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Every now and then someone blogs a clever way to turn affiliate links into SEO friendly links and the post always gets some attention. In my experience, though, you might not want to do this.

Rusty linksThe reason for wanting your affiliates to generate SEO friendly links is obvious. Google rewards links. Affiliates link to you. However, the tracking mechanisms used to monitor and credit affiliates typically redirect through servers (almost always using a 302 redirect rather than a 301) and this tends to dampen any SEO benefit.

These days it isn’t just the presence of the 302 redirect that Google and the other search engines might react to, though. Search engines don’t want to let commercial links influence the search rankings.

I have no special access to Google’s secret sauce but my own tinkering suggests that Google’s very happy to recognise a well known affiliate tracking domain and treat it has such. It’s just the same as Google recognising common ad delivery networks and making sure not to credit those links as editorial recommendations either.

There are a number of ways sites can go about tracking affiliates without the usual tracking redirects.

A commonly discussed technique is moving the tracking values to the URL and picking symbols that Google tends to ignore. The hash symbol (#) is the usual suspect here.  This lets affiliates link directly to merchants.

This might leave you with an affiliate tracking URL that looks like www.example.com#aff-track3. A simple bit of code (JavaScript or something on the server side) could then easily interpret that as www.example.com?aff=track3. In this scenario the merchant site is, itself, found at www.example.com.

Another, less popular because it is less accurate, is to look at the HTTP referrer of any incoming traffic. If the header suggests the visitor came from a listed affiliate site than a first party tracking cookie can be dropped.

Both these scenarios tend to involve the merchant deploying their own affiliate tracking solution. It’s not as handy as having a network take care of the payments to thousands of affiliates.

Another reason why not to try and be too clever with your affiliate links by trying to improve your SEO is that you may harm your SEO. I’ve seen one site absolutely murder their SEO just because of this gambit.

The site in question, a large tour operator based in Asia, moved to the HTTP referrer model. The result was that their few, good quality, trusted inbound links dropped from being about 70% of their total inbound links to less than 1%.

All of a sudden, the tour operator found themselves “recommended” by a host of low quality blogs, half-penny travel portals and worse. It’s not surprising Google took one look at the web of related links around the site and downgraded it from “master of niche” to “yet another overly aggressive travel site”.

There’s also the significant risk of links being generated too quickly once a site flips over to a so-called “SEO friendly” affiliate scheme.

Here’s what a Google authored patent application says on link speed.

"The dates that links appear can also be used to detect "spam," where owners of documents or their colleagues create links to their own document for the purpose of boosting the score assigned by a search engine. A typical, "legitimate" document attracts back links slowly. A large spike in the quantity of back links may signal a topical phenomenon (e.g., the CDC web site may develop many links quickly after an outbreak, such as SARS), or signal attempts to spam a search engine (to obtain a higher ranking and, thus, better placement in search results) by exchanging links, purchasing links, or gaining links from documents without editorial discretion on making links. Examples of documents that give links without editorial discretion include guest books, referrer logs, and "free for all" pages that let anyone add a link to a document."
(US Patent Application: 20050071741)


The great benefit of having affiliate links come in via the redirect tracker is that Google is less likely to mistake them from spam. The redirects act as a safety buffer even if the affiliate campaign is so successful that thousands of new links appear of blogs and affiliate sites over the weekend.

Ultimately, you can get great synergies between your affiliate and search campaigns. Affiliates should be part of your search campaign but not in this way. Any cunning rouse designed to try and trick Google is likely to be risky and, at best, more of a tactic and less of a strategy.

(Image credit Augen.Blicke)

Andrew Girdwood

Published 4 March, 2010 by Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood is Media Innovations Director at DigitasLBi and a blogger for Econsultancy. He can be found on Twitter here and Google+ here.

41 more posts from this author

Comments (16)

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Magnus Nilsson

Magnus Nilsson, Managing Director at RED PerformanceSmall Business

Great post. Agree it's best to keep it simple and transparent to avoid issues. And SEO aside, if you use referer info etc.. and have less accuracy than redirects, you're hurting affiliates own profits and risk the relationship and long-term sales. Possible double whammy.

over 6 years ago

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Luc

By specifying your "canonical": http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/02/specify-your-canonical.html

You can prevent your affiliate links beeing seen as duplicate content and make them contribute to your SEO.

over 6 years ago

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Auction Online

The thing is Google encourages affiliate marketing and as far as SEO friendly Affliliate links is concern it might be possible that it cannot be user frendly, We can try for it to be userfriendly on the both end that is user or serach engine.

Regards

over 6 years ago

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UK Tutorial

One could argue against the need for having affiliate sites at all. Where Amazon is concerned, for example, why have affiliates? You could say that a small local business operation you're fond of (Joe's Cafe) would benefit from an IBL from you but it would be a genuine recommendation, in Google's eyes, as I understand it, this was the original purpose of counting links as votes. An entire series of links from yoursite.com to Amazon.com (or wherever, same principle) aresurely artificial in that context and so really should not carry any recommendation value. We've just got used to the idea that affiliate links can earn money, but there's no real reason why they should. The business model itself is outdated now. 

