When businesses get hit by Google, panic happens shortly after. All of the sudden rumors about SEO sound plausible and not everyone thinks clearly.
Instead of processing all scenarios, many companies and their SEO firms need a scapegoat. That scapegoat is usually their affiliates. This recently happened with one of my clients that I do not do SEO for.
This particular client’s affiliate program and links are hosted on Share a Sale and the images for the program are hosted on a different url because of their shopping cart. In this specific case, there are NO backlinks to the site through the affiliate program. When the site took a hit from a penalty, the community in the forums behind the shopping cart blamed affiliate links for the fall. Unfortunately the panicked store owner believed it, until we talked through what could actually have caused the penalization.
Even if the links were from an in-house shopping cart and would count as backlinks, this particular program is all content sites and almost all are within their specific niche.
If they were backlinks, it would actually be a dream backlink profile that could help rank them instead of hurting them. The other benefit of the current partners is that they are bringing in customers from places in the search engines and on social media sites that the merchant isn’t ranking for or doesn’t have a presence. This is a huge value to any company, especially one that got hit by a Google penalty and needs traffic and customer sources that aren’t reliant on the store’s own traffic and brand.
When the client wrote to me saying they need to close the program, I sent back an email explaining why closing their program would be a bad decision; especially if their rankings have dropped in the search engines. I also told this client that I am writing this post and to please share it with the community that is starting rumors about affiliate marketing hurting SEO.
The bottom line is that this program is being run correctly and has no easily seen negative impact on SEO. However, Affiliate marketing can effect your SEO both good and bad depending on how your program is run and where it is being hosted.
Please read this post carefully and as SEO changes and affiliate questions come in, I will keep the post and list updated. Here is how affiliate programs and your affiliates can help and hurt your SEO.
Does Affiliate Marketing Hurt SEO?
Here are some of the most common questions about affiliate marketing, affiliate programs and SEO. If your question is not on this list, or you have one to add, please leave a comment below or use my contact form and I’ll try to add it.
- Do affiliate links count as backlinks? (updated section 8/26/2016)
- Do images in my affiliate program help or hurt SEO?
- How does the datafeed in my affiliate program effect my SEO?
- What types of affiliates help SEO?
- Do auto-monetization tools hurt or help SEO?
- Do affiliate links help or hurt Penguin in Google?
- Do affiliate links help or hurt Panda in Google?
- Do non content relevant affiliate sites hurt my site in Google? With Penguin?
- Is my Affiliate Manager or Outsourced Affiliate Program Manager Hurting My SEO? (Please read this one carefully!)
- Should I have my affiliates add no follow attributes to their affiliate links?
- What about affiliate traffic and bounce rates?
- Do social media affiliates help or hurt my SEO?
Do Affiliate Links Count as Backlinks?
The question about affiliate links being backlinks is easy. There are three main scenarios that can help you answer this question for your program. Some companies have combinations, but this should cover the majority of questions about if affiliate links are backlinks.
- Network links – If your affiliates use text link based code (not links with images) from networks like Share A Sale, Commissions Junction, Rakuten (Linkshare), etc… and the url code the affiliates use starts with a link that points to the network’s servers (not directly to your URL), it is not a backlink and should not effect your SEO.
For example, Share A Sale affiliate link code starts with http://www.shareasale.com and a CJ link starts with one of their servers. They do not start with your url so they are not backlinks. (Edit from Jeremy Paton’s comment. Some of these can count as backlinks if the redirects are not done correctly. You should ask the network what types of redirects they use for network links and look at your webmaster tools, etc… and then determine if it could cause damage.)
- Direct links with parameters – A direct affiliate link with parameters would point directly to your website like a backlink, but have parameters attached like ?=affid-XYZ. These are backlinks since they point directly to your website. However, they look like paid links or paid placements and should be treated like a media buy and no followed.
It is easy for a search engine to see that these are not natural since they are being tracked, and they could potentially get you penalized by Penguin. If your affiliate’s link code starts with your url and adds parameters, this is very common with in house or shopping cart based programs, make sure to add no follow attributes to your system so your partners use no follow links.
