Most ecommerce stores launch an affiliate program at some stage. Even the giants such as Apple, Google, and Amazon rely on them for revenue. It seems like the perfect marketing channel as well, where other people promote your products for you, and you only have to pay them if they generate a sale for you. But things can go badly wrong, if you don’t manage your affiliates properly.
What can go wrong with Affiliate Programs?
Affiliates earn money by sending traffic to your site. Not necessarily only on direct sales either, because many affiliate programs use a 30 day cookie to track referrals. So if someone clicks on the affiliate link, a cookie is dropped on their web browser and that lasts for 30 days, as long as they don’t click on any other ads. Even if a referral later returns from Google or via a direct visit, that affiliate may still get the commission for the sale. So because of this, some affiliates do anything they can to try and drop their cookie. They might try to load their affiliate link in an iframe, pop-up or pop-under, or trick the user into clicking an affiliate link.
What can ecommerce brands do about this?
The most important thing to do is to manually and thoroughly check every affiliate that signs up. Not just the affiliate themselves, but the individual websites they plan to refer traffic to you from. You should dictate that they can only send traffic to your sites from content and banners on websites that you have approved. Otherwise, they might sign up with a very nice looking blog, but actually send traffic to you through spammy email lists and adware. You don’t want to be associated with those kind of affiliates – it gives your brand a very bad image. Don’t outsource the vetting process of affiliates either, as you know your brand guidelines and audience better than any network or agency does. It’s important to keep that in-house, so you can keep full control over who’s promoting you outside of your company. Monitor how many suspicious orders are sent by each individual affiliate, such as:
- Getting lots of returned orders and refund requests
- The billing/shipping locations are different to where your usual customer demographic are located
- The website sending the referral traffic, are different to the ones which actually signed up for your affiliate program
Suspend the connected affiliate immediately and investigate as best as you can, because you really don’t want that affiliate to be damaging your brand and revenue.
Can affiliates hurt your SEO as well?
Definitely. They want easy sales and SEO is a way for them to get that. Not many of them really care about your brand image or your customer’s lifetime value. They’ve got their own revenue to think about. If you want to see what horrors can occur in affiliate marketing, look at the Google results for brand names in high paying affiliate verticals, such as Poker and Bingo. You’ll see review websites ranking for brand terms with titles, such as “Is X brand a scam? Click here to find out!”, or “Don’t sign up for X brand, until you read this!”. They’re really just trying to get people to click on their search result before the official brand result, making people question whether they should trust your brand or not.
And I’m sure we’ve all visited those coupon sites before as well. They advertise a 50% discount in the Google snippet, but when you actually click through to the site and you click on the “Reveal Coupon” button, all that happens is it loads their affiliate link and drops a cookie. No discount for you! It turns out that coupon expired years ago or never existed in the first place. And your customers are going to feel cheated. They think that your brand is to blame for that. Even if the offer never existed, customers are going to assume that it did and blame your brand for taking it away. They’re going to be unhappy and annoyed before they even get through to the order process.
The people behind these coupon websites often have a dozen or more other websites just like it as well. So they can use much riskier SEO tactics, knowing that if Google bans one of them, they can just continue with a different site. So they’ll do things like getting loads of spammy links to point to their review pages, that can fool Google into thinking it’s a popular page about your brand. And they can actually rank directly underneath your official website for your brand terms.
And when I said “a lot easier for them to rank”, it’s mostly for your brand keywords, such as “Burberry”, rather than commercial terms, such as “handbags”. The people searching for your brand are probably ready to buy, rather than someone searching for a new handbag. You would get the sale from a brand search without the affiliate’s help, so you’re paying the affiliate for nothing. In fact they’re probably losing you sales, as the buyer now doubts whether you’re trustworthy.
Is it better to not have an affiliate program at all?
Not necessarily. Many brands have heavily relied on affiliates, or “performance marketing”. It’s a cost effective way to grow your business quickly, without risking your own marketing budget. It’s also effectively free brand marketing, because you get your logo and your ad seen by potential customers and you don’t pay for it unless they click and convert. So your brand is seen all over the internet, and that can actually increase the trust and value of your brand.
It can be a lifeline to brands that struggle with other channels as well. So maybe you’re not able to implement any SEO changes because you use a bad 3rd party e-commerce platform, or maybe Google AdWords and Facebook Ads have become too expensive to be profitable for you.
