How publishers can regain traffic and revenue with affiliate marketing
Media companies and publishers play a pivotal role in affiliate marketing. They are in the position to wield significant influence, enhance search engine rankings and drive substantial revenue for businesses.
However, recent shifts in the industry have seen traditional publications lose their traffic, with smaller, newer players dominating Google’s top positions.
I’ve worked with several media organizations that have sought guidance to boost their traffic and revenue through affiliate marketing.
This article distills valuable insights and recommendations, offering a roadmap for success in a field where reputation and backlinks no longer guarantee instant returns.
Organic traffic performance of established publications vs. newer, smaller publishers
While tracking the performance of media companies doing affiliate marketing, I started seeing traffic declines for established brands.
Below are some snapshots of the websites’ performance. They reflect the entire website’s organic traffic performance, not just the specific sections related to affiliate marketing.
Specifically, keep an eye on the years 2017 and 2021, as these were pivotal periods when significant changes occurred. The screenshots were taken from Semrush, but other tools show the same or similar traffic patterns.
Several publications that encountered traffic declines require a media fee, so you mostly only see big brands and the same products featured in their content.
On the other hand, newer publications are moving in to take their place. Some are making the same mistakes, while others are doing things differently.
Here are a few new players that moved in and are making bank. These are only the website’s affiliate sections so that you can see the gains.
What can be the reason behind these movements?
Let’s look at the sites’ affiliate programs and the types of vendors being promoted
The absence of variety and alternatives
Part of Google’s reviews update is to show variety for shopping. Still, some media outlets tend to focus on big brands and overlook diversification in their affiliate marketing lists.
Some of the publications in the screenshots will tell you that they must work only with certain vendors to add affiliate links, which is a huge mistake (at least in my opinion).
The lack of diversity and options provides a worse experience for consumers, and the sites that did this all have the same traffic-dropping patterns. And although it is not necessarily against Google’s reviews update, it does not meet the guidelines.
Other times, publications won’t add new or up-and-coming brands because their affiliate team requires sponsorships and advertorial purchases. Only the big brands can afford this, especially because placements aren’t always guaranteed.
Often, these smaller or up-and-coming brands will feature the logos and sometimes backlinks to the publication. Although the publications have tons of links, these are harder to get and could help especially if the link is to the listicle they’re featured in.
Smaller stores and brands may share the listicle on social media, and that can bring search engine spiders back to the content for crawling. This sharing also brings potential shoppers to the media listicles and drives more sales for the publication.
There’s a lot of SEO and monetization benefits from going with smaller brands. Still, if the decision-makers at media companies demand big brands and ad fees, they’re sacrificing their online success and ongoing commissions for a one-time fee. It’s a long-term loss for a short-term gain and the potential loss of traffic as a whole.
The struggle of balancing helpful content and monetization
Outside of the advertiser and brand diversity, some publications syndicate their lists with the same vendors to their other brands.
That makes the quality drop on each brand, even if they spin the content. The pros and cons stay roughly the same, so do the products and services featured, and they use the same talking points.
Adding a couple of unique variations won’t make the content helpful or value-adding. That’s why it is important to let editors remain 100% independent on each publication and from the affiliate and ads teams.
They will do the research and choose the best items they can talk about from their expertise. But that doesn’t mean ads and affiliate teams cannot contribute. They can say, “please feature these brands” within. The editors will be free to talk about their experience, whether it is positive, neutral or negative.
But that goes to another issue. Even with editorial freedom, the ads teams may interfere with content by adding cards, carousels, and predominant spaces that feature affiliate and paid links. This offsets the list of services ranked based on merit and quality.
The pay-to-play content is part of the page which means it can potentially impact SEO. The good news is that these features are clearly ads and not part of the content. But these ad spaces can impact the usefulness of the content if they bury it. There’s a balancing act between providing the content the person wants and displaying ads or affiliate lists.
On some lists, the content could be value-adding, fact-checked, and written by industry experts. That’s why the page currently ranks. Then ads carousels or widgets are placed above or between them for monetization. This could cause a drop as the content is no longer as helpful, but it is a needed feature for the publication to make money. There’s a balancing act that occurs.
These paid placements – whether an affiliate, a CPC, a flat fee, a CPM, an advertorial, or a mix of payment models – offset the original text. The paid portions may exist above the expertise content, and that changes the user experience.