- Direct links with no parameters – These are backlinks that point directly to your site and not a network with no added parameters. Some merchants track and pay through Google Analytics or other systems. Some use referrer and log in information to track sales. These do look and can act like genuine backlinks.
They should be treated exactly like other links you would want for your site and SEO. If they are niche and content relevant sites then they could help your SEO. If they are not (you sell XYZ product and it is a generic coupon or directory site) you should ask them to make sure they have no follow links. You may also want to keep track of your documentation for disavows or worse a reconsideration request if your site gets a bad enough penalty.
Update: Google’s John and Gary have both said that all 3XX redirects will not lose and will pass authority. This means that you may want to require all partners to add no follow attributes to their affiliate links based on the type of redirect your network or software uses. At the same time, this is technically for on site pages that you set 3XX redirects for. However, because affiliate links could be 3XX redirects and nobody asked about them in the call or on Twitter (from what I saw), you should double check and if you’d prefer, take the safe approach and require the nofollow attribute.
In theory, this could mean that affiliate links from unknown or lesser known networks, or in house programs, could possibly have a negative impact on your SEO. You can also think of it like when you’re changing URLs. You set up redirects. These links from the old domain (i.e. the network or server links for tracking) could be an issue as well. Your best bet is to have everything no followed and if you do use network based redirects, go with a larger and well known tracking solution that would 100% be guaranteed to be on Google’s radar. This may help to minimize any risk.
Do Images In My Program Help or Hurt SEO?
This depends where you host them. If the images that your affiliates use are on the network and use network links like above, you should be fine. If your network uses your own site to host and send images out to your affiliates, these could be backlinks to your site and you may want to no follow them. Make sure to check product links, datafeed links, banners and any other image based affiliate links from an affiliate side. If the code has your url in it, then get the network to add no follow attributes to them. If the image urls in the code point to the network or outside hosting, you should be fine.
One other thing to think about is how some affiliates use images to rank and drive sales.
If you do a search for clothing or products, images can show up in the top ten search results. If your affiliates have access to your images and you let them upload them to their servers, you could now have them start to rank your images and bring you traffic and sales if you aren’t able to take all of the image spaces in the search results. This is how affiliates and affiliate programs can help SEO using images.
How Does The Datafeed In My Affiliate Program Effect My SEO?
Datafeeds can actually have a negative impact on your site’s SEO. If your datafeed has the same short and long descriptions, product names, titles, image names, etc… as your main website, you are now allowing affiliate product pages to compete with the same content on your website.
If you offer a datafeed, which is vital to many affiliate programs, make sure to have a second set of descriptions, images, etc… and the same goes if you are using marketplaces, comparison shopping engines, etc… They can use the same set of descriptions, etc… you send to your affiliates. I wrote this post about datafeeds that you should read if you are using one for any channel, not only for affiliates.
What Types of Affiliates Help SEO?
If we pull out the direct links from the first question and the images from the second, no affiliates can in theory hurt or help your SEO…for the most part. They can have a direct impact in other ways with bounce rates, user experience and also help with complementing your own SEO efforts.
With regards to my client, the affiliates are ranking in the search engines where their site did not. In some cases the client has the top ranking and an affiliate has the third and/or fourth ranking for product terms.
By knocking the competition out of the SERPs and replacing competitors with affiliates, we were able to complement their own SEO efforts by having users constantly find their site when looking for products available at multiple retailers. Now they have all of the organic exposure for products and their competitors get nothing. This can also be a bad thing for a merchant.
If the products the affiliates are ranking for are available only on your site and at your store, you should have the top ten rankings for it. If affiliates use your trademarks to drive sales, you can now take a loss with margin since the person already knew about you. However, if you sell on Amazon or other marketplaces, the sites ranking have multiple options of where to send the traffic and you could take extra margin losses by having them send sales to another store.
If you get mad and kick the affiliate out for ranking for your trademarks on products you manufacture, there is no reason they cannot point their links to somewhere else to shop and now you pay that channel or it goes to a retailer or competitor.
The rule of thumb with this is can you take the top ten listings for your trademarks and product names that aren’t available elsewhere. If you rank for a term like blue widgets which are not trademarks and available everywhere, having affiliates above and below you gives you more exposure and knocks your competition out. If it is your store name + coupons, that is something for you and your store only and you don’t need the affiliate (in many cases).
