Do Affiliate Links Hurt SEO?

Affiliate SEO for Beginners—Uncovering the Truth Behind Your Rankings

Do affiliate links hurt SEO? It's more about ethics and decency than technical secrets. Learn how affiliate links impact SEO and discover growth strategies.
Harvey A. Ramer
Harvey A. Ramer
8 min read (1805 words)

About the Author: Harvey A. Ramer has over two decades of experience as a software engineer. He helps business owners reach people seeking their expertise through search engine results. Harvey enjoys translating complex digital concepts into simple ideas for nontechnical business people. For SEO help, please reach out.

Many people misunderstand what it takes to successfully attract traffic from search engines like Google, particularly when using affiliate links to monetize content. Social media influencers often tout affiliate marketing as a straightforward path to passive income. So what exactly is affiliate marketing?

The most common affiliate marketing technique involves embedding links within your content; when readers click these links and make purchases, you earn a commission. It is a powerful way to create income, and done ethically, it provides your audience with high-value products based on your trustworthy recommendations. However, without careful management, it can appear overtly self-serving.

For those new to affiliate marketing, success largely hinges on attracting as many visitors as possible to their web pages. This realization often leads them to explore search engine optimization (SEO). SEO aims to elevate your content on search engine results pages, aligning it with search queries related to your content’s themes. However, a common concern arises: “Do affiliate links hurt SEO?” While affiliate links themselves do not directly impact SEO, their presence can lead to indirect consequences that deserve careful consideration.

Creating content that prioritizes your earnings over user value can tarnish your brand’s reputation. It’s crucial to focus on genuinely meeting the needs of your readers, crafting a content strategy that balances helpfulness with profitability.

Affiliate SEO: Trust, Relationships, and Value

Over the past twenty years, I have experimented with affiliate marketing through sharing book reviews. My first blog featured reviews of technical books provided to me for free by publishers. This symbiotic relationship significantly benefited my career, and I am thankful for it. However, I never disclosed my relationship with these publishers—an oversight and legal risk in affiliate marketing.

More recently, I have promoted online platforms belonging to friends through affiliate arrangements. Yet, unlike many who focus heavily on such strategies, I have never pursued it intensely enough to earn a substantial income. Despite its potential for lucrative returns, what holds me back?

When I share an affiliate link, I ask myself: “Would I recommend this resource if I weren’t getting paid?” At first, this seems straightforward, but truthfully, it’s complex. The mere decision to engage in affiliate marketing often carries an inherent desire for profit. At best, I may inquire, “Among the products I wish to promote, which offer affiliate programs that could benefit me?” This mindset inherently skews objectivity.

I share my experiences not to criticize others who use affiliate links but to highlight a potential ethical pitfall. While I believe we can share such links ethically and helpfully, we often act self-interestedly. Our inherent bias can subtly erode trust and credibility.

Google Is Skeptical of Our Motives for Affiliate Content

As a search engine, Google aims to answer user queries by returning the most relevant results. This goal, while straightforward, requires tremendous effort (in part) because of SEO. Since Google’s rise to prominence, businesses have spent millions of dollars to appear first in search results—or at least on the first page.

In their pursuit of top rankings, SEO professionals have often tried to reverse engineer the Google algorithm. Was it the number of websites that link to us or the length of content that made the difference? In this quest, many have strayed from Google’s core mission. Instead of striving to provide the best answers to users’ questions, they have exploited their skills to populate the first page of search results with low-quality content.

One can view the history of Google as a search engine as a continuous interaction between SEO experts and the evolving Google algorithm. A clear lesson emerges from this narrative: Google cannot inherently trust us to prioritize its users’ best interests. To rank well, we must demonstrate our trustworthiness. Mass-produced content that does not offer an original or personal perspective is unlikely to stand out in the crowded digital landscape.[1]

Overcoming Doubts: A Systematic Approach to SEO

1. Disclosure and Transparency

In affiliate marketing, transparency isn’t just a virtue—it’s a federal mandate.[2] Transparent practices, such as clearly labeling affiliate links and informing your audience that you may earn a commission if they purchase through your links, not only build trust but are crucial for compliance. Ideally, you can achieve this by including a straightforward disclaimer at the beginning of your articles or near the adjacent to the affiliate links.

Google’s authoritative guidance on content quality does not discuss affiliate disclosures at length,[3] they do stress the importance of being upfront about the true purpose of a website. Misrepresentations, such as claiming to provide an unbiased review when the real intent is to sell, negate any benefits a disclosure might offer. It’s about aligning your site’s practices with a culture of honesty, which Google values highly.

