Yes, affiliate links are backlinks and they can work for or against you when it comes to SEO. This is because they are a link from one site to your website, and any link that points towards your website is technically a backlink. But not every backlink passes SEO value, and that is where the confusion occurs.
Example: A link from a search result in Google, like your website’s homepage showing up in Google for your brand name, is a backlink and will help with SEO. This is because it is a link from Google.com to your site. But this does not technically pass “authority” even though it is a backlink. I get into this in detail below.
This new post is a topic I’ve covered multiple times and is stemming from a fun conversation I had with ex-Google engineer Fili Wiese about affiliate links being used for SEO. He verified that while he was at Google working on the webspam team he personally gave, depending on the implementation, manual actions for ecommerce stores and service providers for using affiliate links to boost their SEO. Fili has fact checked this post (thank you Fili) so there’s more than just my word and experience on this.
As Fili mentioned in our conversation and as I’ve written about for years, Google is not against running an affiliate program, or participating in one to drive more traffic to your website. However, Google does not consider affiliate links as merit based, but affiliate links are commercial in nature and should be nofollowed or have the sponsored attribute added to links. Because they’re commercial in nature, not earned, they should not count for SEO and rankings.
There’s a lot I’m going to cover here, so use these links to jump to the section most relevant to your situation.
- Background and cause of confusion
- 307 redirects
- Google neutralizing known links
- Using direct links with parameters
- Robots.txt if you cannot use a proper tracking solution
Background and Cause of Confusion
SEOs, tracking technologies, PR vendors, and affiliate networks pitch ecommerce stores and service providers that affiliate programs boost SEO because they do not know how SEO works or they like semantics. It is the same as pretending that bio links from social media sites are backlinks and boost SEO. They don’t. If affiliate links are boosting you right now, eventually they will stop and you’ll be worse off.
Many affiliate links are 307 redirects, and you’ll find tons of content about 307’s and SEO on Search Engine Roundtable here, here, and comments from Googlers about 3XX response codes on Twitter. They aren’t relevant for this post. In general, all 3XX redirects would technically pass “authority” in the same way a SERP is technically a backlink.
The lack of clarity comes from specific questions asked to Googlers who answer for that specific situation vs. a general answer. Once affiliate links are discovered by Google, they get “neutralized” by the Google webspam team. Neutralizing them means they don’t pass SEO value. So if you’re using affiliate links as a backlink building strategy, you’re going down the wrong path.
A 307 redirect is a temporary redirect. Googlers have said that all 3XX redirects can pass value, at least for a while, but temporary is temporary. It isn’t a permanent move or shift, so after a while this response code will likely get ignored faster than a 301 which means the content or page has moved permanently. Check the redirect type your affiliate system is using, if it is a 307 then you’re likely not building backlinks that would last. Do not recommend they change to a 301, it will not work and you’ll be worse off in the long run.
Again, you should never be building backlinks via an affiliate program. It will lead to damage.
Google Neutralizes Known Networks and Links
Ever since Matt Cutts was at Google it has been known that Google knows what affiliate networks are, what the parameters used are, and the servers and IPs that exist. Because of this they have a team that looks at the links and updates the system that checks for and neutralizes these types of links.
When a known network, pathway, or “unnatural” style of link is seen, they neutralize the link from passing value. That means the link won’t hurt or help you. With that said I do have a pro tip for any SEOs reading this.
Bonus-tip: If you have unnatural link structures that could be causing damage and the webmaster won’t take the links down, offer them to become affiliates. They can earn money even off a bad review or spammy article. If they do then they’ll replace the SEO link with a neutralized link. You could disavow, but this is an option if you don’t believe in disavow.
There is a catch though. Some of the more tricky networks, service providers, and PR tools that provide tracking links will change servers, IPs, and other things that make it difficult for Google to track and catch these affiliate links.
If your tracking and PR platforms are pitching this, consider reevaluating the relationship as you will eventually get caught. When you do you have to hope you don’t get a manual action, it happens. Recovering from a Google penalty doesn’t mean you get your traffic back, it only means you are eligible to start doing SEO again. The long term risk is not worth the short term benefit.
This is easier than it sounds. I do it with our clients regularly. But that’s for a different post.
The FTC, and I believe EU/UK laws require disclosures on content, pages, etc… that use affiliate links. I have no data or proof that Google uses disclosures as a way to tell if disclosures on a page are used to detect and neutralize links, but I would make a safe assumption they would. If they aren’t yet, they will once they realize this is an easy way to find paid, sponsored, and non-naturally occurring backlinks to a site.
Using pages with disclosures would be an easier way to determine paid for or sponsored links as Google cannot rely on webmasters to add nofollow or sponsored attributes on their own. And removing the disclosures won’t help anyone as there is now legal risk.
If your affiliates take the disclosures down to preserve “SEO value”, you (and possibly they) can get in trouble. If they do disclose then it is likely the links won’t count for SEO. This is another reason why you should not use affiliate programs for SEO or link building. Separate the two channels, but make sure both work hand-in-hand so that your company and your partners all benefit.
Direct Links With Parameters
A direct link with a parameter is a common way to track sponsored links, paid media links, affiliate links, etc… If the links are clearly paid for, and the majority of your backlinks fall into this category, chances are you’ll get into some trouble, but that is not guaranteed.
Don’t use parameter based links for backlinks. Do the work to produce a good website with good user experiences and get natural non-paid for and non-business relationship links. But there will be times where parameters are needed. Good news, the next section is something I learned from Fili, you can neutralize these links and protect your SEO. Not neutralizing these was one of the things sites were given manual actions for.
Disallowing in Robots.txt
I always consider robots.txt a way to show spiders how to crawl your website. But Fili explained to me something different. When you disallow a specific parameter from being crawled it is also a way that you can neutralize the links yourself (making Google’s life easier). But why would you want to do that?
Because affiliate links are not supposed to be used for SEO. When you get caught, not if you get caught, you’ll likely get a manual action on your site. Neutralizing these may help you make your case when you ask for a reconsideration. Unless you want to risk all your SEO traffic, use the technique below.
- Place the merchant ID as the first parameter (?MID or ?AFFID)
- Go to robots.txt and add Disallow/*?*MID or whatever the parameter is
By doing this you’ll neutralize the links and show you are not trying to game the SERPs by having an affiliate program.
Pro-tip: Fili also said that blocking an isolatable URL pattern (e.g. an affiliate ID parameter) with the robots.txt to stop PageRank flow means you are in full control and not dependent on affiliates correctly implementing rel=nofollow. So while using rel=nofollow is a good best practice with affiliate links, why not do both and make sure you don’t need to waste time checking every single affiliate link placed on the web pointing to your website now and in the future.
You get the idea by now. Yes, affiliate links are backlinks and backlinks can help or hurt SEO depending on the situation. Using affiliate links to try and game Google is a bad idea, there’s no good reason unless you’re trying to churn and burn a site. And if you are doing a churn and burn, you’re going to burn those affiliate relationships to the ground for double trouble. And chances are that if you’re on a known and trustworthy network, Google has already neutralized the links so they aren’t passing any SEO value.
Be smart with link building. Gimmicks like scholarship link building work for a while, then you pay the price in long term losses. Do things the right way and earn links. And while you’re doing that, build a value adding affiliate program too by having an affiliate manager that is familiar with other channels like SEO, attribution, email, and paid media. Your company will be building long term success with two fantastic marketing channels and reducing overall risk.