SEO For Affiliates

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Affiliate marketing is a business model whereby the marketer is paid a commission based on the products or services they help to sell.

Typically, a merchant provides the billing, the stock, the handling, and the customer service function, whereas the affiliate finds the buyers, and directs them to the merchant's site.

This business model is a natural fit for search marketers. The search marketer need only get the traffic by way of search rankings or PPC, and the profits come flooding in.

That's the theory, anyway.

The reality is that most affiliate marketers aren't making much, if anything. You'll find thousands of e-books promising instant riches by way of affiliate marketing, however the people making the money tend to be the people selling the books!

In this guide, we'll show you how affiliate marketing really works. We'll look at the nature of the game, the obstacles, and the SEO techniques and strategies you can use to create profitable and defensible revenue streams.

History Of Affiliate Marketing

Commission selling and revenue sharing is nothing new. It pre-dates the internet. However, unlike off-line equivalents, the internet version requires little active selling effort on the part of the affiliate, other than placing internet-based advertising. Needless to say, affiliate marketing on the internet took off quickly.

According to Wikipedia,

"The consensus of marketers and adult industry insiders is that Cybererotica was either the first or among the early innovators in affiliate marketing with a cost per click program.[2] During November 1994, CDNOW launched its BuyWeb program. With this program CDNOW was the first non-adult website to introduce the concept of an affiliate or associate program with its idea of click-through purchasing. CDNOW had the idea that music-oriented websites could review or list albums on their pages that their visitors may be interested in purchasing. These websites could also offer a link that would take the visitor directly to CDNOW to purchase the albums."

How Affiliate Programs Work

Most affiliate programs work like this:

  • A visitor arrives at a site run by an affiliate
  • visitor clicks on a link that leads to the merchants site
  • the lead is identified as belonging to the affiliate by way of a tracking code, a cookie, or URL referral
  • if the visitor then buys a product or service, the affiliate receives a commission

Another common model involves capturing sales leads, and then selling them on to a merchant i.e. mortgage applications.

The benefit to the merchant is a low-risk sales channel. The merchant only has to pay the affiliate if a visitor buys something, or qualifies as a genuine lead.

Therefore, most of the risk in affiliate marketing lies with the affiliate. The affiliate must buy or earn the traffic, but will only make any money if the traffic actually converts into a buyer or a lead.

How To Become An Affiliate

Becoming an affiliate is, in most cases, easy. You fill out a form and you're good to go.

Incidentally, we have one of our own :)

The hard part is getting high quality visitor traffic. A lot of people are fighting for that same traffic, which means it is going to require time, effort and cost to acquire. In order to make a successful business out of being an affiliate, you need to get traffic at a lower cost than you can "sell" it.

Let's take a look at a PPC approach to illustrate the affiliate business model:

  • You sign up for an affiliate program
  • You choose a product to market
  • You place PPC ads on Google Adwords for $.50 cents per click
  • These PPC ads lead to your landing page
  • The landing page contains your affiliate link, leading to the merchant site
  • If the visitor buys, you make a commission of $100.00

If you bought one hundred clicks at .50 cents, your cost of advertising was $50. Your affiliate payment is $100. Therefore, your profit is $50. If you can repeat this automated feat a few hundred times per day, you'll soon be driving that new Ferrari.

The problem is, of course, that many other affiliates, and the merchants themselves, are doing likewise. This drives up the cost of the clicks and reduces the margin available to the affiliate. Typically, affiliates have little or no control over the margins they can attach to the products or services of the merchant.

The PPC marketers tend to work on slim margins and high volumes. Those who can do high volumes tend to have more leverage with their merchants in terms of margin. Another barrier for the new entrant is that PPC accounts, like Adwords, build up a credibility history, which can give high volume players lower prices.

SEO Tactics And Techniques

Unlike PPC, SEO doesn't involve a cost per click charge. Therefore, if an SEO can rank pages, s/he stands to make significant margins. The SEO still has competition from other SEOs chasing the same rankings, but it is harder for new entrants to unseat the SEOs positions, as often happens in PPC.

There are a number of different ways to approach SEO affiliate marketing, from building a site consisting of a merchants product inventory, to building a comparison shopping site, a review site, or simply creating a collection of on-topic landing pages.

In choosing your approach, it pays to keep one thing in mind:

Google doesn't like you

Google's Quality Rater Guidelines

A few years ago, search engines weren't very good at spotting duplicate pages.

If you performed a search in any of the competitive P.P.C areas - in affiliate marketing, PPC also means "Pills, Porn & Casinos" - you'd likely see thousands of near identical sites. The search results "street" was chock full of pimps, and the law was pretty much powerless to stop them. Take out a few pimps, and there would be tens of thousands stepping up to take their place.

These days, Google does a better job of weeding out duplicate content, and what it deems "low value" pages. This has led to significant changes in the way affiliates approach affiliate marketing.

To understand the approach you'll need to take, let's firstly look at how Google classifies affiliate sites.

The Google Quality Rater Guidelines, a document which is reportedly a training course for Google's army of human spam police, was leaked to the internet in 2007.

