What Are Affiliate Links? (+ 4 Best Practices)

Adam Steele
Aug 17
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With 84% of publishers and 81% of advertisers now engaging in affiliate marketing, you could say that affiliate links are some of the most widely published types of outbound links.

The same applies even on the receivers’ side, as it turns out that more than 80% of the brands today are leveraging affiliate marketing. So widespread is the practice, in fact, that affiliate links are pointing even to websites that are yet to gain natural backlinks.

It’s because of this prominence that affiliate links continue to attract debate about their role in SEO. While most people have a vague idea about how they fit into sales and marketing, very little is known regarding the influence of affiliate links on search engine ranking algorithms.

Google, for instance, has long been suspected of having a bias against affiliate links and affiliate marketing sites. Proponents insist that these links could potentially get you flagged up and penalized for spam.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, we have guys who argue that affiliate links can neither harm nor improve your SEO. They claim that Google PageRank excludes all forms of affiliate links from its computations.

So, what is true and what is not? How does Google treat affiliate links? And can you possibly capitalize on them for SEO?

What Are Affiliate Links?

Affiliate links, for starters, are sales-centric URLs that act as bridges and lead trackers between affiliate publishers and the corresponding advertisers. They are posted on affiliate marketing sites, from where they redirect traffic to the advertiser’s landing page.

“Advertiser”, in this case, refers to the merchant behind the whole affiliate program. They get into some sort of a sales deal, in which external content creators earn a commission by generating and referring leads to the target sales page for conversion.

The affiliate links are the ones that act as a pathway from the referring domain to the landing page. And for monitoring purposes, each publisher gets their own unique affiliate link – which comes embedded with their ID or username details. That way, it becomes easy for affiliate advertisers and marketers to accurately track the lead generation metrics.

In return, affiliate marketers earn based on the actions taken by their referred leads. This model is known as CPA – which stands for Cost Per Action – and it applies to 99% of today’s affiliate programs.

You’ll find, for instance, affiliate publishers earning a commission for each purchase made through their referral URLs. That’s how affiliate links usually lead to a win-win outcome for advertisers and marketers.

Here’s an example of an affiliate partnership between an advertiser and a publisher…

  • Advertiser: The advertiser is CapitalOne.com, a credit card provider that seeks to grow its customer base through online applications.
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The target landing page on CapitalOne.com

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The affiliate marketing page on NerdWallet.com

Why build affiliate links?

If you happen to be running an ecommerce site, you might want to consider all the business perks that come with affiliate links. You just need to find yourself appropriate affiliate partners, all of whom should have gained substantial influence in your business field.

We are talking about acclaimed publications, social media influencers, famous bloggers, etc. Their popular forums are capable of generating a decent amount of referral traffic from your affiliate links.

The traffic itself won’t come in the form of regular site visitors. You see, by virtue of building affiliate links on a forum that’s already renowned in your business field, you’ll basically be reaching out to an audience that fits your target market’s demographic.

And that’s not all. If your sale product is featured contextually as a solution, it’ll be getting valuable attention from viewers with high purchase intent. These are people who initially clicked on the publisher’s posts for information on resolving a specific problem, but then ended up discovering your offering as a potential solution.

The recommendations, in fact, are often taken very seriously by audiences. A whopping 80% of consumers today admit to purchasing stuff from links recommended by influencers, while 61% say that they’d still proceed to click if the link was sponsored.

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Percentage of consumers clicking on sponsored links from influencers. Source: IAB

That means it won’t take you much to convert any leads generated from the affiliate links. Every single click translates into a potentially warm lead who’s ready to commit and make a purchase.

The numbers will expand even further as you increase your affiliate link footprint. You can proceed to create as many as you like, all the while upholding their quality.

Now, with such an extensive network of affiliate links, comes the question of SEO and search rankings.

Do affiliate links improve or hurt your SEO?

Well, according to Google, affiliate links do not influence search ranking algorithms.

The search engine’s bots have reportedly been engineered to ignore endorsements from affiliate links, as the placement of the links is fundamentally driven by monetary gains instead of natural and authentic interests.

Google even recently published a set of special guidelines on how to format affiliate links for search engines. The company strongly advises web creators to add “rel-sponsored” to all types of affiliate links, regardless of whether they were built manually or dynamically.

This attribute is meant to distinctly separate affiliate links from regular do-follow and no-follow backlinks. By identifying them as sponsored, you’ll be telling the crawlers not to pass on authority between the linked sites.

Keep in mind, however, that this is not a compulsory directive – as confirmed by Google’s Search Advocate John Muller. Through a webinar, he assured web creators that the search engine won’t be penalizing anyone for leaving out the “rel=sponsored” attribute.

That, however, doesn’t mean that Google might fail to pick up on any unattributed link. In case you forget to markup your affiliate links, the search engine’s bots will still identify them for exclusion from its ranking algorithms.

How affiliate links influence search rankings

Even when Google insists that affiliate links have no impact on its search rankings, don’t make the mistake of writing them off. While affiliate links may not directly improve SEO, it turns out they are very much capable of indirectly influencing your search rankings.

