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6 min read

Affiliate links and digital PR: What’s going on?

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

I was recently reviewing coverage for a client who was featured in The S*n when I noticed the use of affiliate codes from AWIN, an affiliate partnership site. Now, this isn’t some thinly veiled flex about my digital PR skills, it genuinely sparked a thought in my head: was this coverage made possible because the client was a part of an affiliate network? The TL;DR of this all is probably yes, it was a factor. But at this point, I’m too intrigued. I fancied having a bit of a dig into affiliate links, SEO and their current role in journalism. If none of that sounds of interest to you, I’d advise you to stop now.

To understand affiliate links and their impact on SEO, we need to consult Google’s own guidelines on this to pick out the important bits and get a bit of an understanding on this. If you’re up to speed with this, skip ahead to my thoughts on how affiliate links affect digital PR.

  • “Sites featuring mostly content from affiliate networks can suffer in Google’s search rankings, because they do not have enough added value content that differentiates them from other sites on the web”
  • In 2012, Google stated that they recognise affiliate links and ‘handle’ them, presumably removing any link value as they are a paid way of earning links.
  • Google requests that links involving financial transactions are marked as nofollow, but if they aren’t it appears that Google understands when to remove any link value.
  • John Mueller stated “As far as I know, we don’t explicitly go into the site and say well there are links that look like affiliate links therefore we will treat this website as being lower quality.” With this in mind, affiliate links do not necessarily equal poor quality.

The bottom line from this brief overview is that Google is not treating sites with affiliate links any differently, other than ensuring the backlinks pass no value and that the sites utilising these are putting enough valuable content out. Nothing new there then really. For a bit more of a discussion around this, take a look at Search Engine Journal who have summarised Google’s thoughts nicely.

Google state that affiliate links don’t pass value, we’ve got that far, but a lovely Twitter thread from a while back (highlighted to me by Mark Rofe) engages in the discussion that perhaps Amazon goes against this very notion.

Here you can see that the canonical is pointing back to the product page without the affiliate parameters applied, the thinking being that if affiliate links were useless for ‘link building’ would tech giants be advising Google to assign all value to these pages?

Amazon is obviously an extreme example and I don’t really have any other evidence to show that affiliate links may actually positively affect rankings, but my general feeling is that it probably isn’t going to move the needle for your average client. With that in mind, how on earth can affiliate links even be a consideration in a digital PR strategy? Well, I’m glad I asked.

Now we’ve established affiliate links *probably* aren’t helping our SEO efforts, let’s have a look at how this slots into digital PR. In my example, The S*n sorted me a link, let’s discuss.

The content was on eye care (my client sells contact lenses) and the link was followed with relevant anchor text referencing the brand and research they had undertaken. Sounds good, right? Regardless of my moral beliefs towards divisive journalism, this was a great link to achieve. But then I see that the editor has given me the link not out of the kindness of their heart, oh no, instead they’ve done it because said newspaper is a part of AWIN, an affiliate network. Any readers who then go to read more about this research may purchase some contact lenses and that cookie is then ensuring this publication is getting paid. Sounds like a financial transaction for link value to me, yet there was a lack of nofollow attribute applied. Odd.

If publications are ensuring our clients are receiving no link value because they want to cash in on our PR success, there might not be much point in pursuing this link. All is not lost though. This publication could get the ball rolling for your campaign. Perhaps other outlets pick up the story who aren’t slapping affiliate parameters on it, then you get a valuable link that way. This can be done through other journalists jumping on the story or even syndication sites pushing the content live. So in that sense, that one affiliate link passing no value from a hugely authoritative domain is maybe not so useless.

Is it better to not be a part of an affiliate network?

There’s not really an answer to this. Taking the example I’ve been using; if the client wasn’t a part of the network, would that have led the journalist or editor to pick another story where there was an affiliate opportunity? But, if the story was strong enough (I think it was) surely that would outweigh the financial incentive and drive the editor to include it anyway. Honestly, I don’t know what to think here, but there have been opportunities in the past where I can guarantee the client not being part of an affiliate program has actually worked in my favour.

I was working on a client that sells outdoor living products, with BBQs being a big area for them. To get to the point, we secured them an inclusion in a national newspaper’s guide to barbeque trends and product recommendations – winner. Here’s where it got interesting. Out of the 10 links in this article, our client was the only one to not have the nofollow attribute applied. At first we were confused, grateful, but still wondering why the editor had decided to be so specific here. On a further dig, we saw that not only were the links nofollowed but they were all affiliate links for the likes of Amazon, Argos, John Lewis, etc. Big players who arguably don’t need the link equity really. Either way, my client came out the winner as we received a direct followed product link in a relevant publication and guide. If they were a part of an affiliate scheme it would have probably been nofollowed and they would have to pay the referral percentage for any sales as a result of this article.

You can safely presume that if they’re big and national, they’re using affiliate links. From my brief research, most of the big publications are using Amazon’s affiliate network at the very least, but there’s also the likes of AWIN which manages many other smaller brands. If you haven’t previously, go back and see if you’ve ever been discriminated against, positively or negatively, for being a part of an affiliate network, you might find some surprising results.

TL;DR: Building links for clients that have affiliate networks may be making your SEO goals harder, but it could be a significant contributing factor in securing national coverage.