WordPress SkimLinks: Are They Hurting SEO?

Do SkimLinks hurt SEO? This is a question that’s been on the minds of a lot of SEOs. If you’re not familiar with it, SkimLinks is a third party add-on for any online publisher, from blogs to forums. If the publisher’s content mentions or links to a product, SkimLinks can be used to “instantly convert or add any normal product or merchant link in your content into its equivalent affiliate link as a user clicks on it.”

Affiliate marketing is the means of sharing a sale. For instance, a blogger can sign up to become an affiliate of a product they stand behind, then promote it on their website and direct traffic to the product via a contextual, button, or image link. The blogger receives a predetermined percentage of any sales completed through this referral.

SkimLinks seems harmless enough at first glance, as affiliate marketing is nothing new. However, WordPress, which boasts over 60% of the CMS market share, has implemented SkimLinks on all of its self-hosted free blogs without the knowledge of the blogger – an important fact which differs from other affiliate links. If you blog on the WordPress.com platform, your contextual in-content links that direct to a vendor with whom SkimLinks is a partner (e.g. Oakley), will potentially earn a commission for WordPress and SkimLinks–and you won’t see a dime of it.

According to WordPress, “To support the service (and keep features free), we sometimes run advertisements from partners like Sharethrough and SkimLinks. We try hard to only run them in limited places.” It’s so they can “pay the bills,” in other words.

As a preface to the following section here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • Fashion bloggers, for example, may find a large percentage of their outbound links being affiliated. Could this lead to their blog being seen as spammy by search engines?
  • If the majority of your outbound links are affiliated and/or nofollowed, yet most of your incoming links are followed, will this be a red flag to Google’s algorithm?
  • Is it possible that mass SkimLink rollouts on the WordPress free blogging platform could have diluted the natural backlink profiles of big retailers, potentially hurting their organic search visibility?
  • It’s likely that others will copy SkimLink’s business model. What does this mean long-term?
  • To what degree will having a greater ratio of paid links versus natural and organic pointing to a big retailer’s site hurt their rankings or trust scores?

SkimLinks and Search Engine Optimization

Now let’s take a deeper look at SkimLinks and how they may affect organic links and major retailers. For starters, all of the SkimLinks contextual links appear to be “followed” if you inspect the link or view the source code. A simple peek at one of these links will show that there is no visible rel=”nofollow” tag added to the HTML code. If you reference this outdated blog post from SkimLinks back in 2009, you’ll see that the company attempts to answer the question of whether or not SkimLinks affect Google PageRank or SEO. Initially, there is little value on that page until you scroll to the bottom and see a recent comment (May 2014) by a frustrated website owner who claims SkimLinks is to blame for his manual penalty.

Following this is a response from SkimLinks CEO and Co-Founder Alicia Navarro, claiming that the company is fully compliant with Google’s guidelines and do, in fact, use “nofollow” on all of the contextual links that SkimLinks transforms into affiliates.

If this is true, rather than seeing them visibly, the redirects and nofollow attributes are being added after the link is clicked, passing through a robots.txt or other non-indexed file to complete the command. Users see a link that seems normal, but are unknowingly redirected and affiliated once they click the link. Is this a sly one-off on the old black-hat technique of cloaking?

I contacted a few bloggers in the fashion space and asked whether or not they knew that a few select contextual links they had created were being affiliated. They all said they had no idea and were concerned about how they could remove the affiliate code. There’s starting to be quite a bit of chatter on the WordPress support forum about why these are appearing on WordPress sites, and how to prevent content from being inappropriately linked to or shown in image ads. All valid questions.

Do any Quality Parameters Exist?

WordPress, as pointed out above, has claimed that they only include SkimLinks in limited places. What “limited places” seems to mean is “links within the SkimLinks affiliate cooperation.” After making a quick free WordPress.com blog (which will remain anonymous) and adding a few links to big retailers, SkimLinks weren’t immediately added. Fast-forward to 24 hours later: the redirects were alive and ready, on a page that had just been created and had only 2 lines of text with 3 outbound links. Does this really sound like a quality page, one that would provide value to a visitor? Would you want this page linking to you? I think not. There appear to be no quality parameters determining where SkimLinks appear and on what blogs.

Varying the anchor text to see if using “buy” type contextual keywords were the culprit, and changing the link destination to the company’s blog instead of a product landing page, made no difference. The end result was the same, with the retailer’s website being the red flag here and causing the link to be affiliated, regardless of which page was linked to. Is this a quality concern too? Is it natural for a reference link to an About page, intended to help a reader learn more about what a blogger is talking about, to be an affiliate link?

One of our main objectives here was to determine if these links are passing any authority or value, even if it’s just a little bit. Again, these links look completely normal when hovered over and when viewing the preview of where they direct to. With most affiliate ads, unless there are redirects involved from a different, cleaner-looking link, you can clearly tell that the link you are about to click on is indeed an affiliate and should be nofollowed. That’s not the case with SkimLinks, unless you pay attention to the URL bar after you click on the link and the destination site loads.

