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Affiliates Cannibalizing Organic Search Traffic

Posted on August 28, 2009 by Zach

Recently, I have been seeing a disturbing trend, affiliates who join an advertisers program, grab their data feed and then, using networks of automated websites, cannibalize the advertisers organic search traffic. These tech savvy affiliates realize that by using the advertisers own data against them on their own websites, they can trick Google and other search engines into indexing a large amount of pages which are displayed in Google's and other search engines organic listings and therefore generate a lot of traffic and commissions for them via affiliate networks. I have seen this done a couple of different ways, some more shady than others.

Here is how it works...

A publisher/affiliate will sign up for a program that offers data feed access.

Once they are approved and have access to the data feed, they will set up an automated way (typically via FTP) to grab that data feed and insert it into their own database or content management system.

This database or CMS then feeds their multitudes of websites (I have seen affiliates operating this way with hundreds of websites) with this data.

The next step is done usually one of a few ways. To get indexed by Google they typically cloak (this basically means that they do one thing when Google comes knocking and another when normal users do) their multitudes of websites getting search engines to index basically the same information the advertiser has on their website.

Now that the affiliate has all of these websites with all of this product data getting indexed they either forward only the users, not the search engines, to the advertisers website or to another one of the affiliate websites which the user can use to click through to the advertiser.

This basically creates several listings in organic search results for the affiliate, each of which will drop a cookie if clicked by a user.  Additionally each will generate commissions if clicked on and a purchase was made by the user. Keep in mind that now the advertiser’s typically single website can be severely outnumbered by the affiliate’s army of websites.  The army of websites that are using the same data the merchant is using on their own website and then supplying via their affiliate account!

Here is an example... (Screen shot below)

World Imports Google Search with Affiliate Spam

The affiliate in question used to be a part of our program, however after trying to contact them to let them know we were not happy with the ways in which they where promoting our website, and not receiving a response we had to remove them. They then continued to sign up for our programs under different account names and we had to go through the same process and remove them again.

Not only are affiliates using these tactics to cannibalize their advertiser’s organic traffic but many of these tactics are against search engines and affiliate networks terms of use.

I recommend that you watch for affiliates using tactics like this especially if it’s something you don't want them doing. Also make sure you have language in your affiliate agreement which directly note tactics you don't want used when promoting your program.

In many cases contacting affiliates and explaining your position is a great way to deal with potential issues and many are happy to oblige. Most affiliates are there to work with you in promoting your program, but on occasion you’ll find those trying to game the system.

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