At a recent interactive marketing association event in Chicago, a moderator was asked about SEO (define) as an affiliate marketing strategy. I was a bit surprised when the moderator responded, "The event is focused on affiliate marketing, not search."
Interestingly enough, the affiliate marketing panel did discuss search in the realm of paid advertising, which is one type of SEM (define). "Hmmm," I thought. "That's rather unusual. I wasn't aware paid search engine advertising isn't a component of the search industry."
Then it hit me. The reason many advertising and affiliate marketing agencies don't like to focus on SEO is they don't fully comprehend SEO and don't know how to carry out an effective SEO campaign. Rather than admit their ignorance, they prefer to focus on online marketing strategies they claim to know well.
A recent MarketingSherpa study shows top organic positions are clicked 20 percent of the time and top paid-advertising positions are clicked 10 percent of the time. However, if a site has a top organic position and a top paid-advertising position, the links to the site are clicked 60 percent of the time. It's an unusual situation: 10 + 20 = 60.
Affiliate marketers' lack of SEO knowledge is a huge mistake. With a well-constructed, user-friendly affiliate site, advertising costs can be minimized. Companies are missing out on key branding opportunities as well.
Affiliate Marketers: Search Engine Friend or Foe?
Most of the time, affiliate marketers are a bane to search engines. When I think of affiliate marketing spam, I immediately think of all the Amazon.com affiliates' doorway pages (define). Those can be some pretty ugly Web sites. Maybe I should create a new Web site and allude to what not to do in affiliate Web site design.
On the other hand, some of the best Web sites I've ever seen have been affiliate Web sites. For example, one client doesn't sell directly to consumers. The corporate Web site offers information on the company and provides an overview of its products, but consumers can't make a purchase on the site. They must go to an affiliate to make a purchase. In this situation, going to an affiliate is actually better for the consumer. The affiliate is usually located near the consumer, making it easier for the consumer to get the product customized and delivered quickly.
The challenge in my client's affiliate SEO plan is to provide unique content to the search engines without exploiting them. Additionally, my client doesn't want an overzealous affiliate to get the corporate site and the entire affiliate network into trouble. Everyone should benefit: consumers, the corporate site, affiliates, and the search engines.
Affiliate SEO/SEM Plans
Affiliate management is a key ingredient of an effective SEO/SEM plan. Too many corporations make affiliate management as an afterthought, often to the corporation's detriment.
I'm helping a nonprofit become unbanned in Google. Unfortunately, helping sites get unbanned is a normal, everyday part of my job. The organization itself hasn't spammed Google. The Web site is quite user friendly, and the organization is a well-established brand. There are no technical reasons for the site not to appear in the Google index. Yet after digging around for reasons for a Google ban, we discovered the problem: affiliates gone wild.
We asked our client if it had any legal agreements with its affiliates that limited the types of search engine strategies they could pursue. It didn't. So as part of the unbanning process, we're working with the client's attorneys to come up with an affiliate SEO agreement (often, this is in conjunction with an affiliate advertising agreement). Many corporations could save thousands of dollars in lost search engine traffic if they created such legal agreements before hiring affiliates.
As a part of the affiliate marketing SEO plan, corporations should point out the importance of offering unique content in addition to the corporations' content. For example, effective information architecture is an extremely important component of SEO. Are there ways affiliates can group and categorize information that are better than how the corporate site organizes it? Some products sell better in regional markets than others. Maybe the affiliate site could focus on the best sellers for its region.
I've seen regional affiliate sites' cross-linking (internal, page-to-page linking) vary by region. By presenting a unique cross-linking structure, affiliates provide unique information to the commercial search engines and a 100 percent user-friendly scent of information for customers.
Additionally, a FAQ, customer service, or help section could be unique for each affiliate site. Many affiliates work directly with customers. What questions do those customers repeatedly pose? Having these questions and their answers available in a FAQ, customer service, or help section provides unique content for both end users and search engines.
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes I see with affiliate Web sites and corporations is forcing affiliates to use a print catalog's exact wording. Print copywriting works fine in a print medium; it doesn't necessarily work for a Web site. Since affiliates often know their customers quite well, they should be able to modify product descriptions without deviating from the corporate branding message.
The end result? Affiliate sites don't get filtered out of search results due to duplicate content, and customers find what they are searching for quickly and easily.
Even though affiliate marketing spam is a huge problem for the commercial Web search engines, search engine representatives want to include affiliate content in search results (both paid and organic), especially if the content and content organization are unique. Consumers appreciate content that's tailored to their individual needs.
However, many advertising and affiliate marketing firms deliberately discount SEO as an online marketing strategy out of ignorance. This ignorance can get a corporate Web site into trouble if affiliates aren't managed effectively, and it can lead to thousands or millions of dollars in missed sales opportunities. Effective search optimization benefits everyone: end users, corporations, affiliates, and search engines. Learning how to do SEO is not a bad thing.
Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.
March 19, 2014