Adwords & Affiliates in 2010: The Way Forward

23 Comments Written on February 1st, 2010 by
Categories: Google Adwords, Landing Pages

Warning:  This post is a long one, but it’s worth the read:)

The Great Adwords Affiliate Massacre of 2009 will be forever remembered as a dark and confusing time for advertisers with affiliate relationships as the heart of their business model.

Educated estimates indicate Google culled over 30,000 advertisers during Q4 of ’09.

“Google’s Gonna Miss My Money!”

Asked about this seemingly unprofitable move during Google’s Q4 analyst Q&A session, Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s VP of Product Management indicated just how little banning this many advertisers effectively mattered to Google’s financials:

Aaron Kessler – (Kaufman Bros):

I think there were some reports that you may have filtered out some of your advertisers this quarter on the ad sense side. Can you provide any more details about that?  - ED. Note:  Obviously the analyst is referring to Adwords not Adsense

Nikesh Arora (Google):

Obviously we are constantly looking at our advertisers to see whether there is an extraordinary [expand] that is happening. We have thrown in those advertisers who repeatedly attempt to scam users. So we went through one of our regular processes of looking at advertisers and seeing which ones of those we though weren’t adding quality or adding sort of value to our users. In those cases we chose to suspend them permanently.

Jonathan Rosenberg (Google):

This was happening this quarter with the approach we took to suspend the repeated scam users as opposed to before where all we were doing was disabling certain bad ads.

Aaron Kessler – (Kaufman Bros.)

Does this have any material impact on the quarter numbers? It sounds like it could have had a slight impact from what I was reading.

Jonathan Rosenberg (Google):

No the impact is slight. It is a relatively small number.

In short, the 30,000 banned advertisers didn’t make much of an impact on the Adwords cash machine at all. So the screams of affiliates bitterly pointing that they ‘spend millions on Adwords’, fell on deaf ears.  By all accounts, so did affiliates’ appeal requests to Google for reconsideration.

Who Was Cut & Why?

It’s pretty fair to say that aggressive affiliate marketers pushing fraudulent re-bill offers could likely have seen this coming.  However, the wide net that was cast “disabling” the accounts of affiliates who hadn’t promoted “get-rich-quick-with-Google” or re-bill diet offers crushed a lot of affiliates’ primary revenue channel, while they begged for an exceptions to their bans.

Subsequent forensic analysis on what metrics Google could have used to algorithmically cull the herd points to a couple of primary factors:

  • Repeated “slaps” of across-the-board ‘poor’ landing page quality scores against one or more domains used in affiliate campaigns.  In retrospect, it looks like if you’d been “slapped” in the past more than once and just reloaded your campaign to a new domain, you were permanently disabled instead of bring ‘slapped’ again.
  • If you had ever promoted any products associated with using Google’s brand to sell information products or business schemes, you were toast.

By and large, direct-to-merchant affiliates or ‘direct-linkers’ were pretty much untouched.  There were a number of merchant-of-record Adwords accounts that were disabled as well, likely false-positives in the automated sweep.

Google’s New Affiliate Guidelines

Google denies the charge that they don’t want affiliates to use the Adwords system, and have updated various sections of their Adwords’ TOS in several places to supposedly clarify what exactly it is that Google wants from affiliates.

Google has added a definition of an “affiliate” that looks like this:

An affiliate is an individual advertiser or website owner who has a business relationship with a merchant to promote the merchant’s product or service. The affiliate earns a small commission from the merchant for each referral that results in a sale; the merchant handles payment and fulfillment.

Their updated Site Quality Guidelines add additional details on one of the main sticking points affiliates have constantly been chastised for by Google: “unique” or “value-add” content:

Non-unique Landing Page: Google won’t show multiple ads leading to identical or similar landing pages at the same time, even if the pages have different domains. This means that if another advertiser’s ad leads to a landing page that’s similar to yours, and his keyword has a higher Ad Rank, his ad will show instead of yours.

What the guidelines don’t point out is that if your site is repeatedly determined to be “low quality” as a result of insufficient amounts of “unique” content, it’s possible that you’ll likely to get swept out of the system altogether, or “disabled” as an advertiser, as you’re clearly (according to Google) egregiously violating their landing page -and by extension- affiliate guidelines on a repeated basis.

Google even warns merchants who have affiliate programs of the danger that their affiliates can place them under as a result of this unique content enforcement policy.

So What Exactly Does Google Want from Affiliates?