BB

over 6 years ago

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honeymoon Melbourne

SEO friendliest way is to not let the browser know it is being redirected. The best way, but might not be available depending on host, is to use the .htaccess file to do the redirect. Using that file causes the webserver (apache) to do the redirect before ever leaving the server.I think Affliliate links are not user friendly.This is really a nice informative post.Thanks alot for sharing this post with us.

over 6 years ago

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kcheung

One could argue against the need for having affiliate sites at all. -  UK Tutorial

totally disagree. From an SEO prespective obviously affiliate links make not contribute greatly, but  (at least in the retail, finance, travel,mobile, gaming, fashion sectors, to name but a few), affiliates have catagorically proven to deliver on clients KPI's time and time again with incremental sales. Amazon has an affiliate program, because it generate sales, and reduces the need for them to do  in efficent forms of marketing to compensate.

as far as SEO is concerned, you're comparing apples with pears, affiliate links aren't SEO links for the simple reason you can't really control quality. However, here's a work around. granted you'll have to have you're own affiliate tracking software of some sort, but rather than run your own affiliate program, you'd want to only focus on the key affiliates that are delivering significant sales and deal with them on you're 'private' affiliate program, this means that rather than dealing with thousands of low quality affiliates, you're only dealing with the handful that are 'hand picked' high quality and high performing affiliates. surely that is the more cost effective and time efficent as well as pratical (from an SEO prespective) approach.

over 6 years ago

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George

Yeah sometimes that's true...

over 6 years ago

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dawn fletcher

Andrew I see you signed up to run Skimlinks how do their links work SEO wise and how have you declared links may be paid for? It is Skimlinks that creates the affiliate link as I understand it

over 6 years ago

Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations director at DigitasLBi

@Dawn Fletcher Yes, good spot :) I had some thoughts in the original of this blog post about ways to make affiliate network links SEO friendly and Skimlinks would be one such way. I cut the paragraph because I don't have enough evidence and don't want to speculate. I am testing Skimlinks. I've heard stories about issues with adding the code to your site - and in theory Google could consider the telltale JavaScript as a negative quality signal (or indeed - any JavaScript that attempts to ambush out going clicks). I've heard stories of success, though. Skimlinks doesn't automate any content and editorial input/blogging is still needed to generate links so it would be harsh of Google to punish a site (but not harsh of Google to consider those links affiliate links.) It needs to be tested but if you're cautious then remain cautious for now.

over 6 years ago

Mark Joseph

Mark Joseph, Affiliates Director at Steak

I do agree with this argument for your typical affiliate programme running 1,000 plus affiliates. It is obvious you are trying to trick Google here. 301 affiliate redirects if used, should be implemented strategically with key “partners” (20/30 sites) that can actually add prime value. Rather then having SEO friendly links sitting within aggregator tables or banners (typical ad sales inventory), they should be placed in written content, homepage editorial pieces solely on sites with good traffic volumes themselves.

There are many ethical search/affiliate hybrid strategies for agencies to offer their integrated clients, without putting their brands at risk. Combining a clients link building strategy and affiliates remuneration model is one. Paying key partners a higher affiliate bounty on some of their activity in exchange for having the added benefit of a (free) 301 redirect on a homepage or a high page ranked page with content, potentially adding more long term value to both the publisher and advertiser.

over 6 years ago

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Alec Campbell

Interesting discussion but lost in it is the fact that the priority of any affiliate programme should be to source traffic, leads, and sales and NOT improve site rankings. That being said, if there is an incremental benefit to be gained from affiliate links, then it's most certainly worth allocating some resources to realising this opportunity.

This appears to be a very grey area of SEO. Technically speaking, you're not paying for links in an affiliate programme; you are paying for traffic/leads/sales. Therefore, affiliate links should never be considered an attempt to "spam a search engine" as quoted from the Google patent application above unless, of course, you make an attempt to disguise the links and inadvertently trigger the search engine's spam detection system.

One instance in which an affiliate programme could be used in a joint strategy with SEO is if you scrap the affiliate software and manually track the traffic and conversion from each referrer using analytics. This obviously isn't very scalable but could help in link acquisition efforts while circumventing the spam triggers. This is really no different from calling the owner of site in which you want a link and offering them 50 quid.

Google can't possibly be 100% accurate at identifying all "non-organic" links so there is most definitely a grey area here which can be exploited but proceed with caution!

ADC

over 6 years ago

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Sean

I agree. It's always best to keep it simple.  There's no point in doing something that may get you on Google's bad side.

over 6 years ago

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Ahmed

yeh i like your blog this is good for us, improve and work on it. http://nzforus.com/category/affiliate-links/

almost 6 years ago

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free car check

Thanks for the informative post. I have been looking to create an affiliate scheme for one of the sites we run however I had my concerns with regards to duplicate content issues as well as the links not being seo friendly.

I am wondering if using a no follow in the affiliate code would help to remove the duplicate content issue?

almost 6 years ago

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Skolarbete

There is another perspective. Affiliate AS link bait.

Instead of seeing the affialites as "sales creators" first and "SEO-friendly link sources" second, you could turn it around.

Most often Google penalizes you when you overdo things. So if you have an affiliate program using "[...] HTTP referrer of any incoming traffic" and use it carefully this would work quite well. Of course, you chould be very selective about which sites you allow to this program and not approve new ones too often. You could also offer the traditional tracking type as a primary tracking type so that you never have turn down affiliates, even the small ones. The secondary, HTTP referer check, could require special approval but to attract affialites to it you could offer bigger commision.

I think there are many variatios of this.

Dont think out of the box. Burn it! =)

almost 6 years ago

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chr

Really interesting post. I know it is 2 yrs old but I hope it is still alive.
There are a couple of things that I am not sure I understand. We all know that affiliate links have absolutely no seo benefit. But why? Only because a)Google recognizes affiliate tracking domains
b)they use 302 redirection ?
If we use another tracking domain and we use 301 redirection as well then automatically affiliate links have a seo benefit???

almost 4 years ago

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