Do Affiliate Links Hurt SEO? Busting the Myth that Kills Your Money

Oleksandr Rohovnin
Content Marketer
17 minute read
Oleksandr Rohovnin
Content Marketer
17 minute read

Helpful, well-designed, and contextualized affiliate links CANNOT hurt your SEO. I will bust this myth once and for all so you can safely promote affiliate links through tried-and-true SEO affiliate marketing practices.


It’s no secret that affiliate marketing is a lucrative endeavor: 4% of affiliates earn up to $150,000 annually, with many more crossing the $50,000 threshold. However, they say affiliate links can hurt your SEO, causing a sharp drop in search rankings.

Is it true, though? 

Only if we’re talking about low-quality, uncontextualized affiliate links that direct users to mismatching advertisers or links that don’t contain the rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attributes, and it doesn’t extend any further.

Here’s the bottom line: affiliate links designed according to the best SEO affiliate marketing practices benefit SEO, albeit indirectly, rather than hurt it. This has been proven by practice and confirmed by Google representatives, as I will show you down the page.


Source: GIPHYRead on to:

  • Learn more about how to use affiliate links in SEO
  • Explore the main SEO affiliate marketing principles
  • Synergize your SEO and affiliate marketing

I will pop more balloons of lies down the road, so stay tuned until the end of the fiesta.

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What’s the Big Deal About Affiliate Links?

In Google’s eyes, the problem with undisclosed affiliate links is that these links are paid, with all ensuing consequences: readers have no way of knowing the link is not a genuine endorsement of a website or product in question but a paid promotion. Needless to say, people don’t put much trust in advertisements, or at least way less than they put in organic advice.

Here’s Google’s stance on advertorial links:

 

On the one hand, undisclosed affiliate links wreak havoc on the very purpose of linking ­– sharing valuable content for the benign reasons of adding value, passion, or helping the user. On the other hand, marking these links with rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow” attribute (for Google) and clearly disclosing their presence (for the audience) easily saves the day for affiliates.


Source: GIPHYHere’s more on affiliate links from Google Search Central:

“In general, using affiliate links to monetize a website is fine. We ask sites participating in affiliate programs to qualify these links with rel=”sponsored”, regardless of whether these links were created manually or dynamically.

As a part of our ongoing effort to improve ranking for product-related searches and better reward high-quality content, when we find sites failing to qualify affiliate links appropriately, we may issue manual actions to prevent these links from affecting Search, and our systems might also take algorithmic actions.”

Here’s a more recent update on nofollow links from John Mueller:

 

Long story short, here are two major takeaways for affiliates and publishers:

  • Affiliate links must be marked rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” not to hurt SEO
  • Affiliate links must be clearly disclosed to the public so as not to hurt SEO

Violating these basic rules might be detrimental to your SEO and even cause legal consequences, so I would not recommend you try to pass the link juice via affiliate links or obscure the promotional nature of the content.

Can Affiliate Links Benefit Your SEO?

As much as I would like to give you hope, the truth is that affiliate links cannot benefit your SEO or SERP rankings directly because they don’t transfer PageRank (also known as “link juice”). Neither the quality nor the number of affiliate links in SEO matters, for they belong to the “sales” marketing realm.

  • Remember: backlinks and SEO have completely different relationships than affiliate links and SEO. Backlinks transfer PageRank, whereas affiliate links don’t, with all ensuing SEO consequences.

That said, the odds are still in your favor: well-designed, strategically placed affiliate links that direct your readers to a relevant, reputable advertiser can benefit your SEO indirectly by enhancing user experience and making it simple for Google to crawl your website.

Sounds promising? Read on for more SEO affiliate marketing practices.

An Example of an SEO-Friendly Affiliate Link

Affiliate links can be very short or exhaustively long depending on the affiliate program, tracking methods, and whether you are willing to shorten the URL with tools like Pretty Links.

Here’s an example of a short affiliate link:

https://website.com/ref=555, where “ref=555” is the affiliate ID

If you want, you can shorten it even more to something like https://bit.ly/1b2a7, but it’s up to you (for me, the latter looks less trustworthy because it hides the referred website).

And here’s an excruciatingly long affiliate link:

https://website.com/products?item=867356&aff_id=555&campaign_id=47569&source=blog&medium=article&content=longread&session_id=7537375&redirect=affiliate_tracking_service

Besides the affiliate ID, this one identifies a particular campaign, product, traffic source, traffic medium, content type, user session, and redirection service.

