Great Big Beginners Guide to Affiliate Links
So you’ve decided to wade into the murky waters of affiliate marketing? Or maybe you’ve already dipped your toe into the water of affiliate partnerships and are wondering what to do next?
I’m here to help!
Through trial and error and hours of online education—reading other blogs, watching YouTube videos, deploying affiliate links—I have learned what works and what doesn’t when using affiliate links on my other website. So, I wanted to share this info with others who may be having trouble finding the answers to burning questions about affiliate links.
Before I get started, you should know that this article contains affiliate links. Should you purchase something through my link, then I will earn a commission.
(The previous sentence is known as an affiliate disclaimer, and it is one of the most important items you need to have on a website earning commissions from affiliate merchants. More here.)
What is an affiliate link?
An affiliate link is a link (URL) that links to an external website with whom you have an affiliate relationship. When a reader clicks and buys something from a retailer via an affiliate link on your website, you can earn a commission.
Commission rates vary depending on the retailer and what item has been purchased.
So, if you are earning 1% commission from X retailer and your reader clicks on your affiliate link and purchases an item that costs $100, you will earn $1.
That’s not much! But the commissions add up over time.
Why use affiliate links?
Affiliate links are a great way to earn income on a website. And, they are also a good way to diversify your earnings from blogging, especially if you are part of an ad network like AdSense.
A personal anecdote: Like many others, I discovered the necessity of diversifying my blog income in March 2020. As you can imagine, travel blogs didn’t do so well when the world shut down.
As my traffic tanked, so too did my ad earnings. But it gave me the opportunity to consider new content based around travel-adjacent products like books (e.g., Amazon and Bookshop).
As travel has returned, so too have my traffic numbers and my Adsense revenue. But I have also started to earn a lot more money from various sources because I took the downtime to form affiliate partnerships and deploy affiliate links that made sense to my readers (e.g., affiliate links to travel packages, vacation rentals, hotels, etc.)
Another reason you may want to use affiliate links is when your site does not qualify for Adsense or another ad network or when you just don’t want your website to look cluttered with ads.
The website The Marginalian (formerly known as Brain Pickings) is one example of a website that does not have ads but does use affiliate links, particularly from Amazon. (It also makes money by collecting donations from readers. But that’s a subject for another post.)
How do affiliate networks work?
In the world of affiliate marketing, there are three divisions:
Affiliate networks are the platforms on which platforms can partner with one or multiple retailers.
Affiliate merchants are the retailers that are part of an affiliate network.
And, affiliate publishers are the bloggers, writers, or influencers that create the content that links buyers to the things they want to buy from retailers.
In many cases, affiliate publishers will sign up for affiliate partnerships through an affiliate network. But there are also cases where the publisher/influencer works directly with the merchant or the merchant’s own affiliate program.
What are some affiliate networks?
There are a ton of affiliate network platforms and affiliate programs out there. The easiest way to find them is to search for the name of the retailer you want to work with with the keyword “affiliate program.”
Another tool I like to use for affiliate ideas is affi.io. Its home page lists dozens of affiliate networks and you can also search by merchant to find out which platforms, if any, they may be on.
Affiliate network platforms
As mentioned above, affi.io keeps a huge list of affiliate networks. I don’t use all of these, so I can’t speak to all of them.
Here are a few affiliate networks that I use:
- Ascend (formerly Pepperjam and owned by Partnerize)
- CJ (formerly known as Commission Junction)
- Flex Offers
- Impact Radius
- Rakuten (formerly known as Linkshare)
- ShareASale (Owned by AWIN)
This site has a good write-up on popular affiliate network platforms and the pros and cons of each.
Standalone affiliate programs
You may have noticed that I did not list Amazon in the list above. Amazon has one of the best-known and oldest affiliate networks out there. And it has only grown over the years as the site has a massive selection of products and a large percentage of people browsing your site will already have an Amazon account.
Amazon Associates is what I call a “standalone” affiliate program. Amazon is both the affiliate platform and the merchant in this case.
Here are some other standalone affiliate programs:
- Booking.com Affiliate Partner Programme
- Ebay Partner Network
- Target Partners
- Viator Partner Program
- Walmart Affiliates
How to select the right affiliate partnerships
If you decide to sign up with an affiliate network platform like AWIN or Flex Offers and get accepted, the next step is to find merchants to work with.
AWIN and Flex Offers each has more than 12,000 merchants under their umbrella, so you should be able to find a merchant that works well for your niche.