There’s been a lot of speculation on this point, particularly since the Adwords ban hammer cleared the decks in Q4.

For instance, some feel that direct-linking to a merchant’s site is all “Google really wants” to allow as far as affiliates on Adwords are concerned.

Other PPC marketers feel that white-labeling products or somehow ‘rolling your own’ version of products or services you’ve previously promoted as an affiliate is the answer.

What’s the real answer?  No one knows, and there’s likely plenty of internal debate at Google as well as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

That said, in 2010, it’s safe to say that the key to long-term affiliate marketing on Adwords lies in the “unique content” itself…

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me!

NFL coach Mike Singletary made that phrase famous, and most affiliate marketers just wish Google would “just show us what is OK” instead of subjective guidelines that make affiliates guess at exactly what kind of “unique content” they need to somehow generate in order to stick around on Adwords long-term.

It’s obvious at this point that slapping together a bunch of ‘how-to’ articles or unremarkable wiki-style content about the topic you’re advertising on isn’t going to cut it, and Google isn’t about to cough up a list of their ‘favorite affiliate sites’ that you can run off and replicate.

So we figured we’d put forward three examples of sites in different affiliate verticals that ‘get’ the unique, value-added content proposition in general.

Hopefully they’ll provide some clear clear quality markers that even Google couldn’t possibly argue with.  Not all of these sites use Adwords, but the principles apply nonetheless.

Mint.com:  Lead-Gen Affiliate Marketing Done Right

Mint is a personal finance and savings site, basically an online version of Intuit’s Quicken.  The biggest portion of their revenue model is credit card, insurance, and financial products lead generation paid out on an affiliate CPA basis.

Their calculators, configurators, and search filters add tremendous unique, value to the end-user:

mintscreenshot

Of course, Mint has a lot more going for it than just calculators and the like, they also have reams of in-house generated, useful content covering a huge range of topics from personal finance and budgeting to investments and more.

They also have a detailed section on user privacy, including videos from the founder on how they handle user data in a vertical where users are clearly sensitive to privacy.

Ask yourself: Even if Mint had no corporate brand, when you look at this site, would it look like a “thin affiliate”?  If Mint was using Adwords to promote credit card or auto insurance leads, would you consider them as providing a “value-added” affiliate experience?

Trip Advisor: Affiliate Travel Referrals on Steroids

At its core, TripAdvisor.com makes money on affiliate booking referrals for hotels, flights, car rentals, and the like. How do they add value in such crowded space?

Note the yellow-highlighted portions here:

tripadvisorscreenshot

There’s some solid quality markers here:

  • Segmented user reviews. Not just regular user comments, but ratings, and review segmentation that allows other page visitors to read reviews from people traveling for a similar purpose (business, family etc…)
  • A system-wide rating and comparison engine, enabling customers to easily compare the popularity and quality of this particular hotel to others in the same hotel vertical (in this case business hotels).
  • User-submitted photos. Customers can view and compare actual on-site photos from the hotel that other users have submitted to get an idea of what the hotel rooms really look like.

Does this mean that your affiliate review site needs to have 247+ reviews to indicate a ‘quality’ site experience?

Hardly.  Obviously the more reviews and ratings the better, but if you work hard to populate your site with real user feedback (not fake comments!) over a period of time, you’re going to send similar signals to Google.

Ask yourself: Even if your site was smaller than TripAdvisor, if you provided this kind of end-user value, would you look like a “thin affiliate”?  Could Google say you’re not adding “unique content” when advertising hotel or flight bookings with Adwords?

CrutchField.com: e-Commerce & Then Some

Granted, CrutchField is an online reseller and not strictly an affiliate, but the differentiators they’ve implemented hold a plethora of ideas for e-commerce affiliates to move beyond the straight-up product feed.

crutchfieldscreenshot

Every electronics reseller is pitching basically the same thing, no doubt fed from a reseller product feed.

Crutchfield however separates itself from the pack by incorporating a number of unique, value-adds like these:

  • The Learning Center. Crutchfield has gone to the trouble of strategically placing helpful, expert advice on the products genre being viewed, and placing a drop-down list of other “shopping guides” and “need-to-know” pointers specifcally applicable to the products listed.  The pictures and names help add a personal, trust-enhancing aspect to the additional content.
  • The Popular Questions and Helpful ideas portion of the page also helps hook the visitor on the page longer by answering common questions that shoppers have.  Note that these portions of the page aren’t hidden, buried in light-colored footer links.  They’re front and center, and can no doubt help improve conversions for the highly technical products being advertised.
  • The Shopping Tools feature in the left nav provides custom tools that Crutchfield has taken the time to develop to help set them apart from competitors and enhance conversions.