The changed UX could make it so the helpful content update devalues their pages and the site. This is where smaller publishers, new media companies, and niche sites can move in and dominate.
Let’s use a pair of running shoes as an example.
Suppose all the lists have Brooks Running for three of the five results and Under Armour for the other two.
Each list has the same shoes and similar talking points. There’s not much difference and variety. This is where the Google reviews update with multiple stores comes in.
Featuring the big brands is OK. Still, try to find independent stores or emerging stores and test the products.
By including a couple of independent retailers or unknown brands, you can add unique copy and shopping options that others cannot. And consumers may enjoy supporting small businesses, not to mention discovering new favorites.
Suppose you discover an equally good shoe for road running that is eco-friendly. Replace something from the list and write original content about the new option.
Then, link directly to their store and elsewhere to shop if they aren’t a DTC-only brand.
Your content has a unique experience combined with the standard best-in-class products. And finding these hidden gems is easy.
Start by looking at retail shows for the footwear and sportswear industries and see who is presenting, advertising, and attending. You’ll discover the brands trying to get their “foot” in the door.
You can also look for new brands on affiliate networks and ask for products to test. On top of having a unique store or brand to help your list stand out, you’ll have original photos and be able to show you physically tried the product, which works to your advantage with E-E-A-T.
As an added bonus, the smaller brands will have more flexibility with commissions, in many cases, and be more attentive as they appreciate the chance you’re taking on them.
- Ensure that 20-30% of the brands, stores, or products featured on your list are lesser-known and unique, not commonly found on generic “best” or “top” lists. Get the product in hand and give a unique perspective on it – both good and bad.
- Unique and original experiences tend to get rewarded by search engines, along with the standards on the other lists. By having at least 20% of your list different from the others, you’re providing something the others don’t. These new features are why your content is more unique and original – a value-add to the consumer.
Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.
Author bios that don’t demonstrate E-E-A-T
Demonstrating the author’s credentials is a key element for E-E-A-T.
In many cases, author bios are “thin” and don’t share how or why the person is qualified to create the content.
Some will say they love spending the weekend with their dogs or family, which is fine. But they must also list their professional experience, accolades, and qualifications.
- Where are they published, or what industry awards do they have?
- How have they had real-life experience in the niche for an extended time?
- What certifications or degrees do they have that are accredited and recognized by industry professionals?
If they’re reviewing or writing content about the best hosting service, being a tech writer doesn’t help.
Anyone can write an article about technology by researching or reading the service provider’s websites. The writer and fact-checker must both be qualified.
Having a degree or advanced degree in IT and having worked for a hosting company on the product, engineering, or development team for more than 10 years does.
Getting multiple certifications related to the field and sharing the most recent ones also helps make the case why you are an expert in the field.
Ensure the editor and/or fact-checker does not just write listicles and reviews. They should also write guides on how to configure servers, troubleshoot common issues, etc.
Having this mixed within the shopping content builds their trust with the community, and that trust can be passed to their choices on the shopping lists or shopping content. And with that trust, you may see higher conversion rates.
If the person is not writing the guides and “how to” posts on the publication, don’t worry. Link to their bios for where they write high-value content.
For example, I write both here and at other large SEO and marketing publications.
If I am writing a list of marketing tools or services to shop for, ecommerce tools, or guides on affiliate marketing where I’ve won awards, featuring that I’m a columnist or contributor and linking to my author pages allows both people and search engines to associate my knowledge and credibility with the shopping content.
This is something some of the media companies that lost traffic did not do a good job of.
Non-unique selling points or lack of hands-on experience
Many media companies require editorial integrity. A few, in particular, make it clear that editorial and ad sales/affiliate relationship managers are separate. That is a very good thing!
The two teams cannot impact each other for a strong site SEO-wise. These media houses are flourishing and will likely continue because all integrity is intact.
But that doesn’t mean the affiliate teams should not have editors. Allowing the affiliate teams to have writers makes the company better overall.
Successful media companies often separate the teams and allow the affiliate relationship managers to recommend vendors if there is space and a reason.
In other cases, the affiliate team has editors, and the content goes through an SEO and ads review to ensure quality and UX.
By having editors with the affiliate team, they can ensure diversity and introduce new brands and products. Not all sites require an ad fee, which is why these sites have more product and brand diversity. These ones are flourishing.
In these cases, the editors have full control and say over who and what gets featured as their preferences while being able to include good alternatives from the affiliate and ads teams.