For example, if you are a travel blogger, search for merchants that offer products or services related to travel (e.g., hotel chains, rental cars, Tripadvisor, etc.).
Similarly, a fashion and beauty blogger may want to look up department store merchants (e.g., Nordstrom or Sephora).
Crafty? Sign up with Etsy (on AWIN).
Bookworm? If you don’t want to send your readers to Amazon, consider Bookshop (which lets your readers buy from an independent bookstore of their choice and offers a 10% (!) commission rate on purchases).
Other factors to consider when signing up for an affiliate program
Your email address matters (sometimes). If you are signing up to get affiliate links for your blog, sign up with an email that is from the same domain rather than a gmail email address. This is not always necessary, but I have been rejected because of the same and I had to waste time convincing them that I was me and I was signing up in good faith.
Don’t overlook your profile bio. Craft a good bio that explains why you will be a good affiliate partner. You may also want to create a media kit (if you haven’t already) and upload a PDF of your info and stats. Canva has a great selection of templates for creating a media kit.
Add specifics in a note when you sign up. Some programs, such as AWIN, allow you to add a message when signing up for a merchant. This is a great opportunity to explain where you may want to link to a merchant’s product on your website or on a specific page.
Cookie length. Cookie length or cookie duration is how long an external website recognizes your affiliate link. Each merchant defines that differently and it can be between 12 hours to 30 days. The longer the cookie duration, the greater the possibility that you will make a commission from a sale—even if the customer buys a different product than the one that you linked to. Cookie length information is available in the merchant description when you sign up.
Commission percentage. Also available in the merchant description is the commission rate. Merchants decide how much commission they will pay if an affiliate referral results in a sale on their site. This usually ranges between 1-4%. The higher the better, of course.
Payment threshold. If you want to make money with affiliate links, then you probably want your money sooner than later. So, payment threshold information is important when considering an affiliate program or merchant. For example, Amazon Associates will pay out when commissions reach $10. Bookshop requires $20 for payout. Some networks’ payout threshold is $100.
Don’t sign up for everything. Signing up for dozens upon dozens of merchants can be hard to manage. Plus, if you are spread too thin, it may be harder to meet payment thresholds. Zero-in on the merchants and products that make sense for you and your readers.
Don’t worry about rejection. Not every affiliate network or merchant is going to accept you into its program. It seems like a weird thing—here you are wanting to help them make money and they reject you? But you also have to understand that they, too, are playing a numbers game and want to work with affiliates that have the greatest potential to earn for them. In this case, there are a few things you can do: find a similar alternative; appeal the rejection through customer service; or wait a while and try to appeal/re-apply after you have more content or high-ranking content that will work within the merchant’s niche.
What are the different types of affiliate links?
So now you are all signed up with an affiliate program. How do you make links? There are several ways.
Assets (Text links, Banners, etc.). Most affiliate programs will have an area called “assets,” under which are listed codes for various text links, ad banners, etc. These are kind of the “old school” way of adding affiliate links to your website. While they are usable and sometimes effective, these pre-programmed text links and banners from merchants are generic.
Deep links. Many—but not all—affiliate merchants allow publishers to use deep links. Deep links are links to specific products and are more likely to convert. You can usually make deep links using one of these three methods:
- Deep-link creators within the Tools section of an affiliate program dashboard.
- Bookmarklets are little pieces of code that you pull into your bookmarks bar. Then, when you are on a merchant’s website, you can click on the bookmarklet to create a deep link. Flex Offers, CJ, Rakuten, and ShareASale have bookmarklets.
- Browser extensions (e.g., Chrome extensions) work a lot like bookmarklets but you have to install and enable them to work. AWIN, Impact, Partnerize, and ShopStyle Collective offer extensions on Chrome.
Widgets and Page Builders. Some affiliate programs have tools that let you build widgets that can be used on a page on your website. Some widgets are simple carousels, while others are more robust and can be deployed as content on a page. If you are using WordPress, Flex Offers has a cool widget builder that you can use via its plugin.
Data feeds. Some technical expertise is often required to use data feeds. These use code (e.g., API) to hook into an affiliate program’s catalog and download the information into a spreadsheet or directly into your website. The Amazon Associates API is an example of a data feed. To be honest, I am still trying to figure out how some data feeds work. So, rather than tear my hair out learning about the technicalities, I have used third-party software/plugins to get data feeds. A few you may want to try are WZone or Content Egg (both available from Envato Market) or Datafeedr.
