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)