If you’re promoting affiliate shopping feeds on your site, with Adwords or without, you have to read Rae Hoffman’s outstanding article on how to make your feed site unique.

Ask yourself: Would Crutchfield’s e-commerce site be easily classified by Google as a “duplicate-content, affiliate feed site”?  Would it be fair to say Crutchfield has earned the right to have its ads shown right up against the Amazon’s of the world in the Adwords auction?

But That’s Way Too Hard!

Is it?  How many man-hours would be required to thicken out your site enough to be secure as an Adwords affiliate advertiser in 2010?

Would you make your money back on the work involved if you were able to take advantage of the fact that thousands of competitors have recently been removed from the platform?

Who Says This is What Google Wants?

This question is broken.  The bottom line is that no one knows what Google wants now, tomorrow, or 3 years from now.  The answer lies in what the user wants.

The Adwords affiliate game is now dramatically harder.  If you’re not a publicly recognized brand advertiser, auto-generating 25 pages of crap article re-writes, stripping out all site nav, and squeezing visitors too hard into a lead form or cart is just not going to work in 2010.

As always, there will be some affiliates that continue to fly under the radar for a month or two here and there, but if you’re looking to be around on Adwords long enough to make all the additional heavy lifting cashflow-positive, you’ve got to up your game.

In the startup world, venture capitalists look to invest in companies that have a “defensible business model”.  The same is true for affiliate sites on Adwords going forward.  Your site needs to stand on its own two feet by embodying the spirit of Mint, TripAdvisor, and Crutchfield:

It’s not what you think is “enough for Google”.  It’s about unique site features actual users would give a crap about.  If your site was removed from the web, would anybody notice? Would anybody care?   If you didn’t own your site, would you visit it or buy anything off of it?  Why would you recommend your site to a friend?

Some say SEO and PPC are converging into a Quality Score black hole.  Maybe if we could honestly find good answers to questions like these, Google’s quality team wouldn’t seem so scary.

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23 comments “Adwords & Affiliates in 2010: The Way Forward”

Great post and so true. It all boils down to the user and you need to think about what they want/need, not what is good enough for Google now, great point!

The only problem I have with Google’s policy is how they let a select group break the rules. Like, Webcrawler.com and Ask.com (arbitrage anyone?), MyFunCards.com (where’s the content?), eBay.com (you can buy a baby on eBay!) and Google – http://www.jonathanvolk.com/ppc/google-should-slap-themselves.html

If everyone has to play by the rules, then that should mean everyone!

I’m glad you wrote about this. I had been reading about this on Perry Marshall’s blog, but there was no difinitive info like here.

I am so stinking mad right now because I am a merchant of record with an affiliate product I offered through ClickBank.

Years ago, sales were very good, though never really through the affiliates, mostly people just found me via good SEO.

But then recently I wanted to revive the site, so I gave it a facelift and as I was reviewing the SEO, I found that there more than 10,000 affiliate links to my site. I didn’t think much of it, and went about my business.

So I started an Adwords campaign using my account and my account is in good standing, I have had better than average results in the past, and when I first listed the ad, it was approved and my keywords generated 7/10 landing page quality and everything else was good, but my ads still weren’t showing.. I thought it was strange.

So I wrote to Google and about 5 minutes later, my landing page quality was 1/10 and that was it. No answer from Google.

I opened a different account (suspecting it was somehow related to my account) and same deal. Exactly the same deal.

SO I canceled both of my accounts, and one of them was a long standing account.

I am so mad and frustrated at this moment I don’t know what I’m going to do.

My product is a weight loss product, I’ve spent my entire life in this field, my content was 100% unique and my conversion rate for sales was 4% on my 5 page site. It just burns me that allowing others to link to my site got me in trouble.

I’m done with Google as far as paying for clicks. I have a background in copy-writing so I’d rather just send snail mail (yes it still works well) and send people to my site that way and let Google dictate by algorithm all they want.

@Geordie
nice summary of the convos we’ve had.

the bottomline seems to be focus on building web properties and create a “real business” vs a mere arb-based lead gen/lead flip model.

It’s going to take real work (more than just running some articles through google translate to russian then back to english), so there’s going to be more blood than in your typical episode of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”.

PS: No subscribe to blog comments plugin? Might help with your user engagement.

