When SEO, Affiliate Marketing and Link Management Intersect

 seoaffiliatesuccess

Guest post by Greg Finn, Partner, Cypress North and Correspondent, Search Engine Land.

Greg, and his team at Cypress North, are rock stars across many different marketing disciplines.  We had the pleasure of having Greg put together some notes on three key areas around where SEO, affiliate marketing and link management intersect.  Please read on to learn how affiliate marketers should treat their links, how a link management tool’s redirects might impact SEO, and how a dynamic / intelligent link is treated from a PageRank perspective.  Enjoy! -Jesse

Affiliate Links + SEO?

In general, should affiliate publishers do anything special to their affiliate links (e.g. adding a nofollow attribute) to adhere to Google’s Terms of Conditions and keep their organic ranks? Is there anything they should avoid that will hinder their SEO (e.g. cloaking the links)?

An affiliate link is used to ensure that credit (and subsequent monetary value) are attributed properly to a source. Seeing that the purpose of the link is for monetary gain, affiliate links shouldn’t be a tool that someone leverages to increase rankings. Google specifically states in their Webmaster Guidelines:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”

They then go on to state:

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link”

If publishers are to take that guideline at face value, they would be best served by adding a no-follow attribute on any affiliate link that is in place to make money. Google goes so far as to state:

“A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. In order to prevent paid links from influencing search results and negatively impacting users, we urge webmasters use nofollow on such links. Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word “Advertisement”).”

That said, Google has been able to find most major publishers and identify what is an affiliate link.  However, using a no-follow attribute for links placed in exchange for money (or the potential of money) is still recommended:

Conclusion

It is recommended by Google Webmaster Guidelines to no-follow all affiliate links and to not utilize affiliate program links as part of your ranking strategy.

30X + SEO?

30X redirects no longer seem to be an issue, indicating that using a shortened links shouldn’t have a negative impact on SEO. What are your thoughts on link shorteners that leverage 30x redirects? 

According to Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Lllyes, there is no longer any dilution of PageRank when a 30x redirect is utilized.

This change confirmed in 2016 is important, as previously, roughly 10-15% of the PageRank in a 301 redirect was said to be lost, while other redirects, like 302 redirects, passed no value. This is no longer the case – 30x redirects now have no loss of PageRank when implemented properly.

This then brings up to redirects and shorteners. Does it make sense to use a shortner that uses a redirect? Well, Google has always approved the use of “well-behaved” URL shorteners and that they have passed PageRank:

This new confirmation furthers the field for using URL shorteners that are “well-behaved” and properly redirecting users to a site with permanent redirects.

With all of this said, most shortened links aren’t used to push or promote rankings at all. The locations where shortened links are used are locations like social networks, YouTube videos and other sources that are hard to track or not owned by a brand. These links are likely nofollowed – and not carrying any value before the redirect is ever fired.

Conclusion

Roughly speaking, if a shortened link will help your marketing plans and it is well-behaved (using permanent redirects) then use without worry.

Meta Refreshes + SEO?

Do Meta refreshes (for links that fire javascript) through a link shortener have any implication on SEO?

Today’s link shorteners do far more than just minify the character count in links. Many shorteners (Geniuslink included) are able to fire tracking codes on link clicks that otherwise would never have the ability to be tracked. Think of a Twitter link to a YouTube video where the user isn’t actively touching a brand’s site.

In these cases, a shortener (like Geniuslink) may send users down a path like this:

  • Redirect users (via Javascript) to a holding page to load tracking code
  • Redirect users (via a META redirect) to their final destination.

or

  • Redirect users (via Javascript) to a holding page to load tracking code
  • Redirect users (via a 301) to their final destination.

So for links like these, a user is not redirected once, but twice. Broadly speaking, JavaScript redirects and META refreshes aren’t ideal from a pure SEO angle. Earlier this year, Google’s John Mueller made the following statement on JavaScript & META refreshes:

“JavaScript redirects: If you can’t do a server-side redirect, using JavaScript is a good fall-back. If you’re using a JavaScript framework for your site, this might also be the only option. Caching depends on the server settings, and search engines have to guess at what you’re trying to do (index under R or S?).

Meta refresh-type redirects: They’re kinda like JavaScript redirects, but usually not recommended.

If your goal is to transfer as much PageRank as possible, you wouldn’t want to choose this option. The good thing is that most affiliate links/social links and off-site links aren’t implemented with the goal of transferring value for search.