This document provides valuable insights into how Google classifies spam. Anyone interested in SEO will find this document essential reading, but it is of particular interest to affiliates. The document singles out affiliates for special mention on a number of occasions. Those mentions are usually followed closely by the word "spam"

State your reason for assigning “Spam”, “Maybe Spam”, and “Malicious” flags. For example, Sneaky redirect to eBay....Amazon thin affiliate

Major cosmopolitan cities are preferred targets for spammers, especially hotel affiliates. Such results should be labeled as Spam, even if they have relevance to the query

Thin Affiliates: Spammers make money when a transaction is made after the user has clicked through to the merchant’s site

Types Of Spam - A thin affiliate is a page that exists to deliver a visitor to a page on another domain with a different owner.
Keywords deliver visitors to the affiliate page, and links on the affiliate page deliver visitors to the second page,
which is owned by a real merchant.

Not great news for the budding SEO affiliate.

However, Google does make a distinction:

  • Thin affiliates are bad
  • Other types of affiliates are not

What is a Thin Affiliate?

Google defines a thin affiliate as:

...a page that exists to deliver a visitor to a page on another domain with a different owner. The thin affiliate site contains text and perhaps images copied from the merchant site. It offers no (or very little) value-added service while earning its commission"

An example of a thin site which Google provides to it's quality raters: http://findmeatune.com/artist-Pink

What Is A "Fat" Affiliate?

Google also states the types of affiliate pages it deems to be acceptable.

"If a page offers some value in addition to its links to the merchant, then it is not a thin affiliate. For example, if the affiliate offers price comparison functionality, or displays product reviews, recipes, lyrics, etc., it is not a thin affiliate, and, therefore, not Spam"

Google gives examples such as www.shopping.com, www.pricegrabber.com, and Kelkoo.co.uk. These sites are deemed acceptable because they provide extra value.

So, if you want to fly under Google's spam radar, you should aim to become a "fat" affiliate*. In order to do this, you should look to add value of an informational nature.

*Note: you can still be a thin affiliate and make money. There are plenty of these sites in the index. However, they are engaged in an arms race with Google, and it is a race that Google will likely win. Most of the hardcore thin affiliates effort goes into staying one step of Google, which can be a lot more work than simply building more valuable content.

Create Valuable Content

The Search Quality document also tells us what type of content Google finds valuable.

Google have a content rating scale which consists of five grades: Vital, Useful, Relevant, Not Relevant, or Off-Topic. In order to escape Google's spam filters and hand edits, you must fit into the first three grades.

The Search Quality document goes into great detail in terms of defining these grades, but the most important point to remember is that a page is rated based on the match to the *concept* of the query, not the presence or absence of the query term on the page. What this means is that it isn't good enough for a page simply to mention a keyword term, a page must "answer" the visitors query. This blows away a lot of conventional theory on SEO - relevance isn't just about adding keywords.

Google doesn't treat all search queries the same. Google separates queries out into three categories: navigational, informational, or transactional.

A navigational query is a query intended to locate a specific web page. For example, "yahoo mail". The searcher clearly wants to find the Yahoo Mail service, not information about Yahoo Mail, or where to buy mail services.

An informational query seeks information on a topic. For example, "tsunami". A Wikipedia article providing information about a tsunami would be a relevant result.

A transactional query seeks to complete a transaction on the Web – for money or free – of a product or service. For example, "Beatles poster". A relevant result would be a page on which to purchase poster.

Affiliates often focus on transactional queries. These queries indicate a person is some way along the sales funnel as is ready to buy, which suits the affiliate just fine.

However, the danger is that if you focus solely on transaction queries, you may well be labeled a thin affiliate, especially if your next step is to link to a merchant's site. Google will look to differentiate the affiliate sites from the merchant site, leave the merchant site in the results, and flush the thin affiliates. After all, the thin affiliates are adding no value to the transactional sales process.

Create Added Value

A good approach, and one used by many super affiliates, is to create hybrid sites.

A hybrid site covers both informational and transactional queries. There are a number of reasons why doing this is a good idea.

Firstly, Google is more likely to identify your pages as "useful" if you add value to the sales process. For example, rather than just having a transactional landing page that repeats the same offer the merchant is making, you might create a page that compares the relative merits of various products.

Secondly, Google's algorithms are constantly changing in favor of high quality, authoritative content. Not only does the content need to be authoritative, but it needs to appear on an authoritative domain in order to rank well. In order to be perceived as a quality domain, you'll need high quality linkage data. Consider how difficult these links are going to be to obtain for a purely commercial site, let alone a purely commercial affiliate site.

If you provide genuinely useful information, you'll achieve three things. One, it will be easier to get links. Two, you will build some brand equity that can be used for other purposes if the merchant doesn't work out i.e. Adsense. Lastly, it will be less likely you'll be taken out by Google. Google wants genuinely useful information it their index.

The downside is that useful information can take a long time to build. The alternative, however, is engaging in an arms race of cat and mouse with Google, which can also be time consuming.

