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It is our opinion that Affiliate Links are NOT Paid Links, and Google’s position on this has been deliberately vague for some very good reasons. The following is a summary of the reasoning behind our belief that Google will not and cannot consider Affiliate Links to be the same thing as a Paid Link and therefore they do not need to be denied their ability to pass Reputation to the target site by the addition of a ‘nofollow’ attribute in the link.

Amazon invents the affiliate

If you recall the history of e-commerce affiliation you will remember that it all began with Amazon. In 1996 Amazon created what we now know of as the affiliate scheme and did so on the back of their own technology development (well they had to, didn’t they, because the third party systems followed later). Amazon’s motivation was simple, let’s encourage our customers to link to the products they love and/or find useful by rewarding them if a visit they refer to us leads to a sale, because by doing so, we’ll get more visitors. This encouragement worked, and there was an explosion of affiliate activity, motivated by, we’d argue, love and usefulness first with money following. While I’m no affiliate expert, I suspect Amazon have now and probably have always had the largest affiliate base (estimated at 2 million in the summer of 2008).

For those of you who were paying attention to Google’s search results at the end of the nineties and in the early noughties you may remember watching Amazon begin to dominate huge tracts of unique product searches, and as our understanding of the importance of Reputation to Google’s algorithm grew, it became clear that their affiliate scheme was behind much of this performance, with thousands of unique links, often with their own unique content, supporting products. We have referred to this phenomenon as Amazon’s Happy Accident; it just so happened that Google’s growing sophistication was taking more and more account of the contextual relationship between linking pages and where the linking page had its own reputation, as well as context, the target URL got a terrific boost in relevance, and this played right into the hands of Amazon’s scheme and, crucially, its implementation method, which was to link to an almost identical URL as the product URL, but with an affiliate parameter on the end. Amazon’s implementation method has had a further advance in recent times where they conditionally 301 redirect Google (not users) to a permanent, keyword-rich, version of the product URL (see Chris Smith’s Natural Search Blog analysis of this. We don’t agree with Chris’ cries of ‘unfair’, we think this is very smart).

Google: Affiliate Links as Paid Links?

So how does Google view affiliate links in the context of their purpose? If we park for a moment the existence of industrial-strength spammy affiliate behaviour and look to what an affiliate is actually telling Google by linking to a retailer/product combination. On the whole we’d argue that this is going to be tantamount to a vote of confidence; an endorsement of both the retailer and the product, and if the linking site has any sort of credibility or authority or Reputation of its own, then Google should be allowing it the influence the Reputation of the retailer/product target. Really, it should. Naturally there is a big ‘if’ in that last sentence, and here we believe is the crux of the matter. Google’s algorithm puts considerable store in a site’s ability to influence the performance of others by its linking, and its assessment of that ‘ability’ is at the core of why its results are better. Google is capable of identifying whether or not an affiliate site should be influencing the performance of its target retailer by analysing its own Reputation. Without any Reputation the affiliate simply will not have any effect on the performance of the target.

When an affiliate produces a site worth visiting, it begins to accrue Reputation. The consequence of this is that the affiliate site then starts to get its own traffic from search and begins to acquire the ability to improve the performance of its retailer through its links (it is a separate issue whether the affiliate would actually welcome this outcome). Google’s view of this, we believe, is that it is as it should be. A site that gains its own Reputation should be able to pass it on, even if it earns a payment as a result of the visitor it passes on buying something.¬† So if this is Google’s view, why is it not saying so?

“An Affiliate Link is Not a Paid Link” unspoken by Google

We believe Google is dancing round this issue because it doesn’t want to invite trouble for itself. The uncertainty and ambiguity in the marketplace at the moment around Google’s determination to stamp out paid linking (for influencing its algorithm) and the ‘terms of service’ policy of nofollowing¬† commercially-motivated links (again, for influencing the algorithm) suits it. Why? Because actually we suspect that Google isn’t doing as good a job as it would like in the detection of paid link behaviour, particularly at the industrial-strenght spammer heights and the last thing it wants to encourage is more affiliate linking (for influencing the algorithm) by giving the green light to it as a way of improving natural search performance. Of course, an affiliate gains very little from improving the performance of its retailer target, but the unethical use of affiliate sites by retailers themselves is a worry Google would have.

We believe that Google says to itself that an affiliate link is not a paid link, because it has the power to improve results for Google’s users and that is a good thing. And in particularly competitive markets, such as hotels and finance, good affiliates can really help Google sort the chaff from the wheat.

The Search Johnston Advice on Affiliate Links

In the past, we have championed affiliation as a smart way of building contextual links into sites to improve their natural search performance. More recently we have interpreted Google’s intentions around paid links to include affiliate link behaviour, so have discouraged our clients to look at them as a strategic option. As a result of our view on Google’s current position, we are moving back to including affiliate schemes as a potential weapon in our clients’ SEO armoury – providing the links actually point at the site in question and not a third party affiliate engine, which is a complete waste of time. When and how to deploy such a weapon is a subject for another post entirely.

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Filed in Blog, October 21st, 2008. Leave a comment, or trackback from your own site. Follow comments via RSS

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