Earlier this month an interesting email came to me from an advertiser whose affiliate program we started a few months ago (edit: on an affiliate network). Here’s the gist of it (with parts of the text re-worded to hide sensitive information):
Recently, both of our main websites got hit by Google Penguin update due to bad linking practices. As a result, the websites’ traffic and conversion rates have dropped substantially.
We know that when running an affiliate program, we should make sure we have something good to offer our affiliates, and the first thing to focus on is a strong, consistent conversion rate. At this time we have to put all our effort in recovering from Penguin penalty, and want to wrap up our affiliate marketing efforts in the meantime.
My immediate reply to the client was:
I am not entirely sure how the Penguin update is related to what we are doing. Your affiliate traffic comes from affiliate websites, and has nothing to do with your own rankings. Your conversion rate is consistently steady, and we see good sales rolling in. Why would you want to stop this?
I was not provided much detail on the SEO side of things, but it sounded like the advertiser got hit by Penguin 2.1, an improved version of the original Penguin update, geared at addressing various webspam techniques (keyword stuffing, unnatural inbound links, etc).
The two consequences that the advertiser originally pointed to were: (i) loss of traffic, and (ii) conversion rate drop. The former (less visitors coming to your website because its search engine rankings got affected) was a natural consequence of the above-referenced types of Google updates. However, the latter, actually, made no sense to me. My analysis of this particular advertiser’s situation (on the affiliate conversion front) before and after the search engine update has proven my point:
In September, before they got hit by Google’s penalties, their affiliate traffic converted at 3.37% (with average affiliate earnings per 100 clicks being $27.47), while after the hit their conversion has been averaging 3.09% (with the EPC figure, actually, growing). Yes, there was a minor change to the conversion rate. However, so minor that it may be safely deemed insignificant; especially with the overall growth of average affiliate earnings per click referred.
This is not the first time that I am encountering a situation when panicking about their SEO or SEM problem, a merchant extends their worry beyond their own search-related situation. And I believe it is hugely important for advertisers to understand that while search and affiliate are closely intertwined (in terms of the complex marketing impact), when your rankings are affected, your affiliate-referred visitors/customers can compensate for the loss of your organic traffic.
So, in cases like the above-quoted one, while you are working on fixing your own website, do not close your affiliate program. On the contrary — invest more time and effort into it to get more traffic and sales from/through affiliates.