Check out this useful tool from Microsoft AdCenter Labs: http://adlab.microsoft.com/Online-Commercial-Intention/Default.aspx
Even a shopping oriented site, such as shopping.com, is predicted to have visitor traffic intent that is 23% transactional, and 77% informational. If this fat affiliate site didn't provide a high level of information, it would miss out on a lot of traffic.

Tips & Tricks

Disguise Your Shopping Cart

One spam flag is a transaction occurring on a different site i.e. the merchants site

Look for affiliate programs that will let you host the shopping cart on your own site. You can pass the information to the merchant at the very last stage of the transaction, thus hiding it from all but the most determined quality rater.

Also keep in mind Google's guidelines for recognizing true merchants:

  • A “view your shopping cart” link that stays on the same site and updates when you add items to it
  • A return policy with a physical address
  • A shipping charge calculator
  • A “wish list” link, or a link to postpone purchase of an item until later
  • A way to track FedEx orders
  • A user forum,the ability to register or login, a gift registry
  • An invitation to become an affiliate of that site

If you're handling transactional queries, the more of these signals you can include, the more likely you are to stay beneath Google's radar.

Redirects

If you do redirect to a merchant, try to cloak your redirects in scripts. It is less likely Google will follow these links to the merchant site. It also helps protect you from unscrupulous operators who may steal affiliate referrals.

This is by no means full-proof, however, and unlikely to pass human review.

Here are a few URL cloaking techniques to try:

Provide A Genuinely Useful Service

Not sure what "useful" means?

Here is Google's definition:

When you feel unsure if a page is spam, ask yourself the following question: If I remove the copied content,
scraped news feeds, fake forums and blogs, thin affiliate links, parked/expired domain links, and all that is left
are PPC ads and sponsored links, the page is probably spam

Think reviews, comparisons, context, sales questions and answers, buying advice, trends, statistics, social elements, discussion, competitions, awards, etc.

Target The Regions

The algorithms used on some regional variations of Google can be more forgiving of thin affiliate sites than Google.com. This is because the depth of content in the regions can be shallow, so in order to show enough results, Google often lets past content they wouldn't in deeper markets, like .com.

If you're having trouble competing in the US space, try out some regional affiliate programs. Not only is the algorithm more forgiving, but the competition is decreased. The downside is the lower traffic numbers overall.

Coupons

Offering coupons can be a great strategy, as it helps differentiate your offering from other affiliates, and everyone loves a bargain.

Here's an example Aaron is using to promote AdCenter.

Load Up On Relevant Keywords

Look at how many keywords are integrated into this page.

Keywords include:

  • 2008
  • pubcon
  • webmasterworld
  • webmaster world
  • coupon
  • coupons
  • code
  • discount
  • promo
  • promotional
  • las vegas
  • november
  • conference
  • brett tabke

That page contains low volume, but high value keywords, including coupon keywords. Yet, the page doesn't look spammy.

  • 2008 pubcon discount code
  • Pubcon coupons
  • Webmaster world conference discount

Aaron explains his approach to integrating affiliate programs here.

Different Engines

The demographics of MSN and Yahoo are different to Google.

It is fair to characterize most MSN users as less technically savvy than users of the other two engines. There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest they are more interested in shopping than in research. Yahoo lies somewhere between the two points. The users of these engines may not care so much about advertising, so don't overlook these valuable channels.

They also don't appear to be as good as Google at filtering out thin affiliates.

Brand Terms

If you can, try and target brand related terms.

Brand terms tend to be transactional, especially if you directly target such terms. For example, "discounts on Toshiba televisions".

It can be difficult for PPC marketers to bid on brand terms because of legal issues, but not for SEOs. The main obstacle you'll come across is Google's new brand-oriented search algorithm.

Down Market

The current economic crisis might be good news for affiliates. People with less disposable income tend to be more interested in value. Consumers have an ingrained perception that the best prices can be found online.

So, in your copy, emphasize convenience, savings and communicate the value proposition. Price comparison affiliate approaches should do well in the current market.

Program Selection

While outside the scope of this document, here are a few tips on how to select a merchant.

Avoid saturated affiliate areas

If you can, by-pass affiliate programs altogether and approach merchants directly. This can be more work, but it can pay off handsomely if you have the niche largely to yourself.

Don't pay any attention to anyone waving around an oversized check as proof of their earnings

What they're not telling you is how much they spent. If their check is for $1M and they spent $2M, all they are saying is "I lost $1M dollars and - hey - you can too!"

Don't listen to anyone who tells you what specific area to get into, either in a free forum or for $97

Why would any affiliate give away a treasure map? The answer is they don't. You'll usually see this type of information long after a niche has become heavily saturated. Most affiliates work a niche, then move on once the area becomes too well known to others.

Do research niches

Approach affiliate marketing like you would any other business, and ask the same questions. Is this niche crowded? How will I differentiate my offering? What can I do that my competitors don't do? Is there a market for this product or service?

A major key to success in affiliate marketing is niche selection, so study up on this area. You'll be head and shoulders above the rest :)

Check out:

Keyword Research For Niche Terms
SEOBook Competitive Research Tool

Published: March 12, 2009 by A Reader in

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