How Affiliate Programs Can Affect Search Rankings

You’re probably familiar with the term “PageRank,” made famous by Google. And you probably know search engines consider the quality and quantity of links that point to your Web site to calculate your site’s ranking in search results. Still, a lot of confusion exists regarding how merchant sites should benefit from their affiliates’ links.

The industry is currently debating two competing affiliate network strategies:

  • Network-wide links that point to the affiliate administrator’s server, then redirect to the merchant site

  • Affiliate network solutions that directly link to the merchant site, sometimes referred to as “domain-specific linking networks”

With traditional affiliate programs, links from affiliates point to the affiliate administration site’s server. Click-throughs and conversions can be tracked and commissions paid. If you’re a merchant with thousands of affiliates, links from your affiliates’ sites don’t help you attain higher rankings in the search engines that consider link popularity as part of their ranking algorithms.

New affiliate programs and networks are being promoted to help merchants gain value from these links. They host the affiliate management application on the merchant’s site or otherwise include a tracking mechanism that directly links to the merchant’s site, not to the affiliate administrator’s servers.

These programs aren’t without risk, however. New information has emerged in a Google patent filing.

Rapid Link Expansion

Google reveals in the filing its ranking algorithm is organized to thwart overly aggressive marketers. It confirms something search marketers have long suspected: Google watches how fast new links to a site appear as a way to detect and penalize search engine spam. If too many new links appear in too short a timeframe, the site may be penalized, or even banned, by Google.

According to the filing, Google also watches how many new links with identical anchor text emerge. This is another clue links may be suspect or mass-manufactured. Additionally, Google monitors the rate at which links disappear to identify the degree of relevance and sort out spam. If Google does these things, you should assume other engines do something very similar.

If you were to switch to an affiliate platform that caused all your affiliates to link directly to your site overnight, all using the same anchor text, red flags would very likely be raised with Google and other search engines. Your site might be banned or, at the very least, experience a sudden decline in rankings. Either scenario costs a lot of money and take months to repair.

Link requesting is a time-honored search engine marketing (SEM) tradition. We identify sites and directories that would help the client if a link were granted, then formally request those links on our clients’ behalf.

It’s not just the site or the link text that matters. The actual page that links to your site matters, too. Most naturally occurring inbound links point to home pages, which give them more power. As a result, receiving a link from another site’s home page is more valuable than a link from an internal page, which can often house affiliate links.

Spammer Links

Something else to consider: It may be completely valid if Google bans an affiliate in your network. That affiliate may be engaged in tactics counter to Google’s stated policies. In such a case, you probably wouldn’t want a link from it.

Your affiliates link to you in ways search engines can follow. Their links influence your ranking, for better or worse. If all your affiliate network sites are of high quality and adhere to search engines’ rules and the links appear slowly over some reasonable period (several months), your network will likely perform well. This strategy may involve some risk, depending on site quality and implementation speed.

Context Dilution

Some of your affiliates may also operate as affiliates for other merchants. They may link to everything on the same page: credit card offers; pots and pans; home-based business opportunities. Links from these pages cover so many topics they dilute your inbound links’ context. That won’t help your ranking.

Link Solicitation

Soliciting links from your affiliate network the old-fashioned way is a simple exercise. Negotiation is easy and should provide you with some leverage. When you do the work, the results can be remarkable. Rankings and traffic both increase.

Quality vs. Quantity

Before scuttling your existing affiliate network, remember: it’s link quality, not quantity, that counts. We’ve seen two or three high-quality links very quickly catapult a site’s rankings into the top-10 results in all major engines.

Be cautious and go slow. Alternative affiliate network strategies are fine, but any decision to work with a particular network provider should never be based solely on the ability to increase links. Link growth that leads to increased rankings and traffic can be realized in all affiliate networks.

I’d love to hear what’s working and what’s not in SEM for affiliate marketing. E-mail me, and I may use your story.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies in Toronto, Canada, May 4-5, 2005.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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