You see, by distributing affiliate links widely across the web, you won’t just be generating leads. All the exposure that comes with that might increasingly invite attention to your products. People will start talking, and then the resultant organic links will boost your search visibility.

Already, 85% of online shoppers are turning to Google for info and ideas before buying. They often find themselves on affiliate marketing websites, from where they discover products and services to purchase.

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Most shoppers are likely to consult Google for information before purchasing. Source: Skai

This even checks out with the traffic metrics from affiliate marketers. It just so happens that most of their traffic comes from search – as close to 70% of affiliate marketing sites are relying on SEO. They build content to organically bring in prospective shoppers, who then click on the affiliate links to make a purchase.

Social media comes second with about 67%, followed by email marketing at 41%, while PPC advertising is engaged by 34% of affiliate marketers.

All these channels combined make up quite an extensive web of audience touchpoints. Enough to get you just the right amount of attention, which will then create organic buzz around your brand.

A great case example is Amazon. Through its Amazon Associates Program, the web-based marketplace has managed to rise to the top by collaborating with thousands of content creators and marketers.

As these associates continue to build affiliate links to Amazon’s products, the platform increasingly generates buzz from the exposure, which then leads to more natural backlinks, social media shares, and brand mentions.

Now, that is the power of affiliate links. Besides generating leads, they are capable of triggering a chain reaction that’ll organically reinforce your SEO, consequently improving search rankings.

4 Best Practices For Building Affiliate Links For Google Search

How you choose to build your affiliate links substantially determines the impact they’ll have on your sales, brand, and search rankings – as both internet users and search engines respond differently to various types of affiliate links.

You’ll notice, for instance, that while some publishers are always providing a stream of high-interest leads, others struggle to rally their audiences. This contrast in results extends even to different types of posts, content formats, and page placement.

Here’s how to achieve the best balance of all these factors as you build your affiliate links:

#1. Collaborate with strategic partners

A common belief among brands is that the more affiliate marketers you have, the more people you get to reach.

The truth, however, is that things are not that simple – more doesn’t always increase your chances of success. You’re only as strong as your weakest affiliate.

So, don’t be quick to distribute your affiliate links to random publishers. Instead of blindly playing the numbers game, take the time to focus on quality over quantity. The results you get in the end depend substantially on the type of partners you choose to work with.

Research shows that in most affiliate marketing programs, 90% of the sales come from only 10% of affiliates. That means you stand to gain more by focusing all your attention on the few strongest performers.

You can identify them by analyzing content quality, domain rating, and traffic patterns. Your affiliate links should only be published on sites with a rich portfolio of relevant content, high domain authority, and a large audience of highly engaged prospects.

Google, in particular, advises you to avoid affiliate websites with “thin” content. Its developer guidelines clarify that search algorithms are now demoting low-quality affiliate sites – particularly the ones whose content doesn’t provide any value.

Examples include those cookie-cutter affiliate sites that lift content directly from their advertisers’ pages. You’d find, for instance, your affiliate links published alongside a word-for-word copy of the same product descriptions and reviews on your site.

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Google’s statement on thin affiliate websites. Source: Google Search Central

The best affiliate sites, according to Google, are the ones that keep their audiences engaged with highly valuable content. Instead of randomly filling up web pages with all sorts of unrelated affiliate links, they take the time to create unique and relevant posts – on which they strategically add contextual affiliate links.

#2. Leverage product reviews, product comparisons, and product roundups

While you could run affiliate links with virtually any content format, they’ve proven to be particularly effective when used in product reviews, product comparisons, and product roundups. These are the three leading content types in terms of affiliate link CTR (click-through rate).

Product review pieces, to begin with, can partly attribute their high readership rates to the fact that 95% of consumers admit to consulting reviews before committing to a purchase. What’s more, about a third of shoppers are always checking reviews for every purchase. That means your reviews will be attracting warm leads who might be looking to buy.

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Percentage of shoppers checking reviews for every purchase. Source: PowerReviews

Shoppers especially prefer in-depth product reviews that provide not just the positives, but also the drawbacks of the items. Whereas an overly positive write-up might come off as a promotional sales copy, throwing in a couple of negatives makes the whole composition appear authentic and trustable.

When they were asked about it in a survey, 68% of consumers insisted they want to see both positive and negative product reviews. At least that would help to confirm that the usage sentiments are real.

So, if you’re looking to attract referral traffic from your affiliate links, you might want to check and ensure that the publishers have included even the accompanying product drawbacks.

Product comparison is also a form of a product review. But, unlike regular product reviews, product comparisons weigh up different options by matching them up against each other.

As such, they typically attract consumers who are torn between two or more items. Such customers principally turn to product comparisons for insights into how the target items contrast with each other across various key selection parameters.

So, in essence, a product comparison is expected to competitively review your stuff alongside your competitors’. But, don’t take it negatively. Going head to head against other solutions gives you the rare chance to exhaustively highlight the value your products offer.

To maximize exposure, consider building affiliate links on product comparisons featuring already established competitors. This would give you a rich traffic base on which to build your campaign.

Closely related to that are product roundups, which also feature multiple items within one compounded review article.

