of credit card offers, as there is a lot of churn depending on when banks come out with new offers, is that you can have dead links in your articles unless you have careful management of where you point your links and when the links must be updated.

    You may look into better internal link / architecture such as including more contextual links to category pages (starting a blog is great for that) or using nofollow attribute to sculpt your Page Rank and control the flow of link juice so your pages look more important to search engines, and therefore have a better chance at outranking other sites.

    Running a completely separate blog with all unique content and linking back to your site’s pages would be a great idea, and perhaps you can partner with other bloggers in the credit niche that are willing to get paid by referral conversions (you may need to build your own tracking system for this) in exchange for direct (no nofollow attribute) links to your pages.

    You may also have a domain age advantage over newer affiliates. Keep building links to your site to increase your overall authority, which as the SEO manager I’m sure you’re already doing.

    Hope that helps

    Linda

  9. Some affiliate programs have started providing pre-written blog posts – this is one of the worst decisions I have ever seen.

    You then have new affiliates (nothing wrong with them) trying to save money by copying them directly and in the process incurring the wrath of Google’s duplicate content filter.

  10. Lestat says:

    SEO had once again proved to its faithful followers why they have been leading the charts for so long- the quality service that the customers are looking for.

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