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The Low-down: Search and Your Affiliates

The Low-down: Search and Your Affiliates Kevin Ryan

So you think you can stomach affiliates futzing around in your search marketing? If so, there are a couple of things you should know. Deep, dark, dirty secrets the pay-for-transaction world doesn’t want you to know. Natural search listings can be affected by affiliates. And, pay-for-position search can get really costly if your affiliates bid on your brand name or your terms.

To be perfectly candid, the last time I sat through an affiliate program architectural meeting I felt like I had left the world of advertising and moved into a purchase negotiation for a 1984 Nissan Maxima with only 12,000 miles on it.

There are plenty of urban legends out there for search and the sometimes-unhappy marriage it has with affiliate relationships. All platitudes aside, affiliates are out to make money. Why else would you partner with them?

Sooner or later, the road your brand’s search efforts travel is bound to intersect with that of your affiliates. Let’s look at some of the myths and offer some practical advice for brands standing on the corner of search and affiliate.

Popular lore

The Maxima is a splendid automobile, always has been, but you’d have to be a bovine stupefied fool to believe the “kindly senior gal” story of original miles who drove to and from church each Sunday who was especially sweet to the engine, drivetrain, and … is that the original rubber? I think not.

If you are reading this (that is, reading anything published by iMedia) you probably have access to big brand work or are a big brand yourself. There are volumes of text on affiliates and search out there, but there is a problem with most of what is published in the industry. It is designed for up-and-comers -- not brands with solid foundations that place a great deal at risk when approaching affiliate marketing in general, much less the impact affiliates can have on search and your brand.

Terms like “aggregating merchant relationships” and “valuating partnership revenue capabilities” are tossed around when discussing affiliate marketing. It seems as though no one really knows what these terms mean and they are reminiscent of the Web economy BS generator.

Affiliates can be extremely valuable to your brand and to your bottom line, but as with all things interactive, the rule once again appears to be, if at first you don’t know the answer, try to make something up.

Au Naturel

Some of the most popular tales and myths associated with affiliates and search relate to PageRank, Google’s central knowledge system for ranking Web sites, named of course after Google co-founder Larry Page.

Google’s ranking system is positively brilliant. The dedication Google has to maintaining the integrity and relevance of search results from a hardware and software perspective is uncanny. They seek to dismiss the multitudes of clutter (some call this search spam) that exist on the Web and help people find what they are looking for in the most efficient manner possible.

The ranking system, which places emphasis on how important your site is based on the number and quality of links into it, combined with Google’s proprietary text matching system, is unparalleled in the industry. A method of robot- or crawler-based matching technology compile results to your search queries. A similar -- though possibly somewhat lesser -- “crawl” is used by many search engines to help match a user query to the right pages by collecting data from Web sites and indexing them.

Farming for rank

By design, the problem with Google’s ranking system is that no one outside of Google really knows how it works. The “link value” ranking method is the most misunderstood aspect of search marketing today. The simple perception is, if a site has hundreds of links into it, PageRank will increase.

That’s partially true since links are valuable, but one link from a powerhouse site like CNN.com will be of greater benefit than hundreds of links from very low traffic sites. Many times, affiliates fall into the low traffic site category and therefore, have little effect on PageRank.

The most common form of abuse from affiliates is a practice called link farming. Simply put, an affiliate or other site that is link farming has dozens or maybe hundreds of links on a page in an attempt to increase rankings. Search engines are wise to this little trick and often remove link farmers from indexes.

No cookie for you

Often, affiliate linking URLs into your brand’s pages contain redirects via the third party administering your program. Typically, these firms use cookie-based technologies to properly credit affiliates with sales and make certain affiliates are compensated timely and accurately. Again, these redirected links will have little effect on rankings.

Due to privacy concerns surrounding the use of cookies, many forward-thinking providers are now developing and using new technologies for crediting affiliates with sales that do not rely on cookies. When you start a third party administered affiliate relationship, asking about tracking methodologies up front will go a long way toward helping you develop search-beneficial linking tactics.

Slightly less than natural

So what happens when an affiliate begins to use terms specific to your Web site, brand, or products on (or in) their sites? Or, when the affiliate lifts content or products from your site to build “basement” pages to help build revenue?