2. Relevance and Value of Content

“Content is king” is a cliché for a reason in the SEO world. I cannot overstate the importance of the connection between your content and the affiliate products you promote. Search engines provide users with relevant and informative content matched to their search intentions. It’s critical that affiliate links within your content naturally tie into the products or services you are discussing.

For instance, a page that promises an expert review of televisions but only provides a list of affiliate links under the guise of reviews would fail this test. While such strategies might temporarily succeed in driving sales, they ultimately damage trust and credibility—two pillars upon which we must build any sustainable online success.

3. Use of Nofollow Links

Using “nofollow” links is crucial for maintaining your site’s SEO integrity. This technical yet essential practice involves marking certain links with a “nofollow” attribute, signaling to Google and other search engines that these links should not influence your site’s ranking in search results.[4]

Nofollow links are mainly used for transactional purposes, like affiliate partnerships, rather than for editorial value.[5] By using this attribute, you communicate to search engines that your aim is not to manipulate SEO rankings. This transparency is crucial for maintaining your site’s credibility.

4. Link Quality and Quantity

The quality and quantity of affiliate links you include can drastically affect your site’s SEO and user experience. Overloading a page with affiliate links can overwhelm the user and detract from the genuine quality of the content, leading to what Google refers to as “thin affiliate pages.”[6]

These pages contain little to no unique content and contain numerous self-serving links. A balanced approach is essential—each link should serve a clear purpose, adding real value rather than merely serving as a gateway to external products.

5. Product Reviews Should Link to More than One Seller

Affiliate marketers often create product review sites that provide insights into the pros and cons of a product and include an affiliate link to a seller. By linking to several high-quality sellers rather than just one, marketers demonstrate to search engines—and their readers—that their aim is to support informed choice rather than merely maximizing their own profits.[7] This approach not only potentially offers better deals for the customer but also aligns with Google’s goal of enhancing the user experience. Such strategies can indirectly improve the site’s SEO by building trust and authority, crucial factors in search rankings.

6. Avoiding Link Schemes

Link schemes are covert agreements among groups who interlink their content to boost site visibility artificially, but we must avoid them if we expect to thrive long term. Often, content creators who feel overlooked may resort to such schemes to promote each other’s work. However, these practices typically support low-quality content that doesn’t merit attention on its own. Search engines, like Google, heavily penalize such activities because they undermine the integrity of search results. Instead, your strategy should focus on building organic links through the provision of high-quality content and services.

While Google’s guidelines do not outright ban purchasing links or reciprocal linking, they require full disclosure of such arrangements.[8] Honesty in these practices, and with affiliate marketing itself, is non-negotiable.

Final Thoughts on Affiliate Links and SEO

Navigating the complexities of SEO and affiliate links does not have to undermine your marketing efforts. By prioritizing transparency, maintaining high-quality and relevant content, using nofollow tags wisely, managing the number of affiliate links, and steering clear of dubious link schemes, you can ensure that your affiliate marketing efforts are effective and respectful of SEO principles.

These practices align with search engine guidelines and build trust and credibility with your audience, ensuring long-term success in your digital endeavors. Remember, succeeding as an affiliate marketer isn’t just about “beating Google” — it’s about creating a partnership between your business, search engines, and the real people who benefit from your content.

  1. According to Siteefy, there are 252,000 new websites launched every day in 2024. The entire website is comprised of about 1.09 billion websites with only 18% of them being active. ↩︎

  2. The FTC offers some helpful guidance on exactly what must be disclosed, and when. ↩︎

  3. But a blog post from 2016 is explicit about the need to disclose all mutually beneficial relationships, such as the donation of products in return for a review. ↩︎

  4. If you don’t know HTML, you may want to discuss this with your website provider for more clarity. Here is an example link with a nofollow attribute: <a href="spammy-url" rel="nofollow">Buy this product</a>. ↩︎

  5. “Bloggers should use the nofollow tag on all such links because these links didn’t come about organically (that is, the links wouldn’t exist if the company hadn’t offered to provide a good or service in exchange for a link).” — Best practices for bloggers reviewing products they receive from companies ↩︎

  6. “Thin affiliate pages are pages with product affiliate links on which the product descriptions and reviews are copied directly from the original merchant without any original content or added value.” — Spam policies for Google web search ↩︎

  7. Google’s guidance on product reviews says, “Consider including links to multiple sellers to give the reader the option to purchase from their merchant of choice.” — Write high quality reviews ↩︎

  8. “Google does understand that buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web for advertising and sponsorship purposes. It’s not a violation of our policies to have such links as long as they are qualified with a rel="nofollow" or rel="sponsored" attribute value to the <a> tag.” — Spam policies for Google web search ↩︎

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