Marketer’s Playbook #1: Affiliate Links, Press Releases + SEO

We’re kicking off a new feature this week: the Marketer’s Playbook.

Each week, I’ll take you through a specific problem or challenge that online marketers face, and describe a simple (ish) solution that you can put to work right away.

Most of the time, the inspiration for these posts will come from problems that we’ve helped our clients solve, and that’s the case this week.

The Problem: Marketing Creates Unnatural Links

… and Google gets their panties in a twist over it

When marketers do marketing stuff, we sometimes create links.

For web marketing to work at all, at some point there’s going to be a Page A, with something a person can click on, which takes them to Page B.

When the owner of Page A (who is not you) decides to link to your Page B, all on their own, and it’s a happy surprise to you that they did so, this is called a “natural” link.

I teach a course called Link Liberation which is all about doing the kind of marketing that causes more of the people who own Page A’s to link to more of your Page B’s. Ironically, this often involves paid advertising of our content, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole yet.

The problem here is unnatural links. When the owner of Page A is being paid to link to us, that’s an “unnatural” link, as far as search engines are concerned.

When the owner of Page A links to us because we created the content of Page A and stuck the link in it, that’s an unnatural link too – at least to the search engines.

The Effect: Penalties Reduce Search Engine Traffic

and “cleaning up” is expensive

Since 2011 we’ve seen Google (in particular) crack down hard on a lot of marketing methods that can double as “linking schemes” – even though all of these methods can be used legitimately for marketing purposes:

  • Affiliate Marketing, where the owner of Page A earns a commission when someone clicks a link and buys something from you.
  • Guest Blogging and Content Syndication, where Site A gets content and you get traffic from links in that content.
  • Press Releases, where your message gets distributed to a LOT of sites, generating traffic to your site.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those activities, as marketing tactics (assuming they generate traffic) but they can create an SEO problem, especially with Google, who may decide to penalize your site for “unnatural links.”

In practical terms, it doesn’t matter that Google’s decision here is impractical, short-sighted, self-serving, and even a wee bit evil, because their search engine is by far the most popular, and telling them to go f*** themselves ignoring their webmaster guidelines can be very costly.

The Solution: SEO Safe Linking

…to prevent spiders from following unnatural links you create

Now, if you have complete control of Page A, you could add rel=nofollow to the link, but that isn’t a complete (or completely safe) solution for a number of reasons.

Most of the time, you don’t have that much control anyway.

The solution to the problem, which I’ve been using for more than a decade, involves sticking a redirect in between Page A and Page B. We originally implemented this to solve a different problem (inadvertent SERP hijacking by affiliates) but it works for this situation too.

After we implement our safe linking solution, Page A links to a Redirect URL (not a web page, just a web address), and the redirect URL sends the visitor on to Page B.

You see redirects in action all the time – post a link to Twitter, and it will get turned into a redirect through Twitter’s “t.co” URL shortener. This isn’t some crazy new technology that I just invented.

Normally, search engines will follow the link from Page A through the redirect, and on to Page B, so if the link on Page A is unnatural, you still have a problem. You have to control the redirect, and prevent search engine spiders from following it through to Page B.

Implementation: Creating SEO Safe Links

…with htaccess redirects and robots.txt

Let’s say you’re writing a press release, or uploading a big list of links to an affiliate network like Share-a-Sale or Commission Junction, or sticking a link into a blog post you’re writing on a friend’s blog.

In each case, control the URL of the links, so you can control where they go.

Instead of linking directly from Page A to Page B (e.g. example.com/myproduct.html) you link to a redirect like example.com/clicks/myproduct.html.

How do we turn that /clicks/ into a redirect? Easy. In your site’s htaccess file, an entry like this redirects visitors to the correct Page B:

CODE DISCLAIMER: I suck at writing code. Test before you deploy.

RewriteRule ^/clicks/(.*)$ /$1 [L]

That will cause any URL in the /clicks “folder” to redirect visitors to the same URL in the root folder – example.com/clicks/foo.html becomes example.com/foo.html.

Then, in your site’s robots.txt file, you do this:

User-Agent: *
Disallow: /clicks

Now the spider won’t follow the unnatural link you just created, and Google doesn’t need to penalize you for your “crime.”

Bam. Problem solved. You could make that “User-Agent: googlebot” if you don’t think Bing will ever get around to doing something about unnatural links, but I like to solve problems once and for all if possible.

While this won’t do anything about any unnatural links that are already out there, it will stop you from creating new ones, and allow you to use these potentially important marketing channels without losing sleep over how Google’s going to react.

If you have questions about the implementation, intent, or whatever – let me know in the comments.

Thanks!
Dan

P.S. Lila and Sanjay, thanks for the question, and I hope this helps. :-)

Comments

  1. There is an irony here. In order to create “natural” links, you have to take a link that is perfectly natural to start with and do something twisted and unnatural (let’s call it “genetic modification”). In other words, doing exactly what the search engines have always warned us not to do – showing a different thing to the search engines than we show to real people.

    How come “white hat” SEO has become about deception?

  2. It’s not deceptive, David, it’s a redirect. Because we KNOW the search engines don’t want to count affiliate links, press releases, etc. we’re making sure that they don’t.

    Nobody’s saying “hey, you’re going to some other domain” and then sending people somewhere else. The irony, if you want to call it that, is that we have to bother with this kind of crap at all, but that’s not exactly new. There has always been some kind of stupid crap we had to do with Google, that’s caused by bad decisions on their part.

    Are we doing something we wouldn’t do if search engines didn’t exist? Of course. We also wouldn’t do XML sitemaps if search engines didn’t exist. Are those deceptive?

    We started doing this a decade ago, because of a bug in Google’s handling of 302 redirects. Affiliate network links where we *didn’t* block Googlebot from the end of the redirect chain, would often result in the affiliate’s URL getting ranked, with the content of OUR page listed. Without doing this, we’d have been paying commissions for our own earned rankings.

    Old hat.

  3. Thanks for writing this up Dan. It caused me to go back through what I was doing with affiliate links and clean them up.

  4. I am wandering affiliate links to be natural. Can you tell me something about WordPress plugin Pretty Link? Are the links generated by the plugin natural?

  5. Pete Morris says:

    I’d love to hear you expand in a post on what you called “paid advertising of content”. I’ve heard several SEOs talk about gaining natural links and “followers” by paying to advertise their super-high-quality content, but I’ve got no idea how to go about it.

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