The Evolution of Search Affiliates

Digital marketing is now in its third decade of existence, with many of the practices founded during its infancy still being implemented today. Even in these early years, when brands faced issues with organically growing through methods such as SEO and email marketing, they reached for new paid channels to sustain growth. Online affiliate marketing was one of these new disciplines, which helped brands expand to new audiences and increase traffic to their site, in the hope of generating more sales.

Luke DeMarco

A key part of the affiliate industry was and still is the publisher, a business that markets an advertiser’s products or services on their behalf. Publishers are typically remunerated on a performance model, where they are paid a commission after having driven a conversion (a purchase, lead, download, etc.) on an advertiser’s site. In these early years, affiliates were often sites that simply recommended or reviewed certain products in an attempt to get a customer to click the product and make a purchase.

With the foundations of the digital affiliate model in place, several business models sprang up, leveraging the tracking and payment technology that affiliate networks had to offer. In this article, we’ll go into detail about one of those business types – search affiliates. How did search affiliates begin, where are they today, and how does NMPi fit into all of this?

What Is a Traditional Search Affiliate?

With the emergence of Google AdWords (known today as Google Ads) and other search marketing platforms in the early 2000s, digital marketers swarmed to this new marketing channel. 

While it’s hard to imagine today, marketers were initially wary of this new advertising technology, concerned about fraudulent traffic and its potential to even drive noticeable performance. Affiliates were soon to capitalize on these emerging platforms, however, realizing the high risk/high reward they had to offer. Search Affiliate Marketing is similar to traditional affiliate advertising, but instead leverages search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing to drive traffic and conversions for advertisers.

This came as an advantage to nascent in-house marketing teams, as the affiliates ran campaigns and fronted the ad spend, minimising risk and preserving ROI for advertisers. This pure performance model acted as a natural incentive for the affiliates to perform to the best of their capabilities in order to not operate at a loss because of inefficient paid search campaigns.

Where Is Search Affiliate Marketing Today?

With the slow commoditisation of paid search, brands began to bring increasing proportions of their PPC activity outside of the affiliate channel, in favour of working with an agency or managing in-house. Google also placed increasing pressure on search affiliates to improve the search experience and attract more of the marketing budget from established brands.

With affiliates no longer able to serve ads directly to an advertiser’s website, new ways of working were quickly established that still leveraged the power of search engines. Indirect linking search affiliates such as coupon and cashback sites emerged, serving on ‘brand-plus’ keywords (also known as TM+) to drive traffic and performance.

You’ll often see coupon sites today providing specific promotions for brands via their paid search ads. These affiliates, just like their ‘90s counterparts, earn a commission off each conversion that falls within their attribution model.

Cashback sites are also common versions of modern search affiliates, driving a large proportion of traffic to their sites via search engine marketing. The commission earned by these publishers is often passed in whole or part back to customers as an incentive for using their site.

Where Does Incubeta Fit Into the Picture?

By the early 2000s, there were countless search affiliates engaging in PPC activity via the affiliate channel. Incubeta joined the fray in 2004 and began supporting advertisers in a wide range of industries, countries, and search engines.

For the reasons mentioned above, many of these paid search publishers ceased to exist or diversified into other areas. Despite these industry pressures, a small group of search affiliates survived and continued to offer performance-based solutions to their clients.

From that changeable time, Incubeta emerged and expanded its offering. While paid search continued to be a valuable service, we expanded our pure-performance solutions to Google Shopping, paid social, and programmatic display.

Why Is This Useful Today?

With the emergence of search affiliate marketing came the opportunity for brands to launch paid search campaigns via affiliates on a commission-based model, minimizing risk while improving performance.

Due to industry developments, the viewpoint of what a ‘search affiliate is’ slowly shifted to cashback and coupon sites. Brands looked for ways to leverage search engine marketing in the affiliate space that didn’t overlap with their in-house or agency-managed PPC.

In this time of uncertainty, where advertisers are unsure of the ROI they will receive from their ad spend, might this be an opportunity to revisit this business model that founded what we know as search affiliates today?

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