It keeps the quality of the content way up. One issue does not apply to the majority above but exists with a few I’m not featuring.
In very few cases, editors are not allowed to receive products, which is odd. If they’re required to write about it, they should be able to test it and have full authority to evaluate it.
They need to be experts to win the readers’ trust and appease algorithms, and they need to share their real experiences for an authentic voice.
The way to do this is to have the product in hand or use the service. If the brand cannot send samples because the media house does not allow that, then the media company needs to buy or hire the service provider for the real-life experience.
There’s no other way around that if the publication wants to succeed. But this has become rare. Most allow product samples now.
Having real photos vs. ones from the brand, showing it in real life, and sharing unique ways to use it all build trust and work for E-E-A-T.
The FTC already requires disclosures at the top of the content or in a clear and easy-to-see space when using affiliate links or selling advertorials. Having a disclosure that you got the products featured in the post isn’t a big deal.
Consumers probably prefer to know that you tried it before recommending it. And if you feature the bad and the good, you’ll keep the consumer’s trust because you’re giving them the full story.
The content isn’t relevant to their audience
I see the publication going for high payments vs. product or service quality.
This tactic gets higher affiliate commissions but also reduces the value of the recommendations because it isn’t based 100% on actual quality.
Higher payouts can lead to irrelevant user experiences. When a brand sees success because the trust of the domain lifts a topically irrelevant listicle, it may expand further into niches that aren’t topically relevant to its audience. This is bad for many reasons.
If you’re a cooking website and people love the recipes, chef interviews, and ingredient highlights, having a list of the best pet insurance is irrelevant to your audience, even if most readers have pets.
Neither are website builders, even if your audience has their own recipe blogs.
And just because they have blogs, it does not mean they’re on your site looking for small business loans or vacuum cleaners, even though they could use them. Your audience may need them at some point, but that isn’t why they come to you.
When you start pumping out content because it can make you money with affiliate marketing, you take away from the good user experience. If people want dinner recipes, and every third article is a shopping post, the site is no longer helpful and doesn’t meet their needs.
They’ll shift to a new site that stays true to the niche, and you’re likely confusing search engines with what the topic of your site is.
The helpful content update looks at your site as a whole instead of page by page. Google wants to ensure the person gets an easy answer to what they are searching for in the fastest way possible.
That can include multiple forms of media like a blog post, a video, or a sound clip. Because the helpful content update assesses your entire website, it’s reasonable to expect that the articles surrounding the one the user is reading should also be related and relevant.
If the person is on your article learning how to clean wine off a silk shirt, and you give them an answer, they may click on the homepage to see what else you have.
The content and categories should be broken into cleaning and upkeep topics if the site is a cleaning and housekeeping site.
If the person finds life insurance lists, web hosting, or extended car warranties but not the themes they expected, it is a bad experience.
The end user might click on one of them because it is interesting, but you lost your chance to be their go-to resource for cleaning and upkeep.
Instead of irrelevant but high-paying lists, create content with the best cleaning products, landscapers, types of flowers by region and season, etc.
These are part of cleaning and owning a home and tie into the theme. Your entire website will have a better human experience because it is relevant for the humans on your site.
And there are good paying affiliate programs with each niche if you put the work in to find them.
The relevant topics of the shopping lists show the reader you have a lot of resources that complement why they came to you, and by having these, you give them a reason to subscribe to your publication and follow it on social media.
You can link to the lists from the how-to guides, creating an even better UX. When the person clicks from the how-to guide, you’ve increased pageviews for CPM money and can earn a commission. It is a big win for you as a publisher.
When you win their trust, they may opt-in to your email or SMS list. Having them on your email and SMS list means you can make money for many years.
Regaining traffic and profitability with better affiliate marketing strategies
The media companies in the first set of screenshots can turn things around if they change their focus. They can get their traffic back and expand revenue if they:
- Diversify their product and shopping options.
- Work on E-E-A-T and topical authority.
- Maintain a balance between content and monetization.
Note: The screenshots showing traffic declines are for sites I do not work on directly for SEO but watch and use as examples with clients. In some cases, I do work with them through affiliate programs.
The information was publicly available and accessed using third-party tools. Site names have been withheld. The specific websites are not disclosed to avoid any potential scrutiny or repercussions and also out of respect for their privacy and business operations.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.