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5 Ways to Win at Affiliate Marketing

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5 Ways to Win at Affiliate Marketing

Wirecutter has to be on every short list of websites that affiliate marketers look up to and try to draw inspiration from. Its impact on product choices from its in-depth reviews is so high that there’s even a term called “Wirecutter effect,” describing recommended products selling out quickly once the review goes live.

As of May 2022, the website drives almost 12 million organic search clicks in a month (spread across roughly 3,000 pages):

The website is now part of The New York Times, which acquired Wirecutter in 2016 for about $30 million. The investment most likely paid for itself within three years, as the Times made more than $20 million from Wirecutter in 2018 alone.

Wirecutter is simply a huge affiliate marketing success story that we can all learn from. We’ll go through the following five tips based on Wirecutter’s SEO efforts that you can apply regardless of your affiliate website’s size:

  1. Send great E-A-T signals throughout website
  2. Provide great user experience
  3. Leverage your category pages
  4. Keep your content up to date
  5. Have a solid content distribution plan

Let’s dive in.

1. Send great E-A-T signals throughout the whole website

E-A-T stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. It comes from Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines, a 172-page document used by human quality raters to assess the quality of Google’s search results.

Google’s objective is to provide the most relevant and accurate results for every search query. If you’re looking up cat memes, then it doesn’t really matter which pages show up at the top. But it’s a completely different story when you shift to serious topics like finance or health.

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This is where E-A-T signals come into play. It has the most impact on these YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) topics. And showing the world that you’re an authoritative and trustworthy expert source on a certain topic never hurts.

Now the importance of E-A-T for affiliate websites will differ. It likely won’t be that important for, let’s say, travel websites. But Wirecutter covers a wide range of topics, including some that fall straight into the YMYL topics:

Drop-down list showing Wirecutter's categories

So why did I bring up these E-A-T signals as the first point? Well, this is where I think Wirecutter stands out the most.

Let’s take a look at its review of the best electric toothbrushes. An input from dentists and relevant researchers is certainly useful here. That’s why even though the article was written by Wirecutter staff members, they made sure to get that input anyway:

"Why you should trust us" write-up"Why you should trust us" write-up

The whole article is structured in a way that makes readers confident that they’re reading a highly authoritative review:

Outline of an article about electric toothbrushesOutline of an article about electric toothbrushes

Their claims aside, I still decided to put the quality of information to the ultimate test, as my partner is a dentist. Her verdict? She scored this article and the research behind it 9/10, so that’s as good as it gets for a non-professional website in my book.

All of Wirecutter’s reviews are similar to this from the E-A-T perspective. This thorough coverage of one topic also allows it to rank for thousands of keywords with just one article:

Organic keywords report results for Wirecutter's article on the best electric toothbrushesOrganic keywords report results for Wirecutter's article on the best electric toothbrushes

Screenshot from Organic keywords report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

But it’s not only about the content. Links and mentions from highly relevant and authoritative sources are also important:

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I took a look at Wirecutter’s backlink profile filtered to medical websites. And as you can see, even some expert sources refer to it:

Referring domains report results Referring domains report results

Screenshot from Referring domains report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

Speaking of links, I also found that Wirecutter’s About page has one of the most prominent link placements across all of its pages:

"Learn More" anchor text contains link to Wirecutter's About page"Learn More" anchor text contains link to Wirecutter's About page

That’s right. Wirecutter creatively used the necessary monetization disclaimer on every page to link to its About page. This disclaimer, in addition to labeling sponsored links with the “sponsored” or “nofollow” attributes, is an obvious trustworthiness factor that every affiliate website needs to adhere to.

Linked Domains report results Linked Domains report results

Google recommends to label sponsored or affiliate links with the rel=“sponsored” attribute. The historically used “nofollow” attribute is also fine. Screenshot taken from Linked Domains report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

The About page itself is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen. The content and referenced articles tell both readers and search engines that Wirecutter is serious about establishing high E-A-T:

Excerpt of article stating Wirecutter staff will fact-check and consult various people and resources for all information on the siteExcerpt of article stating Wirecutter staff will fact-check and consult various people and resources for all information on the site

We could go on and on with all the different E-A-T signals, but the ones we just went through seem most important and interesting to expand on.

Is Google smart enough to take all of these signals into account when ranking pages from a particular domain? Maybe. It at least seems to be going in that direction. And does that help build trust with Wirecutter’s readers? Absolutely.

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Learn more: What Is E-A-T? Why It’s Important for SEO

2. Provide great user experience

Besides getting commissions, most affiliate websites are also part of ad networks trying to build their email databases or sell their products. But if you combine all that together, you’re in for some bad user experience (UX):

Example of bad UX: pop-up on webpageExample of bad UX: pop-up on webpage

Example of monetization that leads to bad UX.