But if you have a real site, a mini business, than that is not an affiliate. its the affiliates job to sell something not create a business. this is not the lazy way, its the job title. to create another mint.com means i am no longer and affiliate i am a man with a new business model. this is the google model, B2B, that is why they are cutting “affiliates”

from google’s perspective i can see a lot of why they do things, but they should also realize that ads are in fact, ads to sell you something. let organic rankings take them to mint.com and others.

i know you are right whether i like it or not, i think google has missed the mark and is beginning to tell people what the internet should be instead of people making it what we want.

Great post Geordie. (Hi again by the way!) I’m going to blog your post as soon as I write this comment.

Your points are so true and I do think this is the way forward for affiliates!

For anyone that want’s to read more ideas along these lines, here’s another great post – SugarRae wrote it way back in 2007. Affiliates that listened to and followed this advice way back then are probably sitting pretty secure right now.

How to Survive the Affiliate Evolution

Thanks again for the great insights Geordie! Off to blog…

Linda Buquet

Geordie,

Fantastic post my friend. It is definitely an even tougher game now, but as it get harder, so does the level of entry.

Those who get to work will be reaping dividends.. no different than when the initial slap stuff started happening in 05-06.

Once again, great post :-)

Peter

Great post – what the entire situation really shows is the huge amount of power Google has in business – and how randomly they can wield this power.

Nice post… but my beef with the Google ‘gods’ goes beyond the fact they don’t care about our money as publishers or advertisers. It’s the fact they have NO PLACE to go in order to gauge your “site” quality score. Sure, you have the obvious “7/10″ quality score for ads and what-have-you but the real deal-crusher, from what I understand, is a score you cannot see.

And let’s say your site doesn’t pass… anyone at Google interested in helping you repair the problem? NO. They clearly state they don’t need the money.

I remember the same arrogance from AT&T before the competition finally cut in thanks to the government’s strong arm. Google may think they cannot be touched, but time will tell…

Well, Google does not like affiliate very much, because we are making a lot of money using their technologies. And they do not like it, when we are making money.

Well if they have raised the standard, harder for us to make money, then the two way to go to other search engines PPC, or you can follow with what Google has set.

For me, I will go for both of them.

Nice post, and good comments everyone.

As an aspiring SEO, I have a healthy respect for the fact that Google is the world’s leading search engine and strives to provide a “positive user experience”. I am an advocate for good organic rankings and all that but deep down, I think Google is scary – I think it has its sights set on world domination (I’m not kidding!).

Google built its colossal fortune on the blood, sweat, money, and now tears of you guys (affiliate marketers) and it’s massive wealth has raised its glory-seeking self to a position of ultra-arrogance.

Providing a “positive user experience” is a good thing but it feels to me that Google is appearing as the “angel of light” to win people over before revealing its true self.

For those of you scorned by this latest slap, I say try out the other PPC providers (I hear FaceBook is the latest “hidden” goldmine for low-cost, targeted traffic) and in time… slap Google back!

I should also mention that I think SEO and PPC should work in concert. SEOs usually separate the two, as do PPC experts but some SEO awareness (if not knowledge) is vital in my opinion for successful PPC campaigns.

What does Google want? It wants “relevancy”. Just keep that in mind – keyword relevancy in website content, title & meta tags, anchor text, links (in, out and internal) etc and optimized HTML code, style sheets, server scripts… and on and on.

I don’t mean to come accross as flippant, but maybe look to another type of business model if your affiliate marketing career seems to be losing momentum… Take a fresh look at the Web and start to think a little outside the box.

If you have to create your own website to market other peoples products then do just that. Throw yourself into a new project and build your own site. Write your own content based on a product you know a lot about and/or feel passionate about (find a new product if necessary and set your sights on creating your own further on down the road).

Writing can be very rewarding and if you write about something you have a passion for, you’ll create the best website copy in the world because it’ll be natural!

Search positioning is still very much in its infancy so USE Google… Start the ball rolling towards decent organic rankings while spending your budget on other types of advertising to get immediate traffic.

Take a weekend job to tide you over if necessary, whatever it takes to survive today, tomorrow, next week… But in the meantime, try to be positive and get your creative juices flowing.

Wow! I am impressed. I am truly satisfied with this kind of blog. Very informative post.

Thanks for the insider view.

