How to work with Search Affiliates

Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. It’s sound advice for life and for most industries. But the word “enemies” is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to the affiliate marketing industry. Affiliates who you mistakenly think of as the competition, may very well be helping you more than you know.

When it comes to PPC, many affiliate programs put the kibosh on brand bidding of any type. This ensures that only your own paid campaigns show up in search results. And on the surface that seems like a clean, straight-forward approach to running the SEM side of your business. But if you peel back the layers, you’ll see that you’re missing out on a huge opportunity here. Contrary to what you may be thinking, SEM affiliates can actually help your program, rather than hurt it. In fact, if you’re not careful, they just might add some real value to your affiliate program.


Collaboration, not competition

The first thing you need to do is toss out your existing view of SEM affiliates. Lose those assumptions. Affiliates living in a PPC world are not competition for your own SEM campaigns. Nor are they gunning for your SEM Manager’s job. Once you start looking at these affiliates as extending your reach and strengthening your brand, you’ll fully realize their true worth.

For starters, just by participating in a PPC campaign with your terms, they’re increasing the overall coverage of your brand. That’s more brand exposure. More chance a user will ultimately end up on your website and make a purchase. And isn’t that the end goal here?

While increasing exposure of your branded terms, these SEM affiliates are simultaneously staving off your true competition. Not only are your branded terms showing up more often, but they’re also increasing the PPC challenge for your competitors. They’ll be increasing the cost for your competitors to advertise on your terms and as a result, pushing them further down the page. That means your competition is now paying even more to show up even lower than you in search results. Talk about a one-two punch.


Think Local, Market Global

If you’ve considered trying PPC in different regions, now’s your chance. Instead of spending your own SEM marketing dollars on it, though, let your SEM affiliates do the work for you. Whether it’s a local area or a total global reach you’re going for, follow the activity of your affiliates’ PPC campaigns in these specific regions.

Or perhaps your own in-house SEM team has a number of PPC strategies it’s looking to test. Work closely with your top SEM affiliates and have them test out your new strategies. In other words, consider them an extension of your own SEM group. You can give them some elevated exposure by allowing specific keyword bidding, as well as letting them experiment on various keyword combinations by helping fund some of their campaigns.

You might also be looking to gain some ground on non-branded terms too. Letting SEM affiliates bid on these is just one way to increase and expand your overall exposure, giving you a leg up on the long-tail. Yep, SEM isn’t always about instant results; at times it can help you extend your reach, as well.


The Many Faces of SEM

Just as their are many facets to marketing itself, SEM affiliates use PPC in a variety of different ways. Some will link directly to your site, solely for the purpose of instantly capturing the finder’s fee, i.e. their affiliate commission. Others will use SEM as a means to send traffic directly to a merchant page on their website. That increases exposure of their own site, as well as yours. Ultimately, they’re hoping to get consumers clicking on links to your merchant site and making a purchase. Unlike the direct linking, however, they stand to gain a bit more than just the straight commission. They can gain their own brand exposure and ultimately the holy grail of marketing: loyalty.

In terms of keyword bidding itself, SEM affiliates have different approaches. Some will do straight up brand bidding. Others will do a combination of “brand” + “bidding” to capitalize on potential keyword combinations. And still more will mix your brand with generic keywords in hopes of casting a wider net. You may be fine with one of these options but not the others. Just be aware of the different types of bidding, and investigate which, if any, are causing you more harm than good.


How to work with SEM affiliates

So now that you know how SEM affiliates can actually help your program, there are a few things to keep in mind. Once you’ve done some investigating and plenty of analysis, it’s time to put a plan together. More than anything, be sure to put some rules in place. What exaclty can affiliates do or not do in terms of keyword bidding? Have your T&Cs very clearly state which exact words and phrases are free to bid on and which ones are not. Let your affiliate network know the rules, so be sure to share them when an affiliate signs up for your program. It also couldn’t hurt to occasionally remind your entire network of the rules by sending out an email blast with all the PPC specifics.

You may not know how keyword bidding will affect your overall marketing ecosystem. It could help tremendously, it could cause next to no ripples, or it could wreak havoc if left completely unchecked. So if you’ve never worked with SEM affiliates before, it’s a good idea to do some basic testing at first. Start small with just a few, so you can keep a good eye on the program. As you feel more comfortable with it, open the entire program up.

Maybe you have worked with SEM affiliates before and that’s the reason you’re seriously gunshy to try again. Yes, there are some less-than-desirable SEM affiliates out there who can crank up your CPC price without delivering any real results to you. But there are plenty of honest and legitimate ones out there as well. If you’ve been burned before, don’t let it completely ruin PPC for you. Try to find some different affiliates that could make for a better fit.

Many affiliate management agencies have a real strong handle on what works and what doesn’t in terms of SEM, as well as what sort of red flags to look for in a bad affiliate partner. If you’re in over your head or too busy to manage an SEM Affiliate section of your program, seek out an agency to handle things for you.