Wirecutter is the opposite. Its content is pleasant to read and has great images, GIFs, and videos. Most importantly, the content doesn’t contain any interrupting elements.

Its product recommendation boxes with affiliate links also look quite nice. Each box even has a “product saving” feature:

"Bookmark" icon in top-right corner where users can save the product to view later"Bookmark" icon in top-right corner where users can save the product to view later

I get it. Maximizing your monetization options is enticing and often makes sense from the business perspective. But I’m convinced that many websites are better off in the long term if they optimize and moderate these elements.

Think about it this way:

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Better UX may make your website more popular and its pages rank better. More engaged visitors obviously lead to more commissions from affiliate links. People may also prefer to more often link to good-looking and easy-to-navigate websites.

All of these factors combined will likely be worth more than what you’d make from the other monetization options.

Google already uses mobile-friendliness and Core Web Vitals in its ranking algorithm. It would make perfect sense if it evaluated many other UX factors as well.

3. Leverage your category pages

Let’s check the statistics of another review page:

Site Explorer overview of Wirecutter's article on noise-canceling headphones Site Explorer overview of Wirecutter's article on noise-canceling headphones

We can see that all Wirecutter reviews are placed within the /reviews subfolder. But all of its reviews are properly interlinked and categorized in the site navigation and breadcrumbs:

Site navigation showing "headphones" article is under the Headphones category that's under the Electronics category  Site navigation showing "headphones" article is under the Headphones category that's under the Electronics category

This one is placed within the Headphones category that’s a part of its Electronics category. And as you can probably guess, these category pages also drive a solid amount of traffic:

Site Structure report results Site Structure report results

Screenshot from Site structure report in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

Those category pages only have a bit of intro text and then it’s just a list of reviews:

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Short write-up about Electronics category; below, reviews in grid format Short write-up about Electronics category; below, reviews in grid format

This is one of the best things you can do for proper internal linking, as each page has its place within a given hierarchy. Then there’s the nice bonus of the traffic potential. Similarly, you can also create content hubs (also known as topic clusters) to cover high-level topics that can drive tons of traffic.

4. Keep your content up to date

No matter which affiliate niche you’re in, the business landscape, product development, and prices are constantly evolving. And you should reflect that in your content as well because some product recommendations can get outdated quite fast.

The ratio of updated vs. newly published Wirecutter reviews is almost 5:1 in the past 12 months:

This didn’t surprise me. The more you cover a certain niche, the more often you’ll come back to republish older content.

Wirecutter is already a big authority across many niches, so keeping those pieces up to date can bring quicker and more valuable results as compared to creating new ones. It also doesn’t require as much effort.

I dived deeper into the data and looked at year-over-year (YoY) organic traffic differences of Wirecutter reviews that were first published before May 9, 2021, and updated within a year from this date.

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Here’s what I found:

Data sheet showing YoY comparison of estimated monthly organic traffic for Wirecutter reviews Data sheet showing YoY comparison of estimated monthly organic traffic for Wirecutter reviews

YoY comparison of estimated monthly organic traffic on May 9, 2021, vs. May 9, 2022.

That’s almost 2.8 million more traffic YoY for updated reviews alone. Of course, some of those reviews might have ranked better or retained traffic even without updates, and some could have started ranking worse than before. But overall, the benefit of republishing is clear.

Updating older content is apparently so important for Wirecutter that it’s even hiring writers whose main purpose is to keep articles within their niche up to date:

Last but not least, I really like how Wirecutter even keeps the prices up to date and tells you how they’ve changed since the review was first published:

Note below "price box" updating user on the previous price of the mattress Note below "price box" updating user on the previous price of the mattress

Learn more: Republishing Content: How to Update Old Blog Posts for SEO

5. Have a solid content distribution plan

Publishing great content can only get you so far. Even if your main traffic source is organic search, you need a solid content distribution plan to get every piece of new content in front of as many people as you can.

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This isn’t just about sharing the link to the new content on social media. Everyone does that, and organic reach on many platforms declines over time. Even Wirecutter doesn’t get any impressive engagement numbers from this.

What I think Wirecutter does really well is its email marketing. Through that, the site shares all the new content and references relevant pieces that are older:

Excerpt of Wirecutter newsletter about the best drip coffee makerExcerpt of Wirecutter newsletter about the best drip coffee maker

What you can do on top of building and leveraging your newsletter is repurposing your content into formats that do better on a given platform.

Examples of such content formats are threads on Twitter or short videos that are pretty much everywhere. Here’s how Wirecutter repurposed its article about replacing household essentials into a TikTok video (that can be reshared on other platforms as well).

@wirecutter Here are some household essentials you should regularly replace. #cleaning #kitchen #lifehack #learnontiktok #water #germs #science #fypシ #zyxcba ♬ Lo-Fi Vibes – Wachilow

What does this have to do with SEO, you ask? The more eyes land on your content, the higher the chances you’ll naturally earn a backlink—or get any other earned media that may have an indirect impact on your SEO performance.

