Given that over the past two or three years most of the significant Google algorithm updates have negatively impacted many affiliate-model sites, I was expecting to hear some pessimism and foreboding last week at A4U London. In fact, it was quite the opposite at the annual conference for the affiliate industry that brings together online marketing professionals from across the board including merchants, affiliates, affiliate networks, SEOs, publishers, tool-providers and more.
I want to share some of the success-tactics and behaviors of the affiliates with innovative strategies and offerings; but first let’s recap some of the more tangible Google updates of recent times and how some sites were affected.
Google Updates: From Vince to Panda
The Vince update rolled out early 2009 and seemed to favor brands. According to Google, this change was more about tuning up what might be considered trust factors and if brands seemed to fare well from this; was effect not cause. Many affiliate-model sites that might have relied heavily on link volume and anchor text as opposed to a diverse marketing strategy and online presence lost out.
The Mayday update rolled out around May Day (quelle surprise) 2010, with an impact on sites offering little value or originality, that were ranking for long-tail queries. The update seemed to favor niche, specialist or informational sites that may not have an aggressive SEO strategy but perhaps had the specialized content and detail to answer the query more effectively than some broad-content affiliate-model sites (and similar) which seemed to be negatively impacted.
The Panda update and its various roll-outs and iterations has been with us since February 2011. Reportedly designed to “reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”
Reading this chronology of the most tangible Google updates in recent times, it is clear that some of the poorer quality, unoriginal and one-dimensional affiliate-model websites would have been negatively impacted. Which of course is the case; however the writing has been on the wall for years. Super-affiliates like Rae Hoffman since even before this post in 2007 have talked about how the affiliate industry must evolve to survive or you quite simply won’t.
How Affiliates Are Coming Our Fighting
My main reason for attending the conference was in running an expert clinic for SEO PR Training and in those clinics spoke to affiliate website owners keen to discuss creative ideas to differentiate and market the unique stories these businesses had.
I wasn’t the only service provider there who encountered affiliates with a much more sophisticated and rounded strategy. Industry colleagues had similar experiences in speaking to affiliates that had a product, a USP, and a strategy.
As mentioned, it seems that the message is through, with all the affiliates I spoke to having implemented a multi-layered marketing strategy using a variety of online marketing techniques (and some investing in offline marketing too), plus expanding their roster of service provider-types to include public relations and traditional marketing.
I spoke to Andy Barr, co-founder of award-winning PR agency 10 Yetis about his observations of the evolution of the industry following the show. Barr told me that 10 Yetis have seen a marked increase in interest and clients from the affiliate sector over the past few years.
“In my mind the reasons are probably two fold. The first hopefully being that they have seen the positives of what we and other affiliate savvy PR Agencies have historically done for affiliates who are serious about engaging with a public relations firm for the long term,” Barr said. “The second is probably more to do with the new breed of affiliate marketer and shows just how much the industry has moved forward. Today’s modern affiliate has had the importance of brand values drummed into them and know that PR is (I am biased) one of, if not the most effective and efficient ways of building a brand.”
Building a brand you say? I couldn’t agree more!
Setting aside the Vince update, brands behave in a 360 way, with a universal presence throughout media types and platforms. Most importantly though; brands (the ones that are better at marketing) engage and communicate with their audience. At its crudest, this is above and beyond a strategy that relies heavily on planting meaningless links in poor-quality content, on websites that no human will read.
What is strategy alone without a great product however? One of the additional key themes of conversation on the expo floor was “value.” In that affiliate-site owners are developing websites that offer something that the merchant does not.
“Providing value as an affiliate is key to survive in 2011,” UK based affiliate Richard Kershaw told me. “I own a site called Who Is Hosting This. It's a simple idea - it's a tool which tells you which web host a site uses. But that information is priceless, for reasons as diverse as competitor research to dealing with copyright theft. The simple fact that this affiliate site provides useful information means it has received recommendations from The New York Times and from the UK government.”
Some of the affiliates I spoke to and others not present that I know, have been making the jump to become merchants and original service providers themselves. Utilizing the skills, strategies and techniques learned in the past years many affiliates are rolling out their approach to online business and making that jump to owning the revenue production model. Kershaw agrees.
“I'm seeing a clear trend for affiliates making the move to become merchants or service providers,” Kershaw said. “The barriers to entry are falling fast, from services like ShipWire for fulfillment to platforms like Shopify and Magento to build stores on the tightest of budgets.”
Kershaw himself has made that jump, with his Wish.co.uk project, and in addition many other UK super-affiliates have launched a range of businesses that either innovate on the merchant product, or offer a genuine service. One such affiliate, Kieron Donoghue, operates the successful playlist sharing community site; that allows Spotify users to do something that they can’t on Spotify, with his ShareMyPlaylists.com.
How Can SEO Learn From This?
Quite simply, to optimize a website in a future-proof way SEOs need to work with their clients to ensure that site content is original, and valuable. Your approach needs to be consultative from the ground-up.
Plus (and this is a drum I bang all the time), SEO needs to embrace PR and other marketing strategies and develop our understanding of the marketing mix. Dare I say it – know your “footfall” from your “leaderboard”, know your “DPS” from your “opening rate”.
I’m not talking about offering every service under the sun or trying to be expert in all. Few people can be truly great, at a great many things and I for one am certainly not one of them. No, I’m talking about looking outside of our industry and understanding our place in the wider range of business-marketing services. Adapting a more sophisticated and holistic approach will be the key to future-proof success.
So in fact rather than rolling over; the UK affiliate scene is thriving, innovating, evolving and adding value to the web and I’d even go as far to say that SEOs can learn a lot from affiliate businesses and I’d encourage SEOs to add affiliate conferences to their own conference agendas as a great place to learn and network.
The next big conference on the agenda is SES London 2012, and might I propose that a super-affiliate panel might be an extremely interesting, fresh agenda item with appeal for all attendees!