Affiliate programmes cost more than you’d think

Brands often sign up for affiliate programmes because it can have the potential to be a new marketing channel that can introduce new customers to them.

But there’s a cost that I don’t think is discussed very often, or even really known about. There are two things to know here:

1. Affiliate links don’t pass link value. They’re often nofollowed, have the rel=”sponsored” attribute, or pass through an affiliate network redirect. When that happens, Google doesn’t pass value through that link.

2. Lots of publishers automatically turn regular links into affiliate links. When a brand signs up for an affiliate programme, lots of big publishers end up linking to them with that affiliate link—which doesn’t pass link value—when they otherwise would have used a regular, value-passing link.

This means over time, more of the coverage that the brand receives links to them with links that don’t help their SEO, and their growth in organic search slows.

Here’s an example – this is Good Housekeeping with an article on the best plant delivery services. It includes links to some recommended products. Bloom & Wild and Appleyard Flowers both have affiliate programmes, and so Good Housekeeping (likely automatically) links to these pages using the affiliate link, which won’t pass value. Patch Plants don’t have an affiliate program, and so their link is a totally normal, authority-passing link.

An excerpt of an article from Good Housekeeping

Links are just one signal when it comes to SEO – but it’s such a big signal that it has, for decades, warranted an entire industry. Links from well-respected publishers are some of the most important, highest quality links that a site can earn, and they can have an enormous influence over how well a site ranks in Google’s organic search results. And if you sign up for an affiliate programme, you’ll start to find that its these high authority links that will end up being diminished.

I think one of the reasons this goes unnoticed is that it’s a cost that isn’t obvious, and that only inflicts itself over time – as the rate at which you earn links that actually help you rank well in Google decreases.

To put it another way, imagine how much of a competitive advantage you’d have if most of your competitors links were being nofollowed, and yours weren’t.

I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that affiliate programmes have a benefit, and perhaps there are instances where being in an affiliate programme gets you coverage that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten – but I think it’s useful to be aware that there is a hidden cost too.

Cover photo by Adrien Olichon