Very good post. I check out Mint.com website and I had a question on how they implemented their CPA business model. When you click on the “apply now” button on Mint.com for a credit card, MMA account, etc. it leaves mint.com and goes to that particular banks website. You then have to fill out the application on that banks website. Am I correct in assuming Mint.com is getting paid each time a user fills out that form? If so how is Mint.com tracking that to charge the bank accordingly since it’s off of their site?
Or am I incorrect and it’s actually a PPC just based on them going to the particular bank’s URL?
Thank you for your time.

Mint might have different business models in different categories…some might be CPA, some might be PPC, and some might be free traffic. They don’t have to maximize the yield on every click to build a business model which is still profitable. Google’s organic search results get something like 85% of their traffic, and yet Google brings in over $20 billion per year.

As an affiliate I have to say that I believe Google are squeezing out the small fry affiliate marketers. If ,like me, you only have a small budget,It’s almost impossible to compete for ranking. Why Oh Why don’t they get rid or all the grey areas as far as what they will accept or not accept. Trying to plough through all their so called “help” pages is a nightmare. Surely if you work hard to create an informative, unique landing page with good content, linked to a good squeeze page, you should get a fair chance of your ads being seen? It’s a farce!!

Hello to all I am mohammed Faiyaz dear all now a days adwords not accepting data entry affiliates why the happen going on this where we go and knock the ppc low cost company every one asking telling adwords is good for every one I request google adwords plz open the Data Entry affiliate Doors and we all are request googleadwords plz open the doors for data entry affiliates come all a few plz request to google company to accept my request plz

I think the whole affiliate policy google has in place stinks. Its hypocritical to ban affiliates from using adwords. If you look and count the adsense ads on many sites like article sites, and everywhere, what the heck is the difference if you have an affiliate products and using adwords? I am really not getting this whole thing. My site got poor landing page and keywords and ads stopped running. Only because I use aggregated job board software from an affiliate program of a major job site. I’m not selling sex, I’m selling job ads for heaven’s sake. And yes, they pick and choose who they allow. The company I use does the exact same thing using aggregated ads from hundreds of job sites plus sells their own job ads. However they allow them to use adwords. Do they realize that most internet surfers have absolutely no idea between the difference in the sponsored ads and organic listings. I polled 25 people, and not one knew what I was talking about. I had to describe to them what the sponsored ads where compared to natural results. Being an affiliate is not a crime if you are contributing to selling a legitimate product from a legitimate company. If you are willing to pay for the ads, what’s the problem?

What cracks me up is that adwords is really suffering, I have gotten 2 letters and 3 emails in the past few weeks begging me to advertise. I used adwords for three years for my other site with no problems. I closed my account yesterday out of anger.

very informative, do you think this will push people towards local affiliate marking more and more?

Google is indeed acting as if it is the God of the Internet. As the Bible says (of the Biblical God), He sends the rain both to the good and the evil. Who can divine the mind of God?

Hints of stone-hearted Google who doesn’t give a damn about it’s advertisers “who made it possible for Google to earn its billions” are totally missing the point. The way I see it, just like the printed newspapers and magazines, Google’s first responsibility is towards its readers, not the advertisers who paid them money. If there were no readers (searchers), there will be no advertisers. So, who do you think Google will take care first?

World domination? If you were in Google’s shoes, wouldn’t you think of world domination also?

Google wants relevancy? Ha! We manage large PPC accounts for our clients and the relevancy question is no longer relevant. Try and test two campaigns going to the same 9+QS landing page, one at Google recommended, but inflated daily budget and another with a reasonable budget just under the “recommended” daily. Oh big surprise the one with more $$ will outperform the other every single time. Not only that, we’ve had low QS campaigns (QS 4-5) outperform high QS campaigns (QS 8+) just by increasing the budgets. Let’s stop all this talk about quality score, user experience and relevancy please. Cash is king and Google is one of the worlds largest corporations. Simple, right?

I’ve had Google slap or reduce authority for a handful of my own all-original sites recently. Enough is enough .. but alas ,they can do what they want.

I found this article after having a campaign disapproved on adwords. I was confused because I had not used adwords in a while and in the past the campaigns that I used did not have any problems in the adwords systems. That being said I kind of agree with how adwords dealt with this problem. Although I have also created my share of thin affiliate sites I have recently decided to create more structured sites with real products mixed with affiliate products and providing a true experience with videos and advice. These are not thin sites, but sites I believe will last for years to come. This ups the game and forces site owners to really devote meaningful business models to their business.

Google is strangling affiliates. The companies that apply on affiliate websites is also being strangled. It is not only algorithms, it is service from the company itself – webmaster forum help.


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