If you have competitors with affiliate programs as well, it’s sometimes hard not to do the same. Most review and comparison websites will only mention your company or compare it, if they can get an affiliate commission out of you. So just like in the insurance space, if you want to be on GoCompare or Compare The Market, you have to have an affiliate program that the sites can join and profit from. The same happens in ecommerce as well. People may not review your products or mention your brand, unless have some sort of affiliate program. You can even suffer more from negative brand mentions if you don’t have an affiliate program, because those same affiliates that might have tried to rank/bid for your brand to make money, will still try to compete for your brand traffic. But they’ll push that traffic to your competitor’s website by saying that they’re better.
Are there any SEO tricks, to help protect your brand?
You can create a page on your own website called “Coupons” or “Promo Codes” (whichever term you use on your checkout page) and fill that page with content about why it’s better to shop direct. Maybe include your own coupon code on that page as well, telling people that your website will always have the best coupons, offers and prices. So there’s no advantage to go through a third party, compared to just going direct. If you’re offering these discounts to people via affiliates or partnerships anyway, there’s no harm in offering them direct as well. You don’t have to put it on your homepage – you can link to a dedicated landing page in the footer of your pages. And if people find it, they can get that code. That page will start to rank for coupon/promo keywords and you can start to own them, rather than paying affiliates to send you that traffic. Remember to mention in your Meta Description, that your coupon is better than any you can find on coupon or discount websites
If your brand outranks the affiliates for these terms easier terms, it makes the affiliates really work for their money. Don’t let them just feed off of your brand searches – try to get them to attract traffic that you might not be able to get yourself, from people that haven’t heard of your brand before.
Remember to protect your brand domains as well, including
YourBrand.sucks. You don’t want affiliates registering domains that look like your official brand. You could even set-up a defensive website on the
.sucks, saying why your brand doesn’t suck. You’ll then be able to rank for the negative brand keywords and try to change people’s feelings towards your brand. Ask some happy customers to give you a video review, for example, in exchange for a discount on their next purchase, and then host those positive reviews on your own review page, which could then rank for that term.
If your brand or products get compared a lot to other brands, you might even want to host your own comparison pages, telling people why you’re better than your competitors, without saying anything too negative about them. And those pages could then start to rank for those comparison keywords as well.
Is it possible to stop affiliates from ranking for your brand name?
You can’t stop them from ranking organically in the SEO results. They have to mention your brand on their website, in order to send traffic to you. And because they’re mentioning your brand, they have the ability to rank for your brand terms. Just try to own as much of the search results as possible. And you can do that by joining every major social media channel and linking to those channel pages. This starts to fill up the Top 10 search results for your brand. You can also build links and traffic into the positive third-party mentions and articles about your brand, such as newspaper mentions, awards that you’ve won etc. Make sure that those websites are trustworthy and don’t use affiliate links.
When I worked in-house at the world’s largest online poker brand, we even built our own affiliate websites. We used those sites to compete against our own affiliates on both brand and big generic keywords, funnelling the traffic into a number of different poker brands that we owned. This saved us from having to pay out affiliate commission on that traffic and prevented the affiliate sites from potentially sending traffic to our competitors. You might not want to do this, but it’s another approach you can take.
You can also tell affiliates not to bid on your brand name in Google AdWords and other paid channels. When affiliates do this, they’re pushing up your Cost Per Click and you’re not getting any value from it either, because those people would be clicking on your organic SEO result otherwise. Some affiliates still try to be sneaky though. They will continue to bid on your brand terms, but they’ll exclude the town or city where your office is based, so that you can’t see them. The ads will appear everywhere in UK apart from, say London, because your office is in London. It’s very little work for them, with very high ROI. It can take quite a while for brands to find out about this. So make sure that you check your PPC ads and your social media ads regularly and from different locations, which you can do using something called a “VPN”. It’s a way of changing your internet IP address and make it look like you’re coming from somewhere else – a different country or different city. Also check your brand search results at different times and days. The affiliates will assume that you don’t work on weekends, so maybe they’ll put some ads up, which don’t comply with your affiliate policies on Saturdays and Sundays. You want to be checking seven days a week, both morning and nights.