I’ve worked hard to overtake the SERP positions of a couple merchants allowing me to link to them with an affiliate ID, and now the allmighty Google tells the sponsors they must screw me with internal 301 redirects to rescue their rankings. Bugger. Since I read the shocking news on Google’s official Webmaster blog this morning I worked on a counter strategy, with success. Affiliate programs will not screw me, not even with Google’s help. They’ll be hoist by their own petard. I’ll strike back with nofollow and I’ll take no prisoners.
Actually, there are problems on both sides of an affiliate link. The affiliate needs to hide these links from Google to avoid a so called “thin affiliate site penalty”, and the affiliate program suffers from duplicate content issues, link juice dilution, and often even URL hijacking by affiliate links.
Diligent affiliates gathering tons of PageRank on their pages can “unintentionally” overtake URLs on the SERPs by fooling the canonicalization algos. When Google discovers lots of links from strong pages on different hosts pointing to
http://sponsor.com/?affid=me and this page adds
?affid=me to its internal links, my URL on the sponsor’s site can “outrank” the official home page, or landing page,
http://sponsor.com/. When I choose the right anchor text, Google will feed my affiliate page with free traffic, whilst the affiliate program’s very own pages don’t exist on the SERPs.
Managing incoming affiliate links (merchants)
The best procedure is capturing all incoming traffic before a single byte of content is sent to the user agent, extracting the affiliate ID from the URL, storing it in a cookie, then 301-redirecting the user agent to the canonical version of the landing page, that is a page without affiliate or user specific parameters in the URL. That goes for all user agents (humans accepting the cookie and Web robots which don’t accept cookies and start a new session with every request).
Users not accepting cookies are redirected to a version of the landing page blocked by robots.txt, the affiliate ID sticks with the URLs in this case. Search engine crawlers, identified by their user agent name or whatever, are treated as users and shall never see (internal) links to URLs with tracking parameters in the query string.
This 301 redirect passes all the link juice, that is PageRank & Co. as well as anchor text, to the canonical URL. Search engines can no longer index page versions owned by affiliates. (This procedure doesn’t prevent you from 302 hijacking where your content gets indexed under the affiliate’s URL.)
Putting safe affiliate links (online marketers)
Honestly, there’s no such thing as a safe affiliate link, at least not safe with regard to picky search engines. Masking complex URLs with redirect services like tinyurl.com or so doesn’t help, because the crawlers get the real URL from the redirect header and will leave a note in the record of the original link on the page carrying the affiliate link. Anyways, the tiny URL will fool most visitors, and if you own the redirect service it makes managing affiliate links easier.
Of course you can cloak the hell out of your thin affiliate pages by showing the engines links to authority pages whilst humans get the ads, but then better forget the Google traffic (I know, I know … cloaking still works if you can handle it properly, but not everybody can handle the risks so better leave that to the experts).
There’s only one official approach to make a page plastered with affiliate links safe with search engines: replace it with a content rich page, of course Google wants unique and compelling content and checks its uniqueness, then sensibly work in the commercial links. Best link within the content to the merchants, apply rel-nofollow to all affiliate links, and avoid banner farms in the sidebars and above the fold.
Update: I’ve sanitized the title, “Google says you must screw your affiliates in order to get indexed” was not one of my best title baits.
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