Brian Klais wrote in June, 2008 in his post “Amazon’s Secret to Dominating SERP Results” at the Natural Search Blog about how Amazon.com leverages the inbound links of their vast number of affiliates for their organic SEO advantage by 301-redirecting BOTs for the URLs that include the affiliate tracking code to the single primary URL of the same page that they want to be indexed by the search engines.
Some folks think that what Amazon.com is doing violates the Google Webmaster Guidelines, because what they do is a special kind of cloaking, but I would argue that. The webpage where the bots and the user end up are the same. Amazon is not deceiving anybody, not the users and not the bots either. If you 301 only bots and not everybody who access your site via YourDomain.com to www.YourDomain.com to prevent duplicate indexing of your website homepage and PageRank leakage, is that cloaking? Is it unethical? I am sure that most people would agree with me when I say that it is not. So technically everything should be cool and peachy, or shouldn’t it?
Well, there is another aspect to the whole thing. I spent almost the entire year 2007 to get an answer my question whether affiliate links are considered paid links by Google or not and if they are, should they be “no-followed” by the affiliate publisher to avoid potential penalties (for “selling” links) by Google, or not?
After numerous posts here at SearchEngineJournal.com and ReveNews.com, Matt Cutts finally was so kind to provide a response in December 2007 in the comment section of my post about Matt’s “paid reviews” examples. I made it easy for him and provided pre-set answers to my question in multiple choice formats.
Does Google consider affiliate links to be paid links?
- It depends
- We are not sure yet
Matt’s Answer was:
“Hi Carsten, the short answer is 3 depending on the affiliate link. Here’s a slightly longer answer: I wrote about this a bit on our webmaster help group discussion at http://groups.google.com/group/Google_Webmaster_Help-Indexing/msg/7db86afb08801278
where I said
“we’ve spent most of our time talking about paying money for text links or paid posts, because Google does a pretty good job of detecting and handling things like affiliate links or banner ads. In addition, many banner ads (whether they be the 468×80 kind or the 125×125 kind) end up doing at least one redirect through a 302. If you’re a site owner, one rule of thumb I’d recommend is that if you’re being directly paid to place a link, that link shouldn’t affect search engines, but we haven’t talked much about those advertising banners because Google detects and handles such banner ads quite well.”
The fact is that many affiliate links go through several redirects and don’t flow PageRank, so Google wouldn’t be concerned with such links at all. However, if your affiliate link were a direct static link that passes PageRank and you get paid for even placing that affiliate link on your site whether or not someone clicks on it, that would look pretty close to a paid link to us.”
The last sentence seems to provide the answer to the question and validate the legitimacy of Amazons SEO tactics. It also shows how little Google (or at least Matt) understands about affiliate marketing. Affiliate marketing is performance marketing. Affiliates are not getting paid to place a link on their website. They only get paid for results. That is the whole point of this marketing channel. Affiliates are certainly not paid anything for placing one type of tracking link on their site over another. It is not uncommon that affiliates get an incentive for better placement or special exposure on a popular publisher website, but that deal has absolutely nothing to do with SEO. The incentive is often a higher commission rate across the board for all referrals and seldom a one-time cash bonus.
Furthermore, for advertisers to offer two different sets of tracking links, one set that does not pass PageRank (e.g. a traditional affiliate network provided link via Commission Junction, LinkShare or Performics, excuse me, Google Affiliate Network) and a second set that does pass PageRank would create all kinds of new problems for the advertiser. Offering this second set of links for the sole purpose of SEO does not outweigh the complications and issues that come along with it. Offering a second set (or third or fourth) is being done by some advertisers, but that has usually many other reasons. Any SEO benefit would only be an afterthought or added bonus. The reason for the additional sets is usually the increase of reach to new and/or different group of publishers, which the advertiser cannot easily reach via his existing tracking and reporting platform.
However, there is an entirely different trend that should be of the concern of Google and that is the increase of affiliate tracking platforms that offer to advertisers not only the means to track referrals and manage affiliate publishers and their payments, but benefits for SEO purposes, by leveraging the inbound link power from the publisher websites as a special bonus. This bonus is not hard to implement from a technological point of view. Having tracking links (and tracking cookies) managed by the advertiser on his website requires more technical expertise from the advertiser for the implementation of the tracking platform, but the benefits beyond just SEO make this extra investment worthwhile for advertisers who can afford it.
LinkShare, one of the oldest affiliate networks always required this kind of expertise from their advertisers, which kept the setup cost for the LinkShare solution considerably high compared to the low cost, easy to implement “pixel tracking” solutions offered by competitors of LinkShare. LinkShare’s tracking links don’t provide any SEO benefit, because it was not thought about that back in 1996 when they developed their core tracking platform. This shortcoming could be changed fairly easy though, if LinkShare decides one day that this provides value for their advertisers and gives them a competitive advantage over its major competitors CJ and Performics, excuse me, Google Affiliate Network.
I wrote a long article about the technology behind affiliate tracking at ReveNews.com back in April, 2008, if you would like to learn more about this subject.
Now that Google became a player in the affiliate marketing space themselves via their acquisition of DoubleClick, where they got the affiliate network Performics, which was owned by DoubleClick as a bonus. Google decided to split off the SEM part of Performics and sell it, but to keep the affiliate network part, which they re-branded to Google Affiliate Network not too long ago. I hope this will provide Google with a better understanding about the affiliate marketing industry.
The Amazon.com example is only the tip of the iceberg. I told Matt in a response to his comment that there is more going on than he seemed to be aware of, specifically the trend to provide affiliate tracking solutions that are SEO friendly at the same time. Affiliates are not paid money for putting up a link on their websites, but they (might, or they at least hope to) have a financial interest in putting up this link, because they want people to click on that link AND they want even more that the user takes a desired action at the advertisers website that will make them a commission. In contradiction to AdSense or other CPM or PPC based advertising is it necessary that the user converts, before the affiliate gets paid a single dime for their efforts and links on their websites.
This is the reason why it does not make sense to add irrelevant links on your affiliate website, because you can have millions of impressions and thousands of click-throughs and still don’t get a penny worth of commission for it, if the people who see the Ad and maybe click on it are not the right target for the offer and simply do not convert.
So the answer to my question should be a clear “NO“. This would end the debate once and for all. This subject is still on the minds of advertisers and publishers alike, because Google refuses to be clear about it.
A discussion at WebMasterWorld.com forums from December, 2007 shows that webmasters are uncertain and worried about what Google makes out of all of this, so I am not making it up that there are valid concerns that should be addressed by Google officially rather sooner than later, unless the folks in Mountain View prefer the strategy of deception, doubt, uncertainty and fear to deal with this issue as they do in the broader paid links issue already.
Since Google is now part of the affiliate marketing “family”, I hope that their attitude will change and that clear answers will be given to webmasters that they do not have to worry about possible Google penalties, if they do something that makes sense from an affiliate business point of view.
Google and Affiliates have the same goal, providing the most relevant results (and ads) to their users that they convert and are happy, because if they do a poor job, both will be put out of business in the long run.
p.s. Hey Matt, feel free to contact me, if you have questions about affiliate marketing. I do some consulting gigs on the side hehe, just kidding, I won’t charge you, if it does not take too much of my time. This offer is genuine and you know how to contact me.
Carsten is an affiliate marketer since 2001, an entrepreneur and independent blogger for blogs like SearchEngineJournal.com, ReveNews.com, RelevantlySpeaking.com and others. He has a resource site for internet marketers at Cumbrowski.com and does offer internet marketing strategy consulting if the project sounds interesting.