Google has spoiled the fun for affiliates

By Dan Pearce on May 18th, 2012

Every single change to Google’s search algorithm over the past three years has made it that much harder for the affiliate. For a company whose decisions literally make or break online businesses the world over, Google doesn’t say much. It has, however, been uncharacteristically specific about its attempts to devalue affiliate websites and remove them from its search results.

But the times are changing. There has been a lot of press of late about Facebook and latterly Pinterest becoming the single biggest referrer to some websites, admittedly more often to publishers than retail sites. Oh, to be the marketing manager who checks their analytics for an e-commerce website that isn’t dependent on Google for more than 50 per cent of their traffic.

To give credit to the affiliates, they are a much-maligned bunch, but they have proved remarkably resilient and adaptable over the past decade. Affiliates were behind the growth of price comparison, of cashback and most recently discount vouchers, all products which have proved extremely popular with the consumer.

But having the consumer on side might not be enough. When it isn’t buying them up, Google is making life hard for the price comparison sites, and many retailers have grown sceptical of the real value of sales from cashback and voucher sites.

It’s easy to think of Google and its referred visits as a single entity to be tamed, managed or at least to make occasional sacrifices to. But then it’s worth keeping in mind that every single Google “visit” represents an individual who is sitting in front of their computer or on their mobile phone.

When it comes to search, Google has the market largely captive, but those individuals are doing a lot more than just searching when they’re online.

So it’s time to adapt again, or should that be to pivot. Affiliates are faced with two choices. One is to get big; the largest affiliates, the multi-million pound businesses, have become brands in their own right. As such, they are more likely to still have a seat in the search engine result pages when Google changes the music once again.

Getting big on this scale is not a realistic route for most affiliates, so the preferred alternative is to get small, really small. Taking affiliate marketing down to the next level of granularity. To that one individual sitting in front of a computer or on their mobile phone. You, me, your mother.

A big contention is that consumers are the new affiliates. Globally, 1.43 billion people use social media as part of their everyday life. Everyone reading this has an email address, and just as many will have a Facebook or Twitter account. Whether through social media, or good old fashioned email, we each have a network, and if there’s one thing Facebook’s imminent float and Instagram’s recent acquisition has shown, it’s that a network is significantly more valuable than an audience.

This isn’t new. Think of the amount of people who have attended a party hosted by a friend in which the whole aim was to be sold something. Consider the thousands of people who have given a friend’s contact details to the gym in exchange for a free guest pass. What about those who introduced a friend to a paid TV service and received some vouchers in return? A recent survey by YouGov shows that over a third of Brits have done one or more of the above.

Referral marketing pre-dates affiliate marketing by generations and the mechanics are remarkably similar. But there is one key difference between referral marketing and affiliate marketing. In referral marketing the two parties know one another.

It’s time for a change. Affiliate marketing needs to get personal.