Conclusion
Using Javascript redirects and META refreshes is not recommended if users are looking to use a shortened link to transfer PageRank. In most cases, however, users that are leveraging this technology aren’t looking to transfer value, rather accomplish a difficult task in a single link.

Intelligent Links + SEO?

Intelligent short links, links with a final destination that changes depending on a user’s location / device / language / etc, are becoming an important tool for global (affiliate) marketers.  Are there any implications to SEO, when using a short link that redirects to different locations at different times?

First off, this question has some intrinsic problems. Let’s take a look:

  • Example A:
    If the goal is to get users to reach the content that best fits their needs, you may use an intelligent link to deliver people to the proper destination and the best experience. (i.e. sending Android users to Google Play, or sending specific international viewers to locations where they can purchase goods).
  • Example B:
    If the goal is to pass link value (PageRank) to a page, you’d likely choose which page you’d want to pass the value on to and link to it.

Currently, there is no way to use one link to pass PageRank to multiple locations, nor should you want to. In Example A above, the goal is about user experience, and we would *likely* be sending people to third party sites. In this case, we wouldn’t want to pass PageRank but instead would be solely focused on the user experience.

Furthermore, if I were placing a link that was heading to affiliates, I may place a no-follow attribute on it to make sure I am complicit with the following statement from Google’s Terms and am not sending value:

Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word ‘Advertisement’).

So, implementing a smart link that sends users to different locations won’t be a magic bullet that divides and segments PageRank accordingly – but frankly, it shouldn’t.

Seeing that there isn’t a specific benefit here, I think a better question may be looking at any negative impact that these links could incur on a site.

So let’s ask the question – Is there any negative search impact that intelligent links could bring?

As long as the same link is served to search engines – no, not at all.

For a short time, some webmasters used “cloaking” as a tactic to deliver different results to humans than to search engines. In this context, very different pages (or even domains) were displayed to users from the content that search engines saw. In the case of most “well-behaved” intelligent links (like Geniuslink), the redirects are not hidden nor blocked from the search engines and the user and bots are seeing the same exact thing.

For these cases, there isn’t any negative search implications (and in most cases, they’d be no-followed anyway).

However, that isn’t to say that some iterations of a smart link could be bad. If you have malevolent intentions and are using dynamic links to send users to completely different locations than you do for Googlebot, that would be quite bad and treacherous for your search strategy.

Conclusion

Shortened links won’t pass value to a slew of different sites, but are instead a tool used for user experience and bolstering marketing efforts. Also, if used righteously, there are no negative search implications!

Link Shorteners + SEO?

Are there any places that you would or wouldn’t use a URL shortener for pure search purposes? (i.e. social networks/your website/affiliate links/etc.)

I am a bit old school in this area and would always prefer to do what is best for the user. So if I can get them to the best destination that saves them a click with a shortened link, I’d do that first and foremost.

URL Shorteners On-site

With that said, I am not a fan of using URL shorteners within your site. I certainly wouldn’t recommend replacing all links on your site with shortened links. Sure, there are some advantages to URL shorteners in this case (like tracking) but this should be able to be accomplished with your website analytics package. Adding redirects complicates things and I am not a fan of unwarranted complexity – especially in things that we own – like our domain.

While I wouldn’t swap all of a site’s links with shortened links, there would be instances to use shortened URLs. Let’s say that we conclude a blog post with a call to action to buy a product – a new protective phone case, for example. During the meat of the blog, I’d of course have links to the store and the new product (to get users to view the collection and pass PageRank) but at the end, I may make a call to action that sends iOS users to the Apple version and Android users to the Android version. The benefit is that I could make that CTA talk about shopping for your device and the user would get a better experience.

URL Shorteners Off-site

We’ve already covered the affiliate aspect, so now we’ll get into the social aspect. For social media, a shortened link and impact on search value is a non-starter. I don’t consider it because nearly all social media sites nofollow links. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, etc. all nofollow links, so no link will pass value – shortened or not.

Again, in these cases I’d look to what helps your audience the most (going to the proper destination) or what helps your marketing efforts the most (adding retargeting codes to clicks). For these examples, search isn’t a consideration and there was never any value being transferred to begin with.

Conclusion

In short (pun intended) I’d recommend doing what is best for your audience and using intelligent links where they solve problems and would use them freely off-site where marketing (not search) is the number one priority!

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