I want to address the perceived difference between the strategies used by affiliate marketers and merchants. In researching this post, I read a number of other blog posts and a number of presentations around the topic of how affiliates can get links. It struck me that the tools and techniques being talked about would fit in fine with pretty much any type of link building campaign, whether it was for an affiliate or not.
To illustrate the point, these websites are affiliates:
At first glance, you wouldn’t put them in the affiliates category, but they are. You can call them super-affiliates because there are huge businesses behind them, but the business model is the same. Should these guys approach link building differently to their competitors in the same space?
The truth is that there isn’t really a lot of difference in the techniques that affiliates can use compared to other websites. This isn’t to say there are no differences at all, the one that I do feel does exist, and what I’ll cover shortly is the differences in resources and setup of affiliates.
However there is a difference in a few on-page areas for affiliates compared to other websites:
- No USP on the product you’re selling – it is probably available to anyone else who wants to be an affiliate too
- You get the same boilerplate content that every other affiliate gets and it can be hard to scale making it all unique
These are just a couple of problems that affiliates have to compete with that relate to content. Before you invest heavily in link building, I’d strongly advise you to invest in your website – try to get out of the mindset of it being an affiliate website and try to not make it look like an affiliate website. Here are a few things that make affiliate sites stand out and look bad:
- Lots of product pages but very little depth of content on them
- Lots of external links but no content to give me the context of those links
- Not much engagement on social including a blog, Q&A, videos etc
It is clear that Google doesn’t want to see thin affiliate websites dominating it’s search results, so don’t act like one.
Unfortunately, the days of being able to throw up a quick template with a bunch of affiliate links and little content and getting them to rank very easily (I used to do this) are coming to an end. Yes this is still possible, but the time it takes Google to catch up with you is becoming shorter and shorter all the time. There was even recent talk from Branded3 who observed Google making more consistent, rolling link updates as opposed to periodical ones that we’re used to. This means that, whilst they’re far from perfect right now, they are getting better and if you’re not building websites for the long-term, you’re going to be constantly rolling out new sites to keep your income levels high.
As mentioned above, I used to build websites that were very much churn and burn, not really thinking about the long-term. But every time I logged into Twitter and saw that another Google update had happened, I wondered if this was the one where Google finally caught up with whatever tactic I was using. I got a bit fed up of this!
Key takeaway: Before you think about link building, invest in making your website as good as it can be – this will make your link building much easier and more efficient.
The real difference for affiliates: resources
While I talked about a few super-affiliates above, I’m guessing that the majority of us are not at the same level. Most of us are a one-person team with limited time, limited budget and lots of projects to work on.
Most affiliates do not have a team of link builders, designers, developers and writers behind them ready to be deployed to make your site famous. This is the real difference with affiliates compared to other websites.
I appreciate that whilst some affiliates may be happy to invest money into their websites, it can be somewhat riskier because it is your own money. If it goes wrong, you can’t just write it off like a big company would. Worst-case scenario, you can’t afford to pay a bill. This is the reality that many affiliates must deal with.
How to reduce the risk: freelancers
To reduce the risk, you could spend your time finding excellent freelancers who can do the work for you.
There are a few benefits to this approach:
- You can hire (and fire) quickly – you don’t need to worry too much about the details
- You hire in line with your budget so you don’t over stretch yourself
- You can hire for exactly the skill you require
- Your exposure to risk is very limited if it doesn’t work out
- If you find someone who is very good, you can increase your spend or even hire them full-time if they’re worth it
Use working with them to do three things:
- Spend time doing what matters – links, content, PR
- See if they’d be a good fit to work for you full-time if they proved their worth
- Define the process of the work they do and refine it – even if they do not work out, you have started to build a process that you can use over and over again
It is hard at first, but this approach is far better in the short-term than hiring full-time staff or a large agency. It is also incredibly scalable which means once you’ve defined the process and are happy with how it is working, you can scale up the size of your team and start to compete with the larger websites and super-affiliates.
Instead if having your own in-house team, you have your own team working remotely.
Find link builders on oDesk
Despite the risk being lower in comparison to hiring an agency or a full-time member of staff, there is a downside to outsourcing your link building to someone: bad links are easy to build.
You need the right processes and checks in place so that the links built for you are as good as they can be. This means that in the early days, you’re going to put a lot of hard work into defining the process, identifying the problem areas and improving them. But this hard work is worth it because once you have the process right, you can take a step back.
One route you can take is to spend time finding the right people on oDesk. There is a wealth of opportunity there and lots of very good workers, but they can be a bit hard to find so you need to invest a bit of time finding them.
Here are a few tips for finding link builders on oDesk:
- Be very clear with what you’re looking for and ask applicants to rewrite the brief to show their English is good and that they understand the task
- Only hire people with excellent feedback on previous work – 4.5 stars and above
- Look for experience in previous roles, particularly researching websites and collecting contact details
- When hiring, hire on a trial period and if they do well, extend it into a bigger contract
You should definitely start people off in a research role before you get them doing outreach. Sending outreach emails isn’t that hard but it can go wrong very easily and the last thing you want is to jeopardize your websites reputation.
Invest in content
There is no getting around this – sorry! Content matters, not only from a link building point of view but also from a user experience point of view. Many obvious affiliate websites are not very “sticky”. They don’t give the user a reason to spend time looking around the website or come back later. In fact, many affiliate sites like to get rid of users as quickly as possible via their external affiliate links!
However, if you want to compete in the long term, you need to become more than an affiliate. You need to become a brand and a website that users trust. Investing in exceptional content that helps build a community and helps make your website sticky is one of the best long-term tactics you can employ.
This may sound silly, but think of it this way – the one thing that Google can’t take away from you with all their updates is a loyal community of users. Even if you get penalized for something, your users will still come back to you, they will still take part in discussions, forums and Q&A.
Building a community suddenly feels a lot more beneficial when you think of it like that!
How affiliates can build out high quality content
Freelancers are your friends again here. The world is crammed with excellent writers, many of whom are looking for work and looking to build a name for themselves online. They’re not that hard to find either, even for niche websites. For example, I was recently looking for a good writer who could write a bunch of high level photography content for me. A friend pointed out that a good place to look would be the community on Expert Photography, where there are indeed lots of people who I could contact.
There are loads of types of content that you can create around products that can give you a USP and make your pages unique to all your competitors:
- Q&A content, works very well in particular for technical products
- Step-by-step buying codes
- Beginners guides
- Short video reviews of products
- Expert opinions on technical products, their pros and cos
Good freelancers can work on all of these and are not overly expensive to produce. Even videos can be produced at reduced costs, something explained in this post on video SEO.
It is more than possible for good affiliates who do not have huge resources to compete with bigger websites. The core principles are:
- Don’t look like an affiliate – try to get your website right before building links
- Hire good freelancers to help you with link building and scale up if it works well
- Invest in good content for your product pages to help make your website unique
- Try to make your website sticky and valuable for users – Google can’t take this away
I’d love to hear your feedback and experience in the comments. If you want to learn more about link building then you can checkout my link building book.
Paddy Moogan is an SEO consultant at Distilled and author of The Link Building Book. He has worked in SEO full-time since 2007 and has worked with a number of clients around the world, particularly enjoying ecommerce projects.