Don’t get it twisted, though. Product roundups don’t really follow a similar format as product comparisons. While the latter contrasts solutions based on a uniform set of parameters, product roundups don’t exactly maintain the same review formula across all the featured items. The products are, instead, described separately – without juxtapositioning them side-by-side.

You’d, for instance, have your product affiliate links featured in an article on the top solutions for a selected area of specialization.

This gives your brand much-needed exposure alongside some of the biggest popular brands. Then with the help of the affiliate links, you might even win over some of the prospects who stumbled upon the article from Google searches related to your competitors.

#3. Focus on one or two products per niche

It’s possible to run affiliate marketing on all the products in your inventory. But, that would only complicate things, and you’d have a hard time optimizing, tracking, and following up on the individual affiliate links.

For the best possible outcome – especially if you intend to harmonize your affiliate marketing and SEO campaigns – you might want to keep things simple and easily manageable. Instead of taking an all-inclusive approach, consider pushing just a handful of products.

You could start out with one. Then as your business and campaign resources expand, you may stretch the allowance to one product for each category. And if you happen to have additional bandwidth, it’s still acceptable to do two per niche.

Keep in mind, though, that these selections ought to be made very conscientiously. This is where you conduct thorough data-driven research on the profitability of various products, their growth curve, as well as all the possible market opportunities at the present time, in the near future, and over the long haul.

SEMrush’s “Market Explorer” tool would be a great place to start your research. It offers valuable insights on market size, market traffic, market demographics, market growth, top keywords, etc.

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Explore what the market is searching for on SEMrush.

The goal here is to establish the few most promising products. You’d, of course, want to hit the ground running with well-optimized affiliate links, capable of sustaining a high click-through rate over the long haul. At least then, you’d even get the chance to direct some of the audience’s interest to products that were initially left out of the campaign.

For the sake of accuracy, you could even run a couple of test campaigns on different products before proceeding. That would help you compare and ascertain the expected market reactions to each offering.

Also, it would be a good idea to take into account the search keywords that your site currently ranks for. You could then pick the products that are best aligned with your target ranking keywords.

Take, for example, a real estate agency looking to improve its rankings for “commercial properties in New York”. The most appropriate product for its affiliate marketing program would be a commercial building based in New York.

At least with affiliate links rallying audiences in your target niche, you’d steadily build enough traction to strengthen your SEO profile.

#4. Learn from your competitors

If you’re trying to improve your search rankings, then it means there are competitors doing better than you. The whole point of engaging all these strategies, in the first place, is to outdo them and take over their places in the SERPs.

Now, the good thing with having competitors ahead of you is, they save you from reinventing the wheel. All it takes is a quick glance into your competitors’ SEO architecture, and you’ll be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

This is a clever and effective way to discover proven campaign tactics. Then by combining insights from different competitors, you should be able to devise the ultimate campaign strategy. One that’ll not only help you catch up with rivals, but also capitalize on their weakness to finally beat them in their own game.

Now, when it comes to affiliate link building, competitor analysis will reveal a clear picture of their affiliate marketing landscape. You get to establish the partners they’re working with, the platforms that have published their affiliate links, as well as the traffic metrics for the resultant referrals.

That said, SpyFu happens to be the tool for the job – as its backlink tracker is versatile enough to cover even affiliate links.

The process itself is pretty straightforward:

  • Just go to SpyFu’s main search box, enter your competitor’s domain and then fire it up.
  • Once the system has generated the domain’s web insights, proceed to the competitor backlinks tab.
  • You should then filter the results down to the pages with inbound affiliate links. SpyFu will in turn provide an overview of the affiliate links and their publishers.
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Finding competitor’s affiliate links with SpyFu.

That’s just the first part. What you subsequently choose to do with the information makes all the difference in the end.

For example – if you combine insights from various leading competitors, you’ll be able to point out a couple of solid affiliate opportunities that you’re missing out on. What’s more, you could steal a few high-value partners by offering better perks than your competitors.

The choice is all yours.

Over To You: How To Maximize Gains From Affiliate Links

The affiliate links issue proves yet again that you shouldn’t really restrict your digital marketing campaigns based on what Google says.

Now, don’t get us wrong.  Google didn’t lie about the relationship between affiliate links and SEO – it just told half of the story and then left out the other half.

While affiliate links don’t contribute directly to your website’s SEO, they can be a powerful means of rallying the audiences you need to become an authority in your space. And the best thing is, you get to sell while you’re at it.

Affiliate marketing sites already have the traffic. Your job is to find the most appropriate ones for your affiliate links, align your site’s content with the affiliate marketing program, and then use omnichannel digital marketing to engage the resultant referral leads at the right time and with the right message.

Piecing together all these can be an overwhelming experience. Fortunately for you, though, you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. You’ll have Loganix expertly handling all your link building, SEO, and content marketing while you worry about running the business.

Let’s start today with a quick chat about your marketing goals. Go ahead and book a strategy call here.

Written by Adam Steele on August 17, 2022

COO and Product Director at Loganix. Recovering SEO, now focused on the understanding how Loganix can make the work-lives of SEO and agency folks more enjoyable, and profitable. Writing from beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia.

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