Do Auto-monetization Tools Hurt or Help SEO?
This is a very tricky one to talk about. Yes, auto-monetization tools can have a direct impact on both the merchant and affiliate’s SEO health in my opinion. I’m only going to talk about it from a merchant standpoint. Since I’ve talked about this in detail in other posts, I’ll do a short overview of some of the ways auto-monetization tools can have an positive and negative impact on your SEO.
- New backlinks – Some auto-monetization tools build giant networks of content websites. One of their value propositions is that they find the content sites in their networks that aren’t linking to you and ask them to give you a link so it can be monetized. If the site is niche and content relevant, has a clean SEO neighborhood, this can be a huge value add to your site’s health, and you as a company since you have new traffic coming in.
- Getting rid of backlinks – In a very rare case, some of these tools ask webmasters to replace links with code and will even help with find and replace techniques. I have not seen this often and cannot name the companies that talked to me about it (because I don’t remember them), but if the auto-monetization tool uses find and replace to replace a merchant’s base url with their tracking url, and then redirects to the merchant, you no longer have the backlinks and you can potentially lose some of your rankings.
Do Affiliate Links Help or Hurt Penguin in Google?
This goes back to the first question and types of links your program offers. If they are direct links, have no parameters, are not spammy and are from content relevant sites they could potentially help you. Unfortunately this is not the case for the majority of programs I look at.
If your program uses a network and images, links, datafeeds, custom links, deep links, etc… these may not count as a backlink. If this is the case then your affiliates should have no effect on your site as far as Penguin and Google. If your links are actual backlinks through images, your datafeed, etc…, then they could have a direct impact on your SEO. If this is the case then your SEO team needs to work with your affiliate team to go over who can keep do follow links and who should use no follow links or possibly be removed.
The safest thing is to have the SEO team develop a strategy and guide for your affiliate manager so that they know who should be using what types of links and attributes.
Do Affiliate Links Help or Hurt Panda in Google?
The Panda algorithm in Google is about your onsite issues, not backlinks and affiliates. Affiliates will have zero impact on Panda and SEO unless you use your own site as landing pages.
If you use subdomains, dedicated landing pages, etc… then you now have affiliates that could be building bad links to their dedicated pages, you could have duplicate copy and content issues that need canonical links set up or better yet, Robots.txt and no index tags on them. This way the affiliate subdomains and dedicated landing pages aren’t able to be indexed.
Unless you give dedicated pages to affiliates on your site, affiliates should not be able to have an impact on Panda and SEO with Google.
Do Non-content Relevant Affiliate Sites Hurt My Site in Google? With Penguin?
This is a tricky one. Go back to the first question and remember what is and is not a backlink. Then apply that to this.
The main question with affiliates isn’t content relevance like with SEO, it’s about visitor matches and customer bases matching from the website to your store or client base. If you sell blue widget accessories and your customers are all baby boomers that are female and have 10 grandkids, then a forum for female baby boomers with 10 grandkids about childcare could be a very good place to have links, even though your blue widgets are for a home and have nothing to do with childcare or kids.
Because the content is not relevant for you, but the user base is, you’ll want to have everything be no follow or use network links so that the user base can still click through to your site, but the irrelevant and possibly bad backlinks will not effect you in the search engines. If you have direct links and the content is not relevant, then yes affiliates can hurt your SEO with Penguin. It is up to your SEO team to know how affiliates work and to educate your affiliate manager on what types of links each type of affiliate sh0uld be using.
Is My Affiliate Manager or Outsourced Affiliate Program Manager Hurting My SEO? (Please read this one carefully!)
This is one that you have to keep a close eye on. Yes and No. It depends on their knowledge of SEO and Affiliate Marketing and how affiliates can help and hurt SEO.
If your affiliate manager goes out and finds reviews of your products or services and pitches those sites to become affiliates, they may be replacing good backlinks with affiliate links. This is one way that affiliate programs can hurt SEO.
If they are pitching sites to become affiliates and your affiliate manager is not scanning the website and website code for backlinks, mentions, etc…, then the site joins and replaces existing backlinks that helped your SEO with affiliate links, then yes, your affiliate manager or outsourced affiliate management company is hurting your SEO. You don’t want to remove high quality backlinks with affiliate links that do not count as backlinks or that would need no follow tags in their code.
