**Due to changes in Google’s stance on redirects, we have an updated article on this topic. Click here!**
 
One of the most common questions we get asked as a network is, “What’s the effect affiliate links have on a merchant’s SEO efforts?” If you’re a merchant asking this same question, the simple, short version of the answer is no. Affiliate links have no impact on your SEO. Now, if you’re the curious type, or if you have to provide some raw facts to suppress the complaints of your SEO team who has wrongly decided to blame the fine folks in the affiliate division, then read on. It’s about to get technical.

Backlink Background

To answer to your question we must look back at the early days of SEO when we were trying to rank for SERP superiority. There was a time when backlinks reigned as the dominate signal for search engines like Google to determine just how important a website was.

Before we get into that, it’s important to understand what a backlink even is. In a recent answer to a question I posed on Quora about the importance of backlinks, Quora user Quinn Rusnell gave the perfect simple description: “[backlinks are] a method for determining the number and authority of references to the website.” In other words, a backlink is when a different website links to yours. As Rusnell also noted, the different type of websites linking to yours had their own authority in the eyes of a search engine, which largely depended on the number of backlinks going to their site.

Another Quora response from Muhammad Hasaan (and coincidentally one of the best, most comprehensive guides to modern SEO I’ve ever read) summed up how Google originally looked at backlinks as a ranking factor, saying: “…it was better to get 10 links from 10 different sites than 10 links from the same domain.

Stepping back into the late ’90s and early 2000s, savvy online marketers started to realize that if more backlinks meant better rankings, it was time to get more backlinks! This led to the rise of “black hat” manipulation tactics like pay-for-links link farms, causing Google to introduce years of rolling updates to their ranking algorithms to lessen their reliance on backlinks (among other ranking factors heavily used at the time).

Fast forward to present day SEO and backlinks’ impact are almost ubiquitously thought to be much less important. In fact, it’s widely accepted that backlinks are now just one of hundreds of ranking indicators that Google uses to determine where a website will be listed on a search results page.

On a side note, for a fantastic read and a “full list” of assumed ranking factors, take a look at this fabulous post on Google Ranking Factors by Backlinko. It details a jaw-dropping 205 individual elements that they claim to have documented as affecting rank.

How Affiliate Links (Don’t) Factor In

Even with an assumed decline in the impact backlinks can have on a website’s ability to rank in searches, it’s still a factor that many companies take into consideration when planning their SEO strategies. This, of course, leads many to scrutinize the value of affiliate links that eventually point back to their websites. Here are the most common questions about affiliate links and SEO that we hear as a network:

  1. Does it increase my rank? This question is the most simple and generally originates out of sheer curiosity.

 

  1. How many affiliate links will hurt my SEO? This hearkens back to the day when Google implemented the threshold where too many backlinks originating from a single source would actually be a negative thing. This could potentially result in having the backlinks not count as a ranking factor or even result in a penalty. With most affiliates using multiple affiliate links on their page, it’s easy to see the concern from a merchant’s point of view.

 

  1. Is affiliate marketing a viable SEO strategy? Occasionally, merchants will want to know if they can kill two birds with one stone (and the answer is a definitive no).

To answer these questions, it’s important to understand just how Google actually looks at backlinks, and how affiliate links work. When Google scrutinizes a link pointing to another website, it only follows the link to the destination the link points to. In other words, it will only follow the link one layer deep.

Affiliate links, on the other hand, get redirected to the affiliate network to help establish tracking. This is why each affiliate link on the AvantLink network looks like this: http://www.avantlink.com/click.php?tt=paw&ti=118295&pw=145545&pri=1113706&df=52

The user only gets sent to the merchant’s website when the redirect to the network has happened successfully. So, in this situation, the link goes two layers deep.

We know that Google doesn’t analyze links more than just one layer deep. In the case of affiliate links, this means that Google’s value of the affiliate link is perceived as always pointing to AvantLink.com and not to the end destination of the merchant’s website. All summed up, affiliate links have no positive or negative impact on the SEO of a merchant website.

All summed up, affiliate links have no positive or negative impact on the SEO of a merchant website.Click To Tweet

Does That Mean AvantLink Is REALLY Popular In The Eyes Of Google?

If all links are pointing to AvantLink, does that mean the network gets the SEO benefit? The answer is no, not really. As one of the common questions listed above stated, too many backlinks originating from a singular source can actually be bad thing. Since Google hasn’t handed over the keys to their search algorithm, it’s hard to say for sure what impact those links have had on AvantLink.com. The best we can do is speculate, but it’s assumed that Google likely has factored in a rel=”nofollow” styled value to the referral links from not only AvantLink but all affiliate networks.

An interesting alternative to the black hole that is Google’s search algorithm is using the Alexa Traffic Rankings as a way of hypothesizing the value of affiliate links as traffic or ranking factors for networks. Back at the beginning of 2016, it looked as if Alexa took away the perceived traffic value of affiliate links leading to the websites of the networks. Since late January, each major affiliate network has experienced a significant decline in their Alexa ranking, indicating that the Alexa (and likely Google) may just ignore the redirecting affiliate links that are used by affiliates altogether and associate no value to them. Take a look at the declines across the board, as sourced from Alexa.com.

