Affiliate links can be a valuable opportunity, both for the website trying to host the links and the website trying to earn traffic from them. But on the surface, the description of affiliate links inherently violates Google’s policy of explicitly forbidding link buying schemes. You’re paying an external site for any traffic the link generates, so shouldn’t that be considered a violation?
Clearly, if affiliate links caused more harm than good, they wouldn’t be used so extensively across the web. Posting an affiliate link or buying affiliate link space to get more traffic to your site isn’t going to give you an instant penalty, but is it possible to be penalized if you use the strategy regularly?
What Are Affiliate Links?
First, let’s take a look at the anatomy of an affiliate link. Basically, affiliate links are a means of gaining direct referral traffic. Under most conditions, they work similar to paid search advertising. The recipient of the traffic only pays for the number of clicks they receive—so if the link generates zero traffic, the recipient doesn’t pay a cent.
Inbound Affiliate Links
Because of the pricing distinction, affiliate links aren’t technically paid links. You’re paying for traffic generated through a link rather than paying directly for a link itself. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it is in the eyes of Google. Google wants to stop people from manipulating their search ranks through spam-like link building practices, not stop link creation processes altogether.
If you’re the one trying to build external affiliate links, you have greater control over the situation. You can set your price, name your conditions, and request very specific links to be built. For example, if you’re building inbound affiliate links toward a specific product, you could compensate your affiliates with a portion of the total sales their link generates. It usually works out as a win-win situation.
Outbound Affiliate Links
Outbound links enjoy a similar distinction. Because outside sites aren’t paying you directly for the link to be built, you don’t usually need to worry about being seen as a propagator of forbidden link building practices.
Outbound links are generally easier to acquire, as many major e-commerce platforms already have long-established affiliate link practices. For example, the Amazon affiliate program is one of the most popular on the web.
However, despite the fact that affiliate links are not paid links, there are still a handful of potential dangers to watch out for when using them as a part of your inbound marketing strategy.
The Problem With Paid Links
To understand the potential problems with paid links, you have to understand Google’s motivation behind penalizing straightforward paid links to begin with. There is one reason why Google does anything: to improve user experience online. And in order to do that, they’ve historically penalized any sites attempting to manipulate their ranks through deceptive or spam-like practices.
Paid link building is considered a form of rank manipulation, and by extension, a form of spam. In Google’s eyes, links only exist to provide a value to a user. Links pass authority because if a site decides to link to an external source, that external source is assumed to have value to a user. The more valuable to a user the site is, the higher it’s going to rank. Paid links bypass that otherwise natural relationship. They are built as a result of a financial transaction, not as any indication of true value to the user. And because paid links can actually be detrimental to the collective online user experience, Google started penalizing sites that perpetuated them.
That being said, despite the financial element of affiliate links, they aren’t doing anything to violate Google’s end goal of exceptional user experience. They aren’t intended as a means of manipulated rank, and while they are built in exchange for monetary compensation, they are traditionally built in a way that is valuable to the user—for example, an article about headphones could contain valuable links to some of the best headphones on the web.
How Google Sees Affiliate Links
For most outbound affiliate links, you don’t need to worry at all. According to Matt Cutts, Google is already intimately familiar with the major affiliate link networks, and understands the purpose of these links. Therefore, if Google crawls your site and finds a few dozen Amazon affiliate links, you don’t need to worry about being penalized, since Google inherently understands the purpose of those links.
However, if you’re building external affiliate links pointing back to your own site, Google may not be familiar with your affiliate link network. This is especially true if you’ve only recently started your inbound affiliate link strategy. In this case, if Google notices an exceptional number of affiliate links bringing traffic to specific product pages on your site, you could face an issue. If you’re worried about it, include a “nofollow” tag on every link to mask it from Google’s robots.
The Risk of a Penalty
As long as you’re following best practices for building affiliate links, your risk for getting a penalty is exceptionally low. Google realizes why affiliate links exist and the search giant has no problem with allowing the practice to continue. Building affiliate links does not directly violate any of Google’s policies.
However, there are still a handful of scenarios where an affiliate link might warrant a penalty. Because Google is focused on achieving the best possible user experience, it’s on the lookout for any suspicious behaviors that register as spam or could interfere with the habits and practices of others. For example, if you were to make a blog post with no title and no text, and only a long list of 50 Amazon affiliate links, it would obviously be a ploy to generate a bit of affiliate traffic without providing any real information or value to your readers.
Similarly, if you post the same affiliate link to the same internal page on the same external source, day after day, it’s going to be apparent that you aren’t trying to create a great user experience; you’re merely taking advantage of a situation and spamming your link to get more traffic. If you avoid these types of practices and use affiliate links in diverse, respectful, and valuable ways, you shouldn’t have any problem maintaining an ongoing affiliate link building strategy.
The Bottom Line
Affiliate links aren’t going to pass any authority to your site, but they aren’t going to earn you any Google penalties unless you seriously abuse them. As a general rule of thumb, your affiliate links should be surrounded in content and context that provides value to your users—and that goes for both inbound and outbound affiliate links. If you’re linking to a product, include content that provides detailed information about that product. Vary your linking strategy so your users don’t become bored or irritated. Use links only as necessary—don’t spam your users by piling dozens of links into one place.
Ultimately, affiliate links are like any other online strategy. You need to put your users first. As long as you aren’t using affiliate links in ridiculous ways and you aren’t compromising the integrity of your site, you aren’t going to be penalized.
Timothy Carter is the CRO for AudienceBloom. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.