You don't have to look too far to see evidence that Google generally dislikes affiliates.
Most of their rhetoric extends to “thin” affiliates or sites that don't add much value.
I get that and it makes sense to me.
However, what I didn't realise and I think most people who do affiliate marketing don't realise, is that even if you have the most amazing content and add incredible value, if you’re identified as an affiliate then you can get penalised by Google.
Pages with product affiliate links on which the product descriptions and reviews are copied directly from the original merchant without any original content or added value. – Google Webmasters Help
Algorithmically I mean. Not a manual penalty.
At least that is my theory. There are some other possible explanations I will cover below, however, here’s some solid evidence pointing the finger at affiliate links negatively impacting ranking.
Below is a case study of one of my sites. This case study is quite rare as I have effectively 12 years of data (3 with reliable data) as a control group where I made no changes and had no rankings change. I made one small specific change and my rankings dropped.
So here's the back story.
I threw up a site back in 2002 that provided a nice simple tool that was able to see keyword density live while you typed.
You can see it looked just as *cough* beautiful back then as it does today.
This was obviously a long time ago when it was much easier to rank well in search engines by creating content that was of a particular keyword density.
It’s still useful today, but not as much.
To be honest, I'd completely forgotten about it. Maybe you could tell from the stellar design work that was going on and the fact that in the footer it says “Copyright 2002”.
Regardless, it obviously had plenty of high quality links coming in including a few from DMOZ (almost impossible to get these days), webreference.com, socialmediaexaminer.com, and clickz.com. I've never actually done any proactive link building on this so these are 100% organically produced links.
You can even see over the past 3 years it has had steady traffic. The site was made before Google Analytics existed (2006 officially after the purchase of Urchin in 2005) so I unfortunately had some old statistical package on it that no longer worked.
I did manage to have a look at some old Webalizer statistics on the server but that only went back a year. Regardless, you can see steady traffic (see the aqua bars).
When I discovered that this site was getting 400-500 uniques a day I thought great! Then it dawned on me how many visits that was over the past 12 years (1,642,500) and I became a bit annoyed at the lost opportunity.
Anyway, onwards and upwards I thought. Let’s get this site generating some money quickly.
So I did the thing that was the fastest and simplest thing I could do.
I took the amazing piece of stock photography (I wonder if that woman knows just how famous she is on the internet) that sat on the right hand side and replaced it with a 250 x 250 banner with an affiliate link on it.
This was an unmasked, followed link directly to the affiliate site (the site I link to was on theme).
That was it. No other changes despite the fact that there was a ton needed.
I put the affiliate link up and despite having steady rankings for the previous 12 years, my rankings tanked within 2 or 3 days.
Here is my Google Webmaster Tools report.
When I discovered this a week or two later I was scratching my head. I though SURELY I couldn’t have been penalized for linking to a site with an affiliate link or a site known to have a lot of affiliates.
The site itself has a PR6 (yeah I know that’s not everything) and has a pretty stunning link profile itself.
So I did what any person of sound judgement would do and undid the change to see what would happen. Low and behold, as you can see in above, it bounced back (although not to the old levels).
It took about the same amount of time to bounce back as it took to drop.
I've done lots of segmentation looking at bounce rate (e.g. the new image caused a higher bounce rate) and other factors, however, I can only see a couple of possible reasons why the rankings would change.
- Google didn’t like the site I was linking to.
- Google didn’t like that I was linking through an affiliate link.
- Google didn't like that a site that has been untouched for so long, was suddenly touched.
One weird thing is that there is a link on that front page to an internal page that has tons of affiliate links, including ones that don't work anymore.
This says something about the fact that this would never have happened if I had no-followed or masked the link through a 301 redirection.
It’s startling to think that some place you're linking to could have such negative impact on your own rankings.
I would encourage everyone who has affiliate links to ensure that you no-follow them all, use a 301 redirection mask and even consider doing a double redirection. If you use WordPress I recommend and use Pretty Link Pro to simplify the process.
UPDATE: Bad News
So it’s taken me a while to finish this post with the upgrade of the site going on at the same time. But I’ve since checked and noticed something worse. My rankings have died again. I didn’t make any further changes to the site.
So it seems that after 12 years of steady rankings (and no site changes and no links sought) I add one affiliate link to the site and it’s now penalized?
It isn’t a manual penalty (no notice in GWT), but rather an algorithmic one so is harder to pin point the issue.
I've been doing SEO for a long time (as you can see how long ago I built that tool), but I'm a bit stumped. If there are any high end SEO experts out there (or if you know any to ask) that would like to comment, please do below.
UPDATE 2: Good news
My rankings returned – full details here.