How Affiliates Can Work with Google to Reduce Link Spam (in 5 Steps!)

By Manick Bhan at LinkGraph

Google’s Link Spam update has changed how the search engine identifies and rewards quality affiliate sites. This update was motivated by Google’s desire to always promote the highest quality product and service reviews in their results, and to combat spam. 

Site owners don’t need to overhaul their sites. But making some strategic changes using Google’s recommended best practices for affiliate marketing and linking can give your site a competitive edge. 

This article will teach you how to work with Google to reduce link spam!

How the Link Spam Update Affected Affiliate Sites

Essentially, the Link Spam update further refines Google’s quality signals attached to backlinks. In 2012, the Google Penguin update began counting higher quality backlinks more heavily in regards to a site’s authority. This did away with the volume-over-quality approach to backlinking. 

The Link Spam update does the same (but on a slightly smaller scale).

Now, when a higher domain authority website links to your site, Google’s web crawlers collect that data to better understand the trustworthiness of your website. However, when sites with low domain authority link to you, Google ignores these.

Additionally, if your backlink profile consists mostly of irrelevant links, Google can penalize your website by hiding it from the SERPs completely.

The Real World Effect on Affiliate Sites

Google is constantly updating its algorithms to promote the most trustworthy sites, including affiliates. In July 2021, SEOs saw major shifts in how affiliate sites rank. Spammy results that had misleading affiliate content tanked, while quality affiliate sites soared into the top pages of the SERPs.

What is Link Spam & Why Does It Matter?

Google wants searchers to find the best results for their queries. To do so, they use a variety of quality signals (or Quality Raters). Their web crawlers record and index these signals as they traverse the web. 

One of these quality factors is backlinks. Unfortunately, some sites have used questionable backlinks (or link schemes) to manipulate this quality indicator to rise through the SERPs. These questionable backlinks are “link spam” or “unnatural links.” 

Why does this matter to affiliate marketers? 

By not counting low-quality links, Google is able to better determine which sites are most reputable, trustworthy, and represent the best content. In doing so, Google rewards sites that provide the best information and experience to searchers. This makes for a better experience for reputable affiliate sites and their visitors.

What Are Spam Scores?

Of course, the question then arises, “How can I tell if an external link to my site has an impact on my Domain Authority?” The answer depends on the referring domain’s Spam Score. You can find a site’s Spam Score using SEO tools like SearchAtlas

This metric tells site owners and SEO tool users how “spammy” a site is. This number is determined by looking at the linking practices of a site then assessing if those practices are common spam tactics. The higher the number, the more spammy the site.

How to Determine If The Link Spam Update Negatively Affected Your Site

Knowing exactly how individual Google updates have impacted your site’s organic rankings can be tricky, because Google often implements multiple updates simultaneously. 

Additionally, Google likely begins piloting algorithm changes before they announce them. When it comes to Link Spam, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact effect on your organic traffic since last year’s Title Tag rollout synced with the Link Spam rollout.

However, we know that the rollout was complete in mid-August of 2021, and its effects would have started on July 26th. So, looking at your site’s organic rankings and traffic data during that period can provide valuable insight.

To assess if your site took a hit, you will want to look for:

  • Reduced Traffic: If you saw a sudden drop in organic traffic from the SERPs between the end of July 2021 and mid-August 2021, your site was likely affected by the Link Spam update.
  • Lower Overall SERP Ranking: A reduction in organic traffic is often a direct result of a drop in overall SERP rankings. So, if you saw a dip in your overall site ranking, there’s a good chance your domain authority (DA) dropped, too. This is most likely because Google’s crawlers no longer count backlinks from any spammy sites in your site authority.

  • Google Penalties via Google Search Console: If you received a notification in your Google Analytics account that you’ve received a manual penalty for low-quality, irrelevant, unnatural, or repetitive links, you can bet that your site was hidden from the SERPs. This also indicates that updating your linking practice needs to be your top priority.

How Affiliates Can Use Google’s Guidelines to Reduce Link Spam

It’s important to acknowledge that nearly every affiliate site was affected by the Link Spam update. So, if you took a hit, it’s not too late to recuperate. If you were one of the affiliate sites that saw increased traffic, you can build on your momentum.

Affiliate sites rely on links for their revenue stream. This makes using Google’s linking best practices a matter of money and survival. As an affiliate site owner, you can increase your ranking by playing by the rules. Plus, you can be part of improving the overall quality of affiliate offerings online.

Here are the most impactful actions you can take:

1. Audit Your Site for Toxic Backlinks & Disavow Harmful Links

Google understands that you cannot completely control which sites link to yours. However, their algorithms are advanced enough to track and figure out when links to a particular site are incidental or intentional.

Unfortunately, some launch negative SEO attacks as a way to have their competitors’ sites penalized by Google.

