In a Google Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller was asked if affiliate links in websites dealing with sensitive topics were being targeted. John Mueller answered the question then expanded his answer to address how Google handles all affiliate sites in general.
Does Google Target Affiliate Sites?
This has been a topic of discussion since the early days of SEO. As far back as the early 2000’s affiliates suspected that Google had a bias against affiliate sites.
There is a long history of a belief in a Google bias against affiliate sites.
Background on Google Targeting Affiliate Site Theory:
Affiliates Hid their Affiliate Links
SEOs responded to this rumor by hiding their affiliate links. The idea was that if Google didn’t see the affiliate links then the site wouldn’t be penalized.
Affiliates Hid Affiliate Links with Redirects
Another way was to pass the affiliate link through a redirect that was also blocked to Google.
Rumor that Affiliate Algorithm Applied to AdSense Sites
It was also rumored that the same algorithm that targeted affiliate sites was later used by Google to target low quality websites known as Made for AdSense (MFA) sites.
Simultaneously, AdWords advertisers who were arbitraging from AdWords to their MFA sites saw their quality scores drop to a score of 1.
Matt Cutts Confirms Google Identifies Affiliate Links
In a 2012 interview, within the context of a question about nofollow and affiliate links, Matt Cutts confirmed that Google can identify affiliate links and “handles” them. By handling them, he presumably means that Google is able to prevent them from passing PageRank.
He states that Google knows the big networks and can handle them on their side (watch video here).
That was not an admission that Google was targeting affiliate sites. It was only an admission that Google was targeting the affiliate links themselves in order to prevent them from passing PageRank.
Sensitive Topics and Affiliate Links
The question asked of John Mueller was about sites focused on sensitive topics that also contained affiliate links. This may be a reference to Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) topics.
Affiliate Links on YMYL Topics
YMYL topics are those that can impact a person’s life. These are topics in finance, medical, legal, banking and so on.
The question asked:
“What’s the impact of affiliate links when mixed with content targeting sensitive topics?”
John Mueller Affirms the Importance of Site Quality
John Mueller responded that it was not about how the transaction occurs. It’s all about the quality of the site.
“As far as I know we don’t explicitly go into the site and say well there are links that look like affiliate links therefore we will treat this website as being lower quality.
In general, the main issues that I see with regards to affiliate websites is that they tend to just be lower quality websites.
So it’s not so much a matter of where the check out flow is but rather that overall the content is often kind of low quality and because of the low quality content that’s something that our algorithms might pick up on and say this is probably not the most relevant result to show in the search results.”
John Mueller affirmed that it’s possible for an affiliate site to rank well if it is the best result for a query.
“And there can be really high quality affiliate websites as well which are good to show in the search results.
So it’s not so much a matter of is there an affiliate link or not but rather like what about the rest of the website? Is this something that would be relevant to show to users or is there something perhaps problematic there?”
Affiliate Links and YMYL Topics
John Mueller then confirmed that this approach to affiliate sites was across the board:
“I think at least as far as I know that would apply across the board so it wouldn’t really matter what the specific topic area is of the website.
But in general there are some really good affiliate sites and there are some really really terrible affiliate sites. So it’s more a matter of is a site good or is a site terrible?”
John Mueller made it clear that Google does not target sites because they have affiliate links regardless of the topic. Although John Mueller did not specifically mention YMYL topics, he said this applies across the board, which obviously includes YMYL topics.
Google’s Official Policy on Affiliate Sites
Google has a developer page about affiliate sites. John Mueller’s statement agrees with what is stated there:
Good affiliates add value, for example by offering original product reviews, ratings, navigation of products or categories, and product comparisons. If you participate in an affiliate program, there are a number of steps you can take to help your site stand out and differentiate your site…
It’s clear that Google does not target affiliate sites, regardless of the topic. Affiliate sites are judged using the same criteria as any other site.