The most succinct way an expert on affiliate marketing stated how affiliate marketers can enhance direct marketers' search positions was, "Affiliate marketing IS search." So, basically, marketers can benefit a great deal from partnering with affiliates, says that expert, Jeff Molander, CEO of Chicago-based Molander & Associates.
Building on Molander's comments, Koki Mourao, search engine optimization specialist with Miami-based affiliate marketing network FlexOffers.com, says, "By joining an affiliate network as an advertiser and allowing other Web sites to offer your products and services, a merchant is significantly increasing its online presence, which ultimately helps SEO efforts." Basically, having more than one site mentioning the business logically increases the company's search presence.
Molander, Mourao and other authorities in this space detailed pros and cons for direct marketers to pay attention to while perfecting this option.
1. Note the distinction between search engine optimization and search engine marketing. The difference between SEO and SEM is especially important in the relationship with affiliate marketers because search engines may mark some SEO attempts as SEM.
That can, thereby, cause the search rankings for the affiliate (often a publisher) to drop "off the map," says Jonathan Levine, co-president of New York-based affiliate network LinkShare. Then there goes that publisher's ability to help the marketer's search results.
In other words, while Levine advises marketers to offer higher affiliate commissions to those who agree to provide direct links to the merchant's site, he strongly advises against paying for specific links that feed into the affiliates' natural search results. "Google is very clear that paid exchange of links is bad," Levine says.
2. Pay attention to the affiliates' content. "Not only will displaying ads of little interest lead to poor conversions," says Mourao, "but placing ads for products that are not closely related to the interest of the site's visitors while relying on duplicated, database-driven content alone will not help the Web site receive better search results or earn the site revenue."
Worse, says Shari Thurow, founder and SEO director of Omni Marketing Interactive of Elgin, Ill., rankings could disappear. "The thing you have to watch out for, though, is affiliates tend to, of course, offer the same products and services that your Web site offers and that could end up getting your site caught up in a search engine duplicate content filter," she says.
Offers.com Publisher Steve Schaffer says his site makes an effort to provide offer details, reviews and comparisons, and even keywords that the advertiser doesn't have on its own site. Offers.com updates its site daily and promotes its work via SEO and pay-per-click advertisements.
3. Think about links. SEO is based on four building blocks: text, links, popularity and searcher behavior, Thurow says. "What affiliate marketing really helps with is link development," she says, "if the two sites are linked together in a very search engine-friendly way."
4. Whose keywords are they? To avoid trademark infringement concerns, iron out an agreement with the affiliate marketer beforehand, advises Christine Magtoto, director of affiliate marketing at Santa Ana, Calif.-based Internet marketing firm SEOP. "Provide a comprehensive SEM guideline in your terms of agreement with the affiliate partner, outlining trademark and bidding restrictions," she says. "While most advertisers frown on affiliate bidding on their trademark names, some allow this—especially when their own competitors are bidding in the same space."
But, she cautions, don't let affiliate campaigns go on autopilot. It will "inevitably lead to bidding of the advertiser's trademark name, driving up the advertiser's own bid campaigns (usually noticed too late) and making the advertiser responsible for commissions on sales they could've gained from their own campaigns."
5. Finally, avoid pressuring affiliates into providing free links and keywords. "Affiliate marketing, at least from my point of view, is fundamentally about the relationships between the advertisers and the publishers, right?" asks Levine. "And I think that a lot of advertisers try to muscle the publishers into putting these kinds of links up.
"... We've seen publishers react very negatively to that kind of attitude. And they either pull out of programs that do that, or they mask the links to try to prevent the SEO benefit from flowing from their site to the advertiser's site."