This raises the question of how Google and other search engines are crawling and seeing these links, and what sort of weight they are applying to them. Are they seeing SkimLinks as followed links, because that is what is in the source code, or are they being identified as nofollow, as the company claims?

How Googlebot (Spiders) Interprets SkimLinks

We added SkimLinks to a WordPress.org blog for our tests to determine how Googlebot (Google’s spiders) are crawling these links, since the redirect and affiliate code is being activated after the affiliated link is clicked. Googlebot seems to recognize these as affiliated links, but, contrary to Navarro’s claims, not as a nofollow–at least in our initial tests. Is this a concern for SEO, and, if they are indeed nofollowed after being clicked on, what does this mean in terms of SEO value?

Nofollow links still do have their place in a backlink profile. While Google has said that nofollow links do not transfer PageRank, and it is largely unknown if they are passing any value beyond diversification, they are natural in supplementing followed links and can provide visibility and traffic. Weighted from a trust and naturalness perspective, nofollow links are still being used as an indicator for Googlebot in determining SERP rankings, just not by passing any authority, PageRank, or “link juice.” (SkimLinks also pass through a temporary 302 redirect, which Google ignores as well.)

Certain types of links, such as paid links, should always be nofollowed; since affiliate links are a form of paid links, they, too, should be nofollowed. Otherwise, they could cause a Google penalty, manual or algorithmic. Even the FTC wants a clear disclosure that some links on a website may be affiliated, trying to ensure that consumers are protected.

Is it All Bad? And Will it Get Worse?

Affiliate marketing in its own right isn’t bad. Like anything, it is susceptible to being abused and manipulated, but when used properly it creates a win-win scenario for both parties. A big retailer benefits from exposure and new customer brand discovery. Bloggers have the ability to earn a commission on products they believe in and may already be blogging about anyway out of sheer interest. As long as the page containing an affiliated link is of quality, provides unique content and delivers an engaging and rewarding user experience, there is no reason for concern.

The problem arises when affiliate links are abused and people drive traffic to low-quality pages in the hopes of earning a commission from a poor user experience (like the blog we created for our tests). We’ve all landed on these types of pages, and it is this exact modus operandi that Google has tried to combat with its web spam team and notorious Panda and Penguin search algorithm updates.

Blogging is the modern-day version of keeping a journal, except you can provide value to others and invite others with similar interests to interact. As its popularity has increased, more and more bloggers are searching for–and discovering–ways to earn money from their blogging efforts. Who doesn’t want to earn more money, right? In tandem with this is increased global competition in business, making affiliate programs ideal for organizations looking to add additional revenue streams and generate exposure that will impact their bottom lines. From a marketing perspective it makes complete sense.

How to Remove SkimLinks

Those who want to get rid of these and all other ads implemented by WordPress on their free blog have the ability to upgrade to the tune of $30 per blog, per year. The no ads option obviously costs money, but there’s another route you can take to stop SkimLinks from affecting a free blog’s links. You can get rid of SkimLinks on a particular contextual link by adding the following attribute: rel=”noskim”. [ Example: <a href=”http://www.example.com” rel=”noskim”>Contextual Anchor Text</a> ]. This would prevent the link from being affiliated, and once again be seen as an unambiguous, followed link that wasn’t paid for nor monetized. If you want to know whether or not a page is running SkimLinks, a privacy extension called Ghostery can tell you everything that is running in the background, including trackers.

Concluding Thoughts

We need to be absolutely sure that these affiliate links are being nofollowed, as they are paid links. We can probably assume that other blogging platforms will play follow the leader, and that SkimLinks is probably already working on solidifying relationships with other major CMSs. Other similar companies, like Viglink, are already popping up and gaining ground. Those in the SEO industry, from consultants to SEO firms to in-house teams for big retailers, do have some cause for concern going forward. Actively encouraging natural link building by developing relationships and press releases, for example, may only lead to nofollow links instead of the normal followed links that, of course, pass authority and PageRank.

Again, the only way to handle SkimLinks at this point is to either upgrade the blog to the paid version, thus removing the ads entirely, or to use the rel-attribute to turn off each individual affiliated SkimLink. Raising awareness to bloggers, as well as big retail brands, is of primary importance.

If you’re looking for clear guidance, the only advice you’ll get from Google or third-party affiliate generators is that as long as you create strong, unique content and the links add value to a page, there is no reason to fret about SkimLinks hurting your SEO. However, how much truth there is behind that still remains to be seen, as SkimLinks and similar programs scale even larger.

Downloadable PDF: WordPress SkimLinks Removal Process

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About the Author

Bryan Conte

Brand Strategist - SEO

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