You can avoid both an accidental penalty or becoming a victim of a black hat attack by regularly maintaining your site’s backlinks.

How to Identify Toxic Backlink & Disavow Them

Using a backlink auditing tool, you can identify referring traffic to your site. Look for links with low domain ratings and anchor text that is irrelevant to your page. If your SEO tool provides you with a Toxic Score, you will want to begin by looking at the backlink with the highest score. 

If you find a pattern of links or a website that seems to be spamming your site, you may be a victim of a negative SEO attack, and you will want to take action by disavowing the site. 

Disavowing a website tells Google that you do not want their web crawlers to count links from that site or page to be indexed when crawling your site. 

So, after you identify a site you no longer want to be counted in your backlink profile, you can disavow them in your Google Search Console account or by using your SEO backlink analysis tool.

2. Avoid Thin Content

Certain aspects of a website can make it look more suspicious in the eyes of Google. One of these aspects is thin content. Thin content is considered on-page text or images that are:

  • Unhelpful affiliate content: Images and photos that indicate that the review doesn’t expand upon a product manufacturer’s description. Often, the information and images are taken directly from a product page or listing.
  • Scarce: A page that likely doesn’t have enough volume to be helpful to visitors.
  • Automatically generated: This can be AI-written content or content retrieved from another website.
  • Stolen content: Content that has been scraped from other sites.

Because thin content is a common problem with spammy affiliates, Google often penalizes these sites in their search results.

How to Avoid Thin Content

Focus on your niche: Google looks at topical depth when assessing content. It’s difficult to provide topical depth for every category of product. Therefore, if you stick to a niche that you specialize in, such as survival gear, you’re less likely to get docked for thin content.

Provide new information: Google sees new information as highly valuable to readers. This is why Google promotes affiliate sites that demonstrate expert knowledge. 

In order to provide the freshest content, you should add to the conversation on the topic you’re writing about rather than presenting the same ideas other sites have already expounded upon. Updating outdated content can also keep your content recent.

Incorporate images & videos: More and more searchers want to see in-depth reviews of products. This is an opportunity to provide valuable content and indicate to Google that your review is original.

You need more than charts & links: So, if you use charts and links to direct readers to products, keep in mind that you need more than just that on a page to not be found guilty of thin content. Why? While charts with links can be highly valuable to readers, they have also been a way for black hat link builders to try to manipulate Google.

3. Use the Sponsored Link Tags

While the recent changes to Google’s algorithm may seem like they’re penalizing affiliate sites, their intention is actually the opposite. Google acknowledges the value affiliate websites have in providing expert insight into products, and why monetizing this knowledge is fair. 

However, Google prefers when affiliate sites tag links to the products they’re promoting with the tag rel=“sponsored” rather than rel=”nofollow.” This distinction allows Google to better categorize your links when indexing your page. Additionally, it provides them with more accurate data regarding affiliate sites that use best practices.

Here is what the HTML for a sponsored link should look like:

<a rel=”sponsored” href=”https://example_link”>Example</a>

4. Avoid These Black Hat Linking Tactics

It can be impossible for some sites to fully rebound after a manual penalty from Google. So, it’s best to avoid getting one altogether. The easiest way to avoid a Google penalty is to never partake in black hat practices, including:

  1. Link Farms: Having your site linked to by a website or co-op of sites whose sole purpose is linking.
  2. Buying or Selling Backlinks: Exchanging goods or services in return for a link.
  3. Cloaking: Using a link cloaking process to hide that one of your links is an affiliate link
  4. Link Stuffing: Linking to high DA sites from a single page on your site.
  5. Link Automation: Gathering data from unknown users, then spamming them using that data.

5. Add User-Generated Content Tags

Finally, if you allow user-generated content, such as comments, on your reviews and blogs, you will want to designate any links produced by users as user-generated content. 

This gives you greater control of what sites you link to. It also keeps you in the good graces of Google since they can more easily identify the types of content and links on your site.

Just as you would with sponsored links, you will add the UGC link tag to links in comments or forum posts with the UGC value: rel=”ugc”.

The complete HTML looks like this:

<a rel=”ugc” href=””>example</a>

Play By the Rules & Get Rewarded in the SERPs

Google rewards affiliate sites for doing the right thing. Their Link Spam update reinforces this fact. To get started down the path to better rankings, analyze your backlinks, use the sponsored and UGC link tags, beef up your content, and avoid black hat tactics.

Following Google’s best linking practices also improves buyer confidence as well as Google’s ability to weed out black hat affiliate sites. 

While some of these practices may seem highly technical, taking the time to learn and use Google’s best practices will benefit your affiliate site. Being proactive can increase your site visibility in the SERPs and protect your site again and suspected manipulation.