Ask your manager for a short list of websites they reach out to each week and then have your SEO check them against referring urls for the past 5 or 15 years. You could even do an all time search. It doesn’t take long to do this with Google Analytics.
If they show up then your affiliate manager or outsourced affiliate program manager may be replacing backlinks with affiliate links and now your affiliate program can be hurting your SEO. The scans on websites don’t always pull back pages with backlinks and this can be tricky so it isn’t always your affiliate manager or outsourced affiliate program management company’s fault. If you do find it happening though, talk to them and give them guidelines to follow. At the same time, sometimes webmasters and bloggers discover your program without the manager and want to join.
If the site joins the program without the outsourced affiliate manager starting the conversation, then it is not the fault of the affiliate management company. If the affiliate management company goes to Google and types in your brand, brand + reviews or other variations, then replaces the backlinks with affiliate links, this could mean they are causing Penguin penalties in Google. You also have to think about the costs before replacing the links.
If you paid for the reviews and the site is approved in, it is now costing you margin on sales you already paid for. At the same time, if those links were hurting your SEO, replacing them with non backlinks can help you recover from Penguin.
Should I Have My Affiliates Add No Follow Attributes to Their Affiliate Links?
This is a common question for affiliate programs and SEO. Should I have affiliates add no follow tags to their affiliate links.
If the sites:
- are not content relevant and using backlinks
- are content relevant and using parameters
- are content relevant and not using parameters
- are using network links that point to network servers
What About Affiliate Traffic and Bounce Rates?
Bounce rate and user experience can play a small to large part in SEO. If you have an affiliate using PPV and pounding your site with traffic that bounces, this could be a very bad signal to the search engines and cause you to lose some of your SEO based on a bad user experience and high bounce rate. If you have affiliates that convert well and have low bounce rates with their referrals, this could be a good thing and help show a good user experience which can help your SEO.
Look at the types of affiliates you have and the user experience coming from their referrals. If it is a coupon site poaching your shopping cart by ranking for your trademarks + urls, if they open new windows to your site and then people close the windows or browsers quickly, this could be bad for you. If it’s a social media influencer that mentions you and has lots of traffic, but the traffic bounces, but your site also gets a lot of social shares, this could be good for your SEO depending on the site and if Google uses it for rankings with social signals.
Look at the types of affiliates and how their traffic can either help your site with social signals or hurt your site with bounce rates and go from there.
Bounce rates can play a part in SEO so you should think about them carefully. However, if the partner is driving in new traffic and sales from an email blast, the bad signal from a high bounce rate can easily be outweighed by the new sales and customer acquisition from the partner. Think about it carefully if you are worried about your affiliate program hurting your SEO and think about the other signals that could be helping you, even if there is a high bounce rate.
Do social media affiliates help or hurt my SEO?
Yes, social media affiliates can help your SEO. Think about how links normally work when used on social media sites.
The social media influencer normally uses a cloaked or tracking url, or the site itself uses redirects and shorteners. Many do not use direct links for every link so the search engines may be looking for brand mentions, url shares and other factors for social media signals and SEO. If it is looking for shares and positive activity, then even if they are using a network based link, it could in theory help your SEO.
Conclusion on Affiliate Programs and SEO
Affiliates can help SEO and affiliate programs can hurt SEO. It all depends on how your program is managed, if your SEO team is working with your affiliate manager and if your outsourced affiliate program managers are given strict guidelines to follow with how to do recruitment and use links.
If you’re on a network and not using any actual backlinks, and not using dedicated pages for affiliates; your affiliate program will probably not be able to hurt your SEO. If you do use direct links, dedicated pages and subdomains or your affiliate manager is replacing good links with bad links, then your affiliate program is probably hurting your SEO.
If you have any questions about this post or want to add something to it, please leave a comment below or use my contact form. If you want me to look over your program and SEO, then please use the contact form and I’ll be happy to talk to you about an audit or do a quick glance over (time permitting). Thank you again for reading and I hope this post helps get rid of any rumors or questions you have about affiliate marketing and SEO.