AvantLink Alexa Traffic

AvantLink Alexa Traffic

CJ Alexa Traffic

CJ Alexa Traffic

Impact Radius Alexa Traffic

Impact Radius Alexa Traffic

LinkConnector Alexa Traffic

LinkConnector Alexa Traffic

LinkShare Alexa Traffic

LinkShare Alexa Traffic

ShareASale Alexa Traffic

ShareASale Alexa Traffic

The harmonious decline in rank seems to indicate that ranking platforms like Alexa and likely search engines like Google and Bing are now more disinterested than ever in affiliate links as an indication of traffic, authority or otherwise.

Will Google Ever Crawl Two Levels Deep?

This is the million dollar question… with a super probable answer of no. The massive resources needed for overhauling current algorithms and the sheer increase in computing power required for Google’s crawlers to add an additional layer of sleuthing with links will likely keep Google from analyzing further than just one level deep with backlinks.

If you’re a reader who happens to work at Google and would like to offer us a glimpse into your secretive algorithm and ranking world, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

Otherwise, share this post on social channels if you’ve found it to be helpful or give us your thoughts below.
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  • Mike Hardaker

    Chad,

    You mentioned “All summed up, affiliate links have no positive or negative impact on the SEO of a merchant website.” However we use nofollow for Avantlink as there is only so much link juice a website has to offer.

    This video from Matt Cutts is 4 years old.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31BA0rwnfk8

    Considering the Mountain Weekly News has over 1200 product reviews each with a link to a merchant which is actually re-directed to avantlink.com, this could become a major issue if Google thought we had 1200 links pointing to an affiliate network website?

    I believe this is why I asked a few years back about the ability to append our tracking code to the end of a url like so: patagonia.com/click.php?tt=cl&mi=10083&pw=35035. Is this available, can you point me to where I can change all 1200 of our links to a structure above, mainly for SEO reasons. As Patagonia.com has a higher domain authority and page rank than Avantlink.com same with Bacountry.com etc etc..

    Wouldn’t the above actually be more beneficial to to both your merchant partners and affiliates? Unless you guys want some SEO juice too…

    Looking forward to your reply.

    • Good question- this post is definitely form the merchant side and not from the affiliate side, which is a different story with different impacts (future post will come on that).

      Two things to consider:

      #1. The ratio of content to links is always the first and foremost consideration for affiliates. If your link density is very high, then considering using rel=”nofollow” on your affiliate links (and any other reoccuring links for that matter). But even nofollow doesn’t stop Google from analyzing the content to link ration still. This is why all affiliate marketing needs to be done inline with content in thought out and methodical ways. Remember that in the world of SEO, it’s not “Content is King” anymore. It’s “Consumers are King”.
      #2. As your video pointed out, Google obviously knows about affiliate links from major networks. But with that being over 4 years ago, we’ve only seen what I detailed in the post: a continual decline in interest in affiliate links as any sort of ranking (or even penalization) factor. In analysis of link density in content, it’s likely Google will even look at affiliate links as even more neutral than regular links as they carry little value as 302 redirects, so you can’t manipulate them into a blackhat, link farm styled backlink tool.

      Making moves to tie in the affiliate channel with SEO benefits is a good idea in theory but a bad idea in reality as we’ve seen Google make massive algo changes many times on the fly. Intricately intertwining two distinctly separate channels together that essentially relies on a third party not to make any changes is….well, it’s risky at best. It’s a similar situation to all of the affiliates out there who relied on Pinterest to grow their affiliate revenue with the hopes that Pinterest never turned off the ability to share affiliate links…which they did, resulting in a lot of out of work affiliates. Recently Pinterest turned aff links back on, but none of the prior affiliates were still around.

  • Bob Murdoch

    Hi Chad, Appreciate the article. Can you speak a bit more on the technical side when you say Google does not crawl two levels deep? I assume by levels you mean steps in a chain of one or more redirect responses? If that is correct, it seems false to say Google only goes one level deep when there are no shortage of discussions over the years on 301 vs. 302 responses and how best to pass link value through redirects in the eyes of google, the most recent example being that those differences may not matter as much as previously thought: https://moz.com/blog/301-redirection-rules-for-seo . Certainly nofollow’ing the links will block any SEO value, but suggesting Google won’t ever discover the ultimate destination of an affiliate link seems troubling.

  • Google recommends rel=”nofollow” on all paid links, so that’s what I do.

    Some AvantLink affiliate tools offer rel=”nofollow” as an option on links when you generate html code, but not all of the tools do. So I built my own Ad Manager software to apply rel=”nofollow” on all (3900?) affiliate links on my site.

    I started using rel=”nofollow” on *every* affiliate link in May 2015. It’s impossible to separate out the effect of rel=”nofollow” from other SEO and off site factors, but traffic on my site climbed 46%-58% February-April for 2016 over 2015. I feel strongly that some of the increase is due to following Google’s rel=”nofollow” recommendation.