Google Sitelinks Case Study (Or How Affiliates Took Over our Results)

One of the reasons why I love my job is that even after almost 10 years working with clients, I can still find new mind-boggling SEO anomalies that can surprise even the most experienced of SEOs.

What if I told you that your affiliate links can not only appear under your branded searches but can also unintentionally contribute to your advertisers’ efforts?

But before we’ll get into the main story, I would first like to do a quick recap on some of the main sitelinks FAQs (as I’ve found too much misinformation and outdated content out there, including in the featured snippet).

What are sitelinks (Google subsites)?

Sitelinks in SEO are the links shown below some of Google’s search results. They are meant to help users navigate easily to other sections of the website directly from the SERP. 

According to Google, sitelinks will be shown only in case they are found useful and relevant to the user’s query. The most common sitelinks are presented for branded searches.

Sitelinks in search results

Google sitelinks examples