In the former instance, your only risk is that the affiliate might achieve a higher rank than you in search results. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. In high volume queries for generic, non-brand-specific terms your brand may just end up owning a great deal of search results: that is, if the affiliate adds value to your brand’s efforts and has real value-based content that transcends a simple duplication of your site’s content (in an effort to be paid for peddling your wares).

Some affiliates take it upon themselves to go well beyond the marketing toolkit you provide them. They will capture your content and product line on pages that are built for a very low cost. You may be surprised to find your entire product line or inventory on an affiliate “basement” site.

Not to be confused with (but resembling) a shopping engine, each product is represented in intricate detail. When the click-to-purchase action occurs, the user is directed back to your site. This tactic also bears a striking resemblance to search engine-spamming practices; many of these sites disappear from search indexes quickly.

Buy me some traffic

The next wave of mythology and confusion relating to search and affiliates is in the paid realm. Pay-for-placement or sponsored-listing bid competition has forced many brand owners to prohibit affiliates or other third party aggregators from bidding on brand, product, or particularly high converting terms in sponsored listing results.

Aside from self competition, the thinking behind search term prohibition has a direct correlation to either protecting the user experience in visits to brand owner’s sites or, a less altruistic motivation, conversion or desired action rates from brand or product specific terms are too high to let them go. Why should a brand owner pay an affiliate for searchers predisposed to a specific product?

To buy or not to buy

Brand owners have a decision to make here. In addition to high conversion considerations, the inherently unpredictable nature and relative inability to effect change to natural listings in a timely way have forced brand owners to purchase their own branded terms. This practice offers the brand owner immediate control over specific keyword-to-landing-page links.

The problem is twofold: first, it’s hard to control search listings; second, few affiliates appreciate being told which keywords they can and cannot obtain paid positioning on. Some brand owners prohibit affiliates from maintaining a top position on brand or product keywords, or set bid limits on certain keywords.

Attempting to control listing pricing might be called collusion by some, but it is most certainly an impractical means of advertising in sponsored search results. One simply can’t establish a tiered architecture in uncontrollable keyword bidding in the hopes that an affiliate will stay below one’s listing. This practice is particularly flawed in Google’s AdWords program since click-through rates, in addition to bid prices, have an affect on positioning. 

Control is an illusion…

Control is an illusion, someone once said, that is perpetuated by infantile egomaniacs. In the end, remember that it is your brand. I’ll say it again: it is your brand. How users interface with it often begins with a search engine like Google or Yahoo! Don’t leave that first impression up to some Fruit Loop trying to make twenty-five dollars with a bargain basement Web page or search listing. 

Then again, if your affiliates can be referred to as Fruit Loops (unless of course you are selling my long-time favorite breakfast cereal) then, at the risk of sounding like the aforementioned BS generator, you may have a much worse upstream relationship organizational architecture problem.

As the brand or affiliate relationship owner, you have the right to set standards for your affiliates. The affiliates in turn, have the right to take their leave of you and go sell someone else’s stuff.

Give a little bit of your brand love to your affiliates

The best long-term strategy for any brand is to build solid partnerships, with strong affiliates (or any site for that matter) so that link strategies are not abused and by using available technologies, real positioning equity can be realized with tactical user value based off-page link rankings.

If you structure an affiliate program and relationships to meet your needs well, it may be necessary to restrict the use of brand terms in organic or pay-for-placement listings. However, in addition to compensating these affiliates you can also give something else back to them.

On the risky but cheap side, you can choose not to bid on brand terms at all, and turn those efforts over to affiliates. You should still set strict standards and guidelines for these affiliates, but if you have a solid site-side analytics provider, chances are you have an enormous list of keywords that convert well for you and which they can use as guidelines.

Regulations, rule sets and guidelines are important when establishing, maintaining or terminating an affiliate relationship. If you do it right, you can protect your brand’s site experience and integrity. And who knows, the small-to-medium entrepreneurs who would be your affiliates might just be able to teach you a thing or two.

About the Author: iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. In his off-time, Ryan enjoys serving as Vice President at Wahlstrom Interactive.

Meet Ryan at the Ad:Tech, NY November 8-10

Search Editor's Final Note: I can’t say which one, and I don’t recommend trying this at the office, but I once completed an hour-long conference call by repeatedly entering plain English terms into the BS generator. Give it a whirl, but be careful not to get hooked on it.

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Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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