How can I use affiliate links?
There are many ways to use affiliate links “organically” throughout your content. Here are some examples of how to use affiliate links while also adding value for your readers:
- Product reviews. In-depth reviews of products and services—particularly ones that you have used personally—are a great way to use affiliate links on your website. The Wirecutter, a product review site started by former Gizmodo EIC Brian Lam, is one website that did this to such great effect that the New York Times bought it.
- Book reviews. Same as above but with books. One site that does this really well is Five Books.
- Product comparisons. These are essentially the same as reviews but with more than one product. This is also a great way to use SEO (search engine optimization) to your advantage since consumers who are ready to buy are often searching for this product vs. another product.
- Deals. Affiliate programs will often alert you to upcoming promotions that will save your readers money or earn them loyalty points. The Points Guy and Nerd Wallet are two sites that do this well, particularly for credit card affiliate programs. Urlaubstracker, a German travel site, is another successful example of deal-based content that works.
- Tutorials. You can even write tutorials about how to use affiliate links and then use affiliate links in that tutorial 😉
These are just a few ways that you can integrate affiliate links into your content. But if you keep your eye out, you’ll notice that nearly every site uses them in one way or another.
How can I manage affiliate links?
Once you start making affiliate links, it can be hard to stop. It may even get to the point that you have forgotten where you placed your affiliate links on your website.
This can be an issue if a link breaks or an affiliate merchant shuts down. Of course, there are now tools to manage your affiliate links.
Affi.io has a tool called Strackr which lets you keep track of all of your affiliate partnerships—and, ostensibly, the affiliate links you make with each—from one dashboard. I haven’t wanted to pay for this tool, so I use a spreadsheet and bookmarks. 🙂
But there are also a couple of great tools that help you manage all of your bookmarks while making them look more “clickable.”
Thirsty Affiliates and Pretty Links are WordPress plugins that offer free and premium versions of their link cloaking software. Of course, the premium versions are more robust.
Both Thirsty Affiliates and Pretty Links tout their software for the ability to hide long, ugly affiliate links and “re-brand” them with your own domain. But they are also practical for preventing affiliate link theft (it happens, apparently); managing and tracking dozens to hundreds of links; and providing other useful tools like automatic linking by keyword, link scheduling, and other bells and whistles.
Thirsty Affiliates Pro, which I currently use on three websites, also has an Amazon Associates API feature that lets you search for Amazon products from your website dashboard.
Another affiliate-link-cloaking software I see used is bitly. Bitly, the URL shortening service that has been around since 2008, is widely used by YouTubers to cloak their affiliate links in the details below their videos. The paid version of bitly allows you to bulk upload links for cloaking and to track analytics on links. It also lets you to use your own URL for shortening/cloaking (use Namecheap to shop for a short domain).
Quick tip about link cloaking: Some affiliate programs and merchants (e.g., Amazon) do not allow cloaked links. In this case, the link-cloaking plugins have a “do not cloak” function. However, Amazon Associates has its own link shortener/cloaker, available when making a link on Site Stripe. And a growing number of affiliate platforms (e.g. AWIN, Flex Offers) have their own shorteners. So why use a link cloaker? It’s a great way to manage a ton of links, track their impact, and quickly edit or remove them, if need be.
Now that you have signed up for an affiliate program, created an affiliate link, and deployed it on your website, it’s important to make sure you have an affiliate disclosure.
An affiliate disclosure or disclaimer is essential to earning money as an affiliate if you are based in the U.S. and/or write for a U.S. audience. Mandated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an affiliate disclosure lets your readers know that you are receiving a commission or being compensated by the merchants whose products you are linking to on your blog.
On social media, an affiliate disclosure can be a simple hashtag like #ad or #sponsored. On a website, the affiliate disclaimer has to be clearly visible on all pages that contain affiliate links.
Amazon is particularly sensitive about affiliate disclosures. Amazon associates must include this phrase in their content:
“As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.”
This site has a great explainer on affiliate disclosures, from why and how to write them to how to insert them into your content.
Affiliate programs have been around for a long time. But they have really started to take off in the last decade or so, as publishers have figured out new and clever ways to include affiliate links in their content.
I wanted to write about affiliate links in a clear and relatable way, free of the swagger of so-called affiliate marketing “experts.” I wanted to write about affiliate links to share what I have learned over the years, too.
So, how did I do? Leave a comment and add your tips, too! I will surely update this post to include new insights and tools.