Now, both these links aren’t SEO-friendly at the moment, but you can upgrade them by adding “nofollow” or “sponsored” attributes:

  • The short one: <a href=”https://website.com/ref=555″ rel=”sponsored”>Your best auto insurer</a>
  • The long one: <a href=”https://example.com/products?item=867356&aff_id=555&campaign_id=47569&source=blog&medium=article&content=longread&session_id=7537375&redirect=affiliate_tracking_service” rel=”sponsored”> Your best auto insurer</a>

Now they look much better from the SEO affiliate marketing perspective. That said, the URL length might not even matter when it comes to SEO. One would naturally assume that prettier links are better, but there’s no evidence of that.

Long URLs might be inferior in user experience but not so much in SEO performance:

“nofollow” VS. “sponsored” Attributes in SEO Affiliate Marketing

While using either of these attributes will almost certainly safeguard you from Google penalties, they are not entirely the same, even though some affiliate marketers might not acknowledge the difference.

Here are the key things to know about “nofollow” and “sponsored” attributes:

  •  “Nofollow” was introduced by Google in 2005 to prevent links from influencing the referred websites, especially with respect to user-generated content on forums. Back in the day, forums were a much bigger thing.
  • “Sponsored” was introduced by Google in 2019 specifically for paid content like advertisements or sponsorships.

Overall, “sponsored” is a better way to mark your links if you want to be in touch with Google’s guidelines and fully disclose the nature of your affiliate links. The good old “nofollow” might not hinder your SEO performance, but it might not allow you to squeeze the most out of it either.

SEO-Friendly vs. SEO-Averse Affiliate Links

Consequences for Not Disclosing Affiliate Links in SEO

If you’ve ever thought of circumventing the rules regarding affiliate links, please don’t, as this may backfire on you across the board, up to legal consequences.

Here’s an official reminder about selling affiliate link juice from Google Search Central:

“Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or “advertorial” pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a linkselling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.”

Should you be suspected of selling links that pass PageRank, you will receive a warning in Google’s Webmaster Tools. You will be able to send a reconsideration request after reviewing your links, but that’s not something to trifle with.


Source: GIPHY 

Ignoring benign affiliate marketing practices can escalate beyond mere SEO decline.

In the United States, the disclosure requirements and consequences of non-disclosure are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, including enforcement actions like fines and cease and desist orders. Likewise, if referrals themselves feel deceived, they can initiate a lawsuit against the affiliate that failed to disclose the paid nature of the content.

How To Properly Disclose Your Affiliate Links in SEO

It’s quite important to disclose affiliate links clearly. Small print, ambiguity, or hiding or obscuring the disclosure are likely to be considered malpractice, even if you’ve done it unknowingly.

Here are the Federal Trade Commission guidelines for advertisers:

FTC endorsement guidelines for advertisers

Here are the Federal Trade Commission guidelines for affiliates:

FTC endorsement guidelines for affiliates

This pretty much clears it up, doesn’t it?

Whether you place affiliate links on your website, third-party websites, or social media – for example, in tweets – you must disclose that you’ll receive a commission through the affiliate link in question. At the same time, merely using the term “affiliate link” may not be enough for users to understand its nature, so you must elaborate on it to a reasonable extent.

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5 SEO Tips for Affiliate Marketing To Improve Your Affiliate Links

#1. Get a Matching Partner

You must ensure the advertiser matches your unique place in affiliate marketing and your audience’s demographics, psychographics, and – most of all – purchase intent. If your target buyer is searching for an auto insurance provider in Los Angeles, the link in question must drive them there without jumping through hoops before they arrive at the destination point.

What does this have to do with SEO?

Links leading to low-quality, mismatched, or suboptimal offers will likely decrease on-site engagement and increase the bounce rate, causing a drop in SEO performance. To add insult to injury, some affiliate marketing programs may provide heavy scripts and redirect links that slow down the webpage and, therefore, hinder user experience.

On the other hand, consistently decent performance of your affiliate links will instill trust in your brand – they will know you only share what bears value ­­– translating into growing commissions and more affiliate marketing opportunities.


Source: GIPHY

#2. Cloak Your Affiliate Links in SEO To Make Them Pretty

Even though long URLs don’t affect SEO – at least according to John Mueller of Google – a short, good-looking, user-friendly link will likely generate more clicks.

Masking the original URL under its shorter analog is called link cloaking, and it can be done with WordPress plugins like Pretty Links, ThirstyAffiliates, or other SEO tools for affiliate marketing and URL shorteners.

Link cloaking is quite simple:

  1. In your plugin or tool, specify the link you want to cloak
  2. Enter the shorter version of the URL

 

In most plugins, you can also select the type of redirect from the original to the shorter URL: 301 (permanent URL changes) or 302 (temporary URL changes). For affiliate links that you won’t change frequently, 301 redirect is recommended.

