In this article I would like to discuss the debate regarding the use of plain links as affiliate links. First though, a quick run-down of what that is exactly.
Some affiliate management tools allow the affiliate to register a domain name (or sub-domain), or in some cases, a specific URL, in their account. The more sophisticated tools will automate a verification process to prove the affiliate does in fact have access to the domain or web page in question.
Now, once registered (and approved), the affiliate can send traffic from that domain (or page, etc. – I’ll just say “domain” from here on out), but the links don’t have to be true affiliate links. They are just plain links to the store homepage, or deeper product links.
The referring URL is the determining factor for which the affiliate is awarded the sale
What happens here is, the affiliate management software will check the “referring” URL (provided that bit of info is available because in some browsers, in some instances, it may be blocked) and if it matches any registered domains, then the affiliate who registered it becomes the “referring affiliate” for this visit.
So, the standard stuff happens from here, whether it be a cookie being placed, or a session is created… either way… any sales made are credited to the affiliate. This is odd but kind of cool, because the visitor came through on a plain link rather than an affiliate link!
The advantages and disadvantages of plain link affiliate tracking and the potential for abuse
Is this shady? Well, it certainly can be abused. The affiliate manager and the affiliate have something to gain here, and there can be drawbacks to it as well which I will explain shortly.
First of all, the affiliate could make it seem as though it is a genuine, non-monetized, referral. That’s shady. The link should still be fully disclosed as an affiliate link, and should also include the “nofollow” attribute so as not to pass link juice (debatable I know). But, the “nofollow” tag could eliminate one of the biggest advantages of this whole thing for the affiliate manager (the merchant). This plain URL “feature” is often advertised to the affiliate managers as an “SEO enhancement.”
Because you see, if you have an army of affiliates linking to a web site with regular old links, providing the “nofollow” attribute isn’t in place, this can be a HUGE SEO win. But, in my opinion, an undeserved one. Well, I should say, if affiliate links do not help with SEO because they are considered “advertisements,” then these plain links really shouldn’t either. But hey, I’m a “by the rules” kind of guy for the most part. Why? Because it allows my work to stand the test of time. No sense being shady. It’s bad karma and Google and the Universe is much smarter than me (and you).
Ok.. so, if we are following all the rules and marking the link as an affiliate link, using “nofollow” appropriately (so therefore no SEO value for the merchant), and the possible loss of tracking when the “referring URL” is blocked, plus all the other disconnects that can happen when sending affiliate traffic, what’s the value?
No more affiliate link management for the affiliate – this is a huge win!
Gruesome affiliate link management essentially disappears! If you have been in the affiliate marketing world for any length of time you will see the value in this. Managing affiliate links is a pain in the caboose.
This is especially true when you have a huge web site with affiliate links riddled all over the place. This site may have taken years to build and is making money for you like clockwork. Then what happens when the merchant switches software (or even in some cases upgrades – yeah I’m talking to you JROX), then *sometimes* the old affiliate links stop working! Ouch! Who wants to go through every article to change those links? Not I. But I have, sometimes it’s worth the pain, especially when you have a web site that virtually runs itself and is paying the rent bill every month 😉
Now, the merchant can upgrade and even switch software without angering affiliates
With the plain link URLs, the same thing could realistically happen. But… the merchant, I hope, will be very careful to choose software that supports the same feature. So, even if a new piece of software is chosen, the merchant could figure some way to import users and their domains (and other links), and the affiliates wouldn’t skip a beat.
Different software, but the links could stay the same. That’s the value in it. It’s very very simple.
Add to that, some affiliate management tools make it a pain to deep link within a web site. That pain disappears because all the affiliate will need to do is find the page he or she wants to link to, and well, link to it 🙂
Tracking from domains you don’t own, and from newsletters, is still possible with this method
But I know what you are thinking. This doesn’t help when promoting from a newsletter because the newsletter “referring URL” cannot be determined (or can it?). Either way, the link from the newsletter can be to the domain, and a redirect can happen from there, right? That works, I tested it.
The affiliate management tool should always store the referring URL so that tracking will be a breeze. But when there is more than one *affiliate* link (your plain link) per page, then it should allow for the addition of a tracking parameter that could be created on the fly. Not all of them do, but most should.
You know something? This article encouraged me to create affiliate management software that ONLY allows for these plain links and this simple but sophisticated tracking. Wouldn’t that be simple to develop! 😉