301 Redirects caused a commotion back in August 2016. We explored the impact of affiliate links on a merchant’s SEO. And, as with most subjects where evidence is scarce, confusion and controversy ensued. But after doing a deep dive, I’ve found the issue really concerns affiliate marketing content ethics. I’ll explain why, and how it impacts affiliate marketers and program managers.
Note: If you have no idea what a 301 redirect is, study this guide to HTTP Status Codes from Moz.com.
301 Redirects and Affiliate Link Confusion
The confusion began with the announcement that 30x redirects don’t affect PageRank anymore. There was a lot of skepticism and this video was a touchstone of the arguments. In the video, Google engineer Matt Cutts explains that Google’s algorithm handles affiliate links from major networks. However, he suggests that affiliate sites add rel=”nofollow” to links as a precaution (which tells search engines not to crawl the link).
That recommendation was given in 2012, so it’s pretty dated. However, a comment on our article suggested that site traffic increased with rel=”nofollow” applied to affiliate links. This might be a good practice–who knows? But first, let’s see what Google officially and currently says about 301 redirects and affiliates.
The Facts: Quality Content = Quality PageRank
In a way, Google’s bigness enables them to moderate the web. They can–and do–vet search results for “quality content,” which affects the SEO of affiliate sites. There is no mention of redirects impacting SEO in Google’s affiliate marketing guidelines. Rather, Google focuses on the value your site provides for users.
Google believes that pure, or “thin,” affiliate websites do not provide additional value for web users, especially (but not only) if they are part of a program that distributes its content across a network of affiliates. These sites often appear to be cookie-cutter sites or templates the same or similar content replicated within the same site, or across multiple domains or languages. Because a search results page could return several of these sites, all with the same content, thin affiliates create a frustrating user experience. – From Google’s quality guidelines page
Google looks for a lot more than just 301 redirects when they crawl a site. For example, if you copy a product description directly from a merchant site you link to, Google marks that as “thin” content. Their ranking criteria ensures that only relevant, quality user experiences earn the top SERP spot. In other words, they care more about your content than your 301 redirects.
Theories About 301 Redirects That Affect SEO
If you ignore Google’s official documentation, there are plenty of theories going around. An article from Receptional.com asserts that 302’s don’t rank at all and only permanent redirects affect PageRank. But their conclusion ends up in about the same place as Google: “…we believe that discussing PageRank passed during a 302 is almost irrelevant.”
For the most part, Google and industry leaders refute these theories. For example, Moz.com offers some practical advice on dealing with 301 redirects.
While these are welcome changes from Google, there are still risks and considerations when moving URLs that go way beyond PageRank. – Moz.com
Moz also asserts that “Google doesn’t care which redirection method you use… they all pass PageRank.”
But relevance matters most for affiliate marketing purposes. If your redirect hits an irrelevant page, there is little to no impact on SEO (because that page will not rank).
What We Know About 301 Redirects and Affiliate Marketing
The best information we have points to what Google is saying–redirects don’t drastically affect PageRank (if at all). In fact, affiliate link redirects go through an irrelevant page (the network). Therefore, they have nothing to do with the affiliate’s content, and Google will ignore them.
Merchants & 301 Redirects
For merchants, this is good news because it means the affiliate channel has little or no impact on your SEO. You can expect brand exposure and referrals from affiliates with no technical SEO baggage. That said, we highly recommend that you choose carefully which sites promote your brand in the first place.
Affiliates & 301 Redirects
For affiliates, this means you should focus your SEO strategy on creating unique and relevant content. Also, always be wary of Google’s announcements and test your strategy. And if you’re really concerned about 301 redirects, there’s always the rel=”nofollow” option. See this resource from Google about “nofollow” for more information.