Gaining SEO Value From Your Affiliates

Rob Kerry
Reading time: 4 minutes
22nd December 2010

Recessions are a time for belt-tightening within companies and most in-house SEOs have probably already been approached by their CMO / Marketing Director, asking for ways to cut costs and make better use of existing resources. There’s only so-many pages you can tweak or site architecture issues you can fix before SEO comes down to one thing – links.

Links are costly, whether you buy them, ask for them or bait them – time is money and links take up valuable time and resources. If your company is like the many that I’ve worked with, you’re probably already attracting links in the form of display advertising and affiliate links, but these add nothing to your site’s authority or rankings. Ad tracking systems such as Doubleclick block search engines from following their links and most affiliate systems and providers send crawlers through a slurry of ugly redirects.

Now is the perfect time to convince your fellow marketers that old-school tracking solutions add very little value to the business, whilst an in-house SEO friendly solution could significantly boost revenues from Search and reduce link development costs.

The Old Solution

Companies in the most aggressive industries such as Poker realised the value of affiliate links many years ago, with most now running an in-house program with search engine friendly URLs. These consisted of a tagged-up URL e.g. http://www.example.com/?affiliate=123456

This URL then dropped an affiliate cookie and 301 Redirected users and search engines back to a clean URL e.g. http://www.example.com/

As Google tends to pass authority down through 301 redirects (especially within the same hostname), it meant that every poker affiliate was effectively strengthening the website that they were promoting. This significantly reduced the number of links that a poker site would have to acquire in order to compete in the space, reducing costs whilst freeing up resources.

This technique is slowly becoming less effective however, having discussed the matter with other SEOs (most with gaming experience) on a “Give It Up” conference session at SMX London this year. My personal view is that this has more to do with gaming affiliates pushing clicks through their own tracking, before redirecting people through the actual affiliate link – although it could also be a dampener put in place by Google.

The New Improved Solution

At the previously mentioned conference, I discussed some other possible solutions to harnessing affiliate link juice during my presentation. My personal favourite was the use of a # anchor on the end of URLs. The # symbol was traditionally used to link to sections within a page (useful in the old days of single-page university thesis) and more recently to combat issues with AJAX. Search Engines have confirmed that they totally ignore the # on URLs, not even causing duplication issues, unlike a query string. In other words; http://www.example.com/dir/file.html#123456 …is seen as identical to: http://www.example.com/dir/file.html

Unfortunately (as far as I’m aware) browsers do not parse the anchor (or “fragment”) back to the web server, which means that some JavaScript is needed. This can be implemented in the same way as a Google Analytics tracking pixel e.g.

<script type="text/javascript">
var isSSL = (("https:" == document.location.protocol) ? "https://www." : "http://www.");
document.write(unescape("%3Cimg src='" + isSSL + "example.com/affiliatetracker.php?affiliate=" + self.document.location.hash.substring(1) + "' />"));
</script>

Affiliates can now link to any page on your site with this JavaScript on, you’ll log their affiliate ID via the # anchor and drop an appropriate first-party cookie. This implementation would be as cross-browser compatible as any web analytics solution and therefore trusted by affiliates to give accurate results.

Option 2

If JavaScript isn’t your cup of tea, how about taking advantage of the canonical link tag? Google states that the tag helps them to identify and remove duplicate URLs from their index. It’s suggested that link juice also flows correctly into the main URL specified in the tag. Rather than using a 301 Redirect (useful in the old days, when Google would have seen affiliate URLs as duplicate pages) we can send traffic directly to pages with the query string intact e.g. http://www.example.com/dir/file.html?id=123456
With the following link tag in the page’s HTML:
<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.example.com/dir/file.html" />
I personally see Option 1 as the safer bet, although they’re both good alternatives to traditional affiliate tracking.

What Are The Advantages?

Although many large affiliates use their own tracking systems on affiliate links, a good percentage will use your links in the format that you supply them – especially in less competitive markets or where product feeds are concerned.

If you have a product catalogue, how much would it cost you to acquire quality links into every product page?

When affiliate links pass-on juice, not only can you develop links at zero cost, the links will most likely use your product names for their anchor text – giving you a significant “exact match” link advantage over your competitors. If a link costs you $200 in man-power to acquire and you have 200 active affiliates that install the new affiliate link format, that’s a cost saving of at least $40,000 in link development. Not to mention the fact that most affiliates will link to multiple sections of your site or even every product page!

A recession is the perfect time to pour R&D into SEO and other marketing channels, you’ll be surprised how many new ideas can be developed with very little expense for the business.

Written By Rob Kerry
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