  • Pro Tip: Link cloaking can be used as an additional safety measure because it hides your affiliate ID, which – if exposed – can theoretically be used by hackers for affiliate fraud. Besides, you can customize your cloaked links so they represent the gist of the transition.

Additionally, some tools and plugins allow you to track clicks on your links so you can analyze link performance. However, for granular tracking and a clearer perspective on what’s going on with your links and referrals, I’d suggest using specialized click tracking software.

Do not confuse link cloaking with SEO cloaking, a malicious practice of displaying different content to search engines and users. Link cloaking is absolutely fine and has nothing to do with SEO cloaking.

#3. Place Your Affiliate Links Strategically and Don’t Overdo

There’s no definitive answer to how many links you should include, but the rule of thumb is no more than one affiliate link per around 250 words of content and no more than 8 links per content piece. But then again, much depends on how well your affiliate links fit the context and the type of content itself; for example, product reviews might be allowed to contain more links.

Where To Place Your Affiliate Links in SEO

 

As for the location of your affiliate links, the webpage is your oyster. Placing an affiliate link in the first few paragraphs – above the fold (the webpage area available without scrolling) – is considered optimal, but contextual integration is still King: it’s better to surround your links with helpful content than pushing them up the page for no reason.

Another great way to contextualize your affiliate links in SEO is by placing them at the end of the page. If the reader has appreciated the journey, they must seek a logical continuation via the link you provide. By the way, this is the approach we stick to at Phonexa, offering you extra value toward the end of the blog posts (this one is no exception – make sure to check it out).

#4. Use SEO-Optimized Anchor Text

As an SEO-driven affiliate, you can kill two birds with one stone by using SEO keywords as anchors for your links. This approach will allow you to increase the rankings for the keywords in question AND make them the core of your article so users are motivated to click.

In this regard, SEO for affiliate marketing isn’t different from what you usually do—finding keywords that fit your content goals. Usually, these are high-volume, low-competition keywords that your competitors missed for some reason.

Let’s draw an example: Imagine you’re advertising an auto insurance company in the United States and want to write a blog on the topic that ranks for the best available keyword and allows you to use this keyword as an affiliate link anchor.

When researching keywords around auto insurance in the United States, it might make sense to proceed from the following considerations:

  • Your previously covered keywords. I’d recommend writing one article only for one main keyword so you don’t confuse Google. For example, if you’re going to optimize for “cheap auto insurance in New York,” there should only be one article on this topic.
  • The volume and difficulty of keywords that haven’t been covered yet. SEO tools like Ahrefs will give you exhaustive information on available keywords so you can research them all in any order (for example, from the most to the least competitive).

Have a look at this potential anchor for your affiliate link to a USA-based auto insurer:

This anchor will surely be SEO-optimized, but the insane competition will not allow you to hit the top of SERPs. As a result, users searching for “auto insurance USA” will not find your article and will not click your affiliate links.

And now, have a look at a more specific keyword:

Medium-competition keyword example

If your advertiser caters to drivers from Michigan, “auto insurance Michigan” would be a better choice because of its high volume and low competition. You are more likely to get motivated readers, clicks, and commissions from sales.

Why Anchors Like “Click Here” Are Horrible for Affiliate SEO Marketing

 

Explaining why the likes of “click here” are not the ones to use might seem a bit redundant, but let me just drop a few words here:

  • Generic anchors do not pass any contextual information
  • Generic anchors do not give Google a cue about the referred website
  • Generic anchors do not effectively guide users to the desired action

Generic anchors confuse users and have a lower click-through rate than their descriptive counterparts. Avoid generic anchors or make sure they are crystal-clear about where they will send the user and why users should proceed.

#5. Track and Analyze Your Affiliate Links

As an affiliate marketer, you are mostly interested in tracking and analyzing the performance of your links: clicks, CTR, conversions, sales, revenues, bounce rate, and more. It goes without saying you can’t do it all manually, so I’d recommend using software for the best result.

Phonexa has developed the software you need: Lynx, an incredible tool to ensure all your clients are correctly attributed, their buyer journeys are measured, and the due revenues are paid and received on time.

Here are some insights into Lynx software (what you’ll see when you get the product):

Link tracking software Lynx insides

Want to see more? Take a free product tour to explore the insights of Phonexa’s eight-in-one performance marketing software suite (including Lynx).

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A Pinch of Ambiguity to Muddy Your SEO Waters

You might not have heard this:

 

It’s unclear what Jong Mueller meant by saying they wouldn’t manually penalize non-compliant affiliate links and whether this decreases the likelihood of automatic SEO penalties. That said, I strongly recommend sticking to the best affiliate marketing practices.

