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Why are so many affiliate sites losing organic traffic?

Affiliate sites have been getting crushed in search rankings since Google’s March 2024 core update, and as a result, some are laying off teams or downsizing budgets.

However, many believe they are following Google’s guidelines and have “helpful content” because the content comes from experience. What are they missing?

Danny Ashton, founder of air purifier review site HouseFresh, wrote a passionate article about how “Google is killing independent sites” like HouseFresh, which lost 91% of its Google traffic, basically destroying the business.

Ashton wrote, “We keep an eye on Google’s news and documentation because these updates can literally make or break our website. That said, we don’t write for Google’s robots and always make editorial decisions with our readers in mind.” 

What’s changed? 

From what I can see, after the Google March 2024 core update, many affiliate sites that don’t have any significant brand search lost traffic. However, many marketers seem to believe that the large authority sites are outranking them and that small “independent” sites can’t compete.

However, the problem isn’t that smaller sites can’t outrank large brands because of the site’s overall authority. The problem is that smaller sites are not driving brand search.

It’s important to note that brand search is just how your audience will search out your website or offering after engaging with messaging about your product, service or ideas on another platform (e.g., press or social).

Sites with brand search are ranking

I pointed out the importance of brand search in my recent Search Engine Land article about how an ebike brand ranks in position 1 for high search volume and high competition keywords.

Air purifier brand’s ranking

For the keywords “air purifier reviews” and “best treadmills,” Google replaced affiliate sites without brand searches with those that have brand searches.

HouseFresh, an affiliate site that reviews air purifiers, lost its ranking and traffic after the March core update. Review articles from sites like The Spruce, which cover many home and garden topics, outranked them.

The difference is that The Spruce has a significant brand search, while HouseFresh has zero brand searches.

HouseFresh organic traffic per Semrush
The Spruce brand search per Semrush

Google has been replacing sites without brand search for a while.

Treadmill brand ranking

This trend is also apparent when searching for the keyword “best treadmills.”

TreadmillReviews.net lost all its traffic for treadmill keywords, but now Garage Gym Reviews’ best treadmill article ranks in position 1 and is growing.  

TreadmillReviews.net organic traffic in Semrush
Garage Gym Reviews organic traffic Semrush

Garage Gym Reviews has both general brand search and searches for {brand} + {keywords} like “garage gym reviews treadmills.”

Garage Gym Reviews brand search
Brand + keyword for treadmill reviews

The March core update has pushed us closer to brand search being a requirement in SEO. It’s been an ongoing trend in search.

I recently analyzed top-ranking sites for cyber security keywords and found a correlation between brand search volume and the keywords ranked in the top three positions of Google.

Brand search in cyber security

The x-axis shows U.S. search volume for brand keywords, the y-axis is the number of brand mentions and the bubble size shows the number of keywords ranked in Google’s top three positions. The larger the bubble, the more keywords ranked in the top three.

While these are not affiliate sites, the graph illustrates that Google places some kind of value on brand search.

One thing seems certain, and it’s that anyone doing SEO will have to learn how to build brand search traffic and not just rank for non-brand keywords. These two things are not separate anymore.

Is there anything that affiliate sites, or any site for that matter, can do as a result of the increasing importance of brand search?

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The importance of brand search in SEO

We are entering a new era of SEO where brand search is a strong indicator of your site’s ability to ranking in search results, especially for non-brand keywords in highly competitive spaces.

Brand search reflects your site’s authority, trust and influence within a specific field of expertise (a human way of talking about E-E-A-T). It measures how well your messaging resonates with your audience and how effectively it drives them to search for your brand after encountering your content or messaging.

Consider this:

You have an audience segmentation platform that solves a major problem for brand managers at CPG (consumer packaged goods) brands.

You have a few feature articles about your product in TechCrunch and other industry publications.

Brand managers read that article and then search for your website on Google for more information.

You just influenced an audience’s search behavior.

Brand search is a pivotal stage in your audience’s online journey to solve a problem, create an opportunity, or find helpful content. You can cultivate this value through your content, expertise and the products or services you offer.

Research indicates that 70% of online shoppers turn to Google after learning about a product on social media, and 45% of Americans believe that media influence is growing.

This highlights that brand search is a direct result of how effectively you influence your audience’s search behavior. Search behavior encompasses how a specific audience seeks out a website or expertise within a given topic area.

Thus, many SEO strategies should focus on driving brand search by influencing the audience’s search behavior.

What’s next for affiliate sites?

Affiliates must develop an integrated PR and SEO strategy that can influence audience search behavior, driving them to search for your brand as part of their natural search patterns. 

I wrote a few articles in Search Engine Land that might be helpful for a deeper dive:

How to integrate cross-functional SEO and PR teams: Building an integrated PR and SEO team to align them with business objectives.

What is Digital PR for SEO?: Explain how to think about digital PR in relation to SEO goals.

Influencing audience search behavior is a complex topic. Here are some quick tips to gain media coverage that can drive brand search that I’ve learned over years of testing.

Create PR studies

Create studies around trends that are interesting to both the media and the audience. I exclusively develop studies for all my digital PR for SEO campaigns. I’m recommending this because I know it works to gain coverage.

This ZDNET example shows how studies can earn feature articles that mention the brand. Valoir’s study got a brand mention in the subheading.

Become an expert source

Journalists always seek expert sources to provide insights on data, recent trends, complex topics or whatever they are researching. The audience of these publications will often use a search engine to find more information about the topics or ideas in the articles.

I am experimenting with influencing audience search behavior to drive brand search for a while. The graph below shows a test I did around a brand term to drive traffic to one of my company sites.  

PureLinq brand search

I ran a small test to see if I could drive brand search for a specific phrase, and drove search over a few weeks with a small spike of a little over 100 searches in one week.

Although this is not a lot of traffic, it highlights how a single article can drive highly targeted search behavior.

Start driving brand search

The helpful content updates continuously reshape how SEOs develop strategies, placing a premium on brand search. 

Smaller affiliate sites must recognize that their decline in rankings is not merely due to competition from larger brands but also their failure to drive brand-specific searches. 

To adapt, these sites need to integrate PR and SEO efforts to influence audience behavior, fostering brand recognition and improving their search visibility in this new era of SEO.

Key takeaways

Importance of brand search: The latest affiliate traffic loss suggests that sites with strong brand search perform better in rankings while those without it suffer.

Struggles for smaller sites: Smaller affiliate sites lose visibility not due to lack of authority but because they don’t drive brand search.

Need for strategic shift: Affiliate sites need to adopt integrated PR and SEO strategies to influence audience search behavior and boost brand-specific searches.
 

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