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December 2020 Google Update: Why it Affected Affiliate Websites

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Enough time has passed since the December 2020 Core Google Update has been rolled out that we can make reasonable deductions without jumping to conclusions.  As with all core updates, nobody can be 100% sure why certain websites got hit, but we can analyze the information available and propose ways to improve your SERP ranking going forward.

First, let’s start off with what we know for sure – 1. affiliate content got hit hard; 2. the update didn’t affect individual pages or sections of a website(discounting some outliers), but entire websites. There are a few theories as to why affiliate websites were affected the way they were.

Why the December 2020 Core Google Update Affected Affiliate Websites

Any time Google rolls out their core updates, the SEO community scrambles to understand why their sites got hit. By understanding the why you can work out a tactic to make gains (or at least minimize losses). 

Some standard solutions are proposed regardless of the update – focus on user experience and content quality, provide original and authoritative content, improve your E-A-T, check your core web vitals, etc.

While this is generally good advice, it’s nowhere near specific enough. It’s essentially the same advice that Google provided in their 2011 blog on building high-quality websites. A few popular theories that focus specifically on this update have been proposed.

One is that search intent has been refined by this update. Let’s say you run an affiliate website that deals in cat food. According to this theory, the reason your site got hit is that up until now you were ranking for generic terms, in this case, ‘cat food’. 

Now, the update took that away from you and started ranking you only for a more specific search term, like ‘cat food review’ and ‘best cat food’. Another proposed reason for affiliate websites getting hit is that high-quality links increased in significance. And that low-quality links were devalued. 

So authoritative sites or sites with authoritative backlinks gained, while sites with lower-quality backlinks lost. This could be one possible reason for the effect the update had on your website, but it’s hard to substantiate definitively.

Another plausible theory is that the December update increased the significance of topical authority. So, if your website is focused on cat food, you need to have a lot of content relating to it and interlink it in order to rank for it.

While all of these may be partially correct (and probably do factor in, to a certain degree), it still doesn’t explain why affiliate websites specifically were so affected by the December update. This brings us to the concept of doorway pages.

Doorway Pages and Affiliate Content

Here is the Google quality guideline that references doorway pages. In essence, the purpose of a doorway page is to get the user to go to another page (which Google considers bad for the user). 

But that’s what affiliate content is. If someone searches for ‘best cat food’, goes to your page about cat food, and clicks to go to another page where they can buy cat food, you’ve done your job.

So, why would you get penalized for that? Most likely, since the update, Google interprets your pages as not providing significant/added value to the user. The criteria Google uses to determine whether your pages provide value is not entirely clear.

However, more than likely, the end criteria is a combination of several factors – the proportion of informational and commercial content, the number of affiliate links compared to normal links, and, possibly, the number of monetized pages on your website.

Google combines these factors to conclude whether a website is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for users. As most affiliate websites will have more commercial than informational content, more affiliate than normal links, and a large percentage of monetized pages, they get put into the ‘bad’ category, in accordance with Google’s page quality policy.

The clearest explanation Google provides is in their document referring to affiliate programs. From this, it can be gleaned that websites that do not have enough original content or provide added value will suffer in the search engine rankings.

In their words – ‘Added value means additional meaningful content or features, such as additional information about price, purchasing location, or product category’. This advice is far from new, but it appears that Google has started following it more strictly since the update.

We should note that we can’t say with 100% certainty that these are the only reasons affiliate websites got hit. There are probably other factors involved too. But, the trend is clear enough that we can provide advice on what you should do to improve your rankings.

What’s the Solution?

In short, invest more in high-quality SEO content writing that will provide value to the user. Focus more on top-of-the-funnel, informational content that will answer the users’ questions and quarries. By no means does this mean taking down your affiliate content. After all, that would defeat the whole purpose of affiliate websites.

But do your best to convince Google that your pages provide value and are not just redirecting to affiliate websites. So, start implementing some SEO strategies for adding purely informational content, or have professional content writers do it for you.

A few of the following types of articles (sticking to the cat food example) – ‘Can dogs eat cat food?’ and ‘Can cats be healthy while only eating cat food?’ – will help demonstrate to Google that you provide value and that you should rank higher.

As commercial content is more valuable to affiliate websites, you don’t need to write overly long pieces of informational content. Having multiple non-commercial, informational blogs of about 1000 words that can be written relatively quickly is the safest bet. Just make sure it’s quality content, or otherwise you’re not gaining anything.

Naturally, you want the informational content to boost your commercial one. So, it should be topical and link to the commercial one. That way, you’ll get Google to rank you higher and you’ll be getting value from the informational content, other than just increasing your website’s SERP ranking.

Until the Next Update

The advice we’ve given is specifically related to the December 2020 update, but it isn’t only relevant to it. The effect this update has had on affiliate websites is in line with Google’s stated goal of giving prominence to websites that provide value to the user.

You can probably expect future updates to follow a similar trend. Simply finding the right keywords to rank for (not that it was easy anyway) is no longer enough. You need to emphasize providing original, informative content if you want your websites to be at the top in the future.

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