How to Ensure Your Affiliate Links Are SEO-Friendly

Have It All in One Place – Your Farewell Reminder

Before bidding adieu, I want you to have it all in one place: 

Do affiliate links hurt SEO? Affiliate links do not hurt SEO as long as you’ve clearly disclosed using affiliate links to:

  • Google by adding rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow” attribute
  • Users by following the FTC guidelines
Do affiliate links help SEO? Affiliate links can help SEO indirectly in many ways, but they don’t help SEO directly because they don’t transfer PageRank
Do affiliate links count as backlinks? Affiliate links don’t count as backlinks because they don’t transfer PageRank (link juice, equity) to the referred website
How many affiliate links are too many? Adding more than one affiliate link for 250 words of content might be dangerous. However, you can step away from this rule sometimes.
How to add affiliate links to your website To add an affiliate link to your website:

  1. Join an affiliate program
  2. Choose a matching product to promote
  3. Receive your unique affiliate link to track your clicks and sales

Once you’ve got the link, you can use it in your blog posts, banner ads, product reviews, tutorials, and other content.

How to drive traffic to affiliate links To get traffic to your affiliate link, you must first get traffic to the webpage where this link is via SEO or paid advertising. For SEO purposes, it might make sense to make your main keyword the anchor text for your affiliate link.

There’s not much left to say. You will never get in trouble if you use nofollow affiliate links in the best interest of your readers.

For advanced affiliate marketers, you can go even further with your SEO affiliate links – use cutting-edge affiliate marketing software to manage multiple campaigns from top to bottom from one place without juggling systems and reports.

How Can Phonexa Help with Affiliate Marketing?

Link tracking software Lynx is only the tip of the iceberg of the performance marketing opportunities Phonexa’s software suite provides.

Eight proprietary solutions under one roof will cover your marketing from A to Z, dissecting your leads on the fly while delivering them to the best buyer.

Open the doors to the lead acquisition Promised Land:

 

The unique $100-per-month software suite unites:

LMS Sync Lead tracking & distribution software
Call Logic Call tracking & distribution software
E-Delivery Email & SMS marketing software
Cloud PBX Cloud phone system
Lynx Click tracking software
Opt-Intel Suppression list management software
HitMetrix Use behavior recording & analytics software
Books360 Automated accounting software


Build your plan now to close more sales tomorrow, or book a demo to see how Phonexa works.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are affiliate links?

Affiliate links are links placed on the publisher’s (affiliate’s) website to promote an advertiser’s (merchant’s) product in exchange for a commission on the sale, click, or other remuneration envisioned in the affiliate agreement between the parties.

Affiliate links are unique to each affiliate, which allows them to unmistakably interconnect the affiliate-advertiser-customer chain, attributing the right sales to the right affiliates. Likewise, sophisticated link tracking techniques allow affiliates to get credit for the purchase, even if it wasn’t done immediately but within a specific cookie duration.

Do affiliate links count as backlinks?

Affiliate links are not backlinks because they usually do not transfer PageRank—a measure of a website’s importance—to the referred website. Transferring PageRank through affiliate links is considered malpractice and penalized by Google.

Should affiliate links be nofollow?

With respect to SEO and affiliate marketing, it is best to use rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow” attribute for your affiliate links. Not using these attributes won’t necessarily lead to penalties but might decrease your optimal SEO performance.

Are “nofollow” and “sponsored” attributes the same?

Both “nofollow” and “sponsored” are both proper ways to disclose affiliate links to Google, but “sponsored” is better for its clarity and transparency. It was specifically designed for paid links, so make sure to use it if all other things are equal.

What is SEO affiliate marketing?

SEO affiliate marketing is a set of affiliate marketing practices that help your SEO performance besides promoting the affiliated product or company. SEO affiliate marketing practices mainly boil down to using rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow” attribute for your affiliate links and their strategic placement so they add value to the content.

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Oleksandr Rohovnin avatar
Oleksandr Rohovnin
Content Marketer

Oleksandr Rohovnin is a Content Marketer at Phonexa. His passion is digital marketing, innovative technologies, and – above all – distilling vast amounts of complex information into engrossing narratives anyone can relate to. At Phonexa, Oleksandr stokes passion for marketing automation and lead generation in every story he curates.


Education: Zaporizhzhya National Technical University

Expertise: Digital marketing, affiliate marketing, call tracking, lead tracking, insurance

Highlights:

  • 8+ years of writing and editing experience in B2B and B2C

  • Unconventional synergy of writing talent and technical knack

  • Avid proponent of sports, gaming, and reading

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