And there’s another, albeit more speculative, benefit. Many SEOs have found there’s a high correlation between the buzz generated by new content and its traffic from Google Discover.

I can imagine that Wirecutter gets a ton of traffic from Discover and has the best resources to try and optimize for that, given that it’s under the Times.

Final thoughts

Wirecutter also had to start somewhere. Founder Brian Lam already had great experience in publishing successful content, so his growth strategy was on point. But the thing is you wouldn’t have known that you were looking at a future affiliate marketing “unicorn” back then:

It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or you already have a well-functioning affiliate marketing business. Applying the five tips we’ve just gone through will help you get ahead in your SEO efforts.

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If you want to learn more about affiliate marketing, we have a whole category of articles dedicated to this topic.

Got any questions? Ping me on Twitter.

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

Creating and selling educational courses can be a lucrative business. But if you already have a product to sell, you can actually use courses as a marketing tool.

Back in 2017, about two years after joining Ahrefs, I decided to create a course on content marketing.

I had a very clear understanding of how an educational course would help me promote Ahrefs.

  • People like courses – Folks like Brian Dean and Glen Allsopp were selling theirs for $500 to $2,000 a pop (and rather successfully). So a free course of comparable quality was sure to get attention.
  • Courses allow for a deeper connection – You would basically be spending a few hours one on one with your students. And if you managed to win their trust, you’d get an opportunity to promote your product to them.

That was my raw thought process going into this venture.

And I absolutely didn’t expect that the lifespan of my course would be as interesting and nuanced as it turned out to be.

The lessons of my course have generated over 500K+ in total views, brought in mid-five-figures in revenue (without even trying), and turned out to be a very helpful resource for our various marketing purposes.

So here goes the story of my “Blogging for Business” course.

1. The creation

I won’t give you any tips on how to create a successful course (well, maybe just one). There are plenty of resources (courses?) on that topic already.

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All I want to say is that my own experience was quite grueling.

The 10 lessons of my course span some 40K words. I have never attempted the feat of writing a book, but I imagine creating such a lengthy course is as close as it gets.

Scripts of the course in Google Docs.

I spent a tremendous amount of time polishing each lesson. The course was going to be free, so it was critical that my content was riveting. If not, people would just bounce from it.

Paid courses are quite different in that sense. You pay money to watch them. So even if the content is boring at times, you’ll persevere anyway to ensure a return on your investment.

When I showed the draft version of the course to my friend, Ali Mese, he gave me a simple yet invaluable tip: “Break your lessons into smaller ones. Make each just three to four minutes long.”

How did I not think of this myself? 

Short, “snackable” lessons provide a better sense of completion and progress. You’re also more likely to finish a short lesson without getting distracted by something. 

I’m pretty sure that it is because of this simple tip that my course landed this Netflix comparison (i.e., best compliment ever):

2. The strategy

With the prices of similar courses ranging from $500 to $2,000, it was really tempting to make some profit with ours.

I think we had around 15,000 paying customers at Ahrefs at that time (and many more on the free plan). So if just 1% of them bought that course for $1K, that would be an easy $150K to pocket. And then we could keep upselling it to our future customers.

Alternatively, we thought about giving access to the course to our paying customers only. 

This might have boosted our sales, since the course was a cool addition to the Ahrefs subscription. 

And it could also improve user retention. The course was a great training resource for new employees, which our customers would lose access to if they canceled their Ahrefs subscription.

And yet, releasing it for free as a lead acquisition and lead nurturing play seemed to make a lot more sense than the other two options. So we stuck to that.

3. The waitlist

Teasing something to people before you let them get it seems like one of the fundamental rules of marketing.

  • Apple announces new products way before they’re available in stores. 
  • Movie studios publish trailers of upcoming movies months (sometimes years) before they hit the theaters. 
  • When you have a surprise for your significant other (or your kids), you can’t help but give them some hints before the reveal.

There’s something about “the wait” and the anticipation that we humans just love to experience.

So while I was toiling away and putting lessons of my course together, we launched a landing page to announce it and collect people’s emails.

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The landing page of the course.

In case someone hesitated to leave their email, we had two cool bonuses to nudge them:

  1. Access to the private Slack community
  2. Free two-week trial of Ahrefs

The latter appealed to freebie lovers so much that it soon “leaked” to Reddit and BlackHatWorld. In hindsight, this leak was actually a nice (unplanned) promo for the course.

4. The promotion

I don’t remember our exact promotion strategy. But I’m pretty sure it went something like this:

I also added a little “sharing loop” to the welcome email. I asked people to tell their friends about the course, justifying it with the fact that taking the course with others was more fun than doing it alone.

Welcome email with a "sharing loop."

I have no idea how effective that “growth hack” was, but there was no reason not to encourage sharing.

In total, we managed to get some 16,000 people on our waitlist by the day of the course launch.

5. The launch

On a set date, the following email went out to our waitlist:

Course launch email.

Did you notice the “note” saying that the videos were only available for free for 30 days? We did that to nudge people to watch them as soon as possible and not save them to the “Watch later” folder.

In retrospect, I wish we had used this angle from the very beginning: “FREE for 30 days. Then $799.”

This would’ve killed two birds with one stone: 

  1. Added an urgency to complete the course as soon as possible
  2. Made the course more desirable by assigning a specific (and rather high) monetary value to it

(If only we could be as smart about predicting the future as we are about reflecting on the past.) 

Once it was live, the course started to promote itself. I was seeing many super flattering tweets:

We then took the most prominent of those tweets and featured them on the course landing page for some social proof. (They’re still there, by the way.)

6. The paywall

Once the 30 days of free access ran out, we added a $799 paywall. And it didn’t take long for the first sale to arrive:

This early luck didn’t push us to focus on selling this course, though. We didn’t invest any effort into promoting it. It was just sitting passively in our Academy with a $799 price tag, and that was it.

And yet, despite the lack of promotion, that course was generating 8-10 sales every month—which were mostly coming from word of mouth.

A comment in TrafficThinkTank.
Eric Siu giving a shout-out about my course in TTT Slack.

Thanks to its hefty price, my course soon appeared on some popular websites with pirated courses. And we were actually glad that it did. Because that meant more people would learn about our content and product.

Then some people who were “late to the party” started asking me if I was ever going to reopen the course for free again. This actually seemed like a perfectly reasonable strategy at the time:

7. The giveaways

That $799 price tag also turned my free course into a pretty useful marketing tool. It was a perfect gift for all sorts of giveaways on Twitter, on podcasts, during live talks, and so on.

Giving away the course during a live talk.
Me giving away the course during a live talk.

And whenever we partnered with someone, they were super happy to get a few licenses of the course, which they could give out to their audience.

8. The relaunch

Despite my original plan to update and relaunch this course once a year, I got buried under other work and didn’t manage to find time for it.

And then the pandemic hit. 

That’s when we noticed a cool trend. Many companies were providing free access to their premium educational materials. This was done to support the “stay at home” narrative and help people learn new skills.

I think it was SQ who suggested that we should jump on that train with my “Blogging for Business” course. And so we did:

We couldn’t have hoped for a better timing for that relaunch. The buzz was absolutely insane. The announcement tweet alone has generated a staggering 278K+ impressions (not without some paid boosts, of course).

The statistics of the course announcement tweet.

We also went ahead and reposted that course on ProductHunt once again (because why not?).

All in all, that relaunch turned out to be even more successful than the original launch itself. 

In the course of their lifespan on Wistia, the 40 video lessons of my course generated a total of 372K plays.

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Play count from Wistia.

And this isn’t even the end of it.

9. The launch on YouTube

Because the course was now free, it no longer made sense to host it at Wistia. So we uploaded all lessons to YouTube and made them public.

To date, the 41 videos of my course have generated about 187K views on YouTube.

"Blogging for Business" course playlist.

It’s fair to mention that we had around 200,000 subscribers on our channel at the time of publishing my course there. A brand-new channel with no existing subscribers will likely generate fewer views.

10. The relaunch on YouTube [coming soon]

Here’s an interesting observation that both Sam and I made at around the same time. 

Many people were publishing their courses on YouTube as a single video spanning a few hours rather than cutting them into individual lessons like we did. And those long videos were generating millions of views!

Like these two, ranking at the top for “learn Python course,” which have 33M and 27M views, respectively:

"Learn python course" search on YouTube.

So we decided to run a test with Sam’s “SEO for Beginners” course. It was originally published on YouTube as 14 standalone video lessons and generated a total of 140K views.

Well, the “single video” version of that same course has blown it out of the water with over 1M views as of today.

I’m sure you can already tell where I’m going with this.

We’re soon going to republish my “Blogging for Business” course on YouTube as a single video. And hopefully, it will perform just as well.

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The end

So that’s the story of my “Blogging for Business” course. From the very beginning, it was planned as a promotional tool for Ahrefs. And judging by its performance, I guess it fulfilled its purpose rather successfully.

A screenshot of a Slack message.

Don’t get me wrong, though. 

The fact that my course was conceived as a promotional tool doesn’t mean that I didn’t pour my heart and soul into it. It was a perfectly genuine and honest attempt to create a super useful educational resource for content marketing newbies.

And I’m still hoping to work on the 2.0 version of it someday. In the past four years, I have accrued quite a bit more content marketing knowledge that I’m keen to share with everyone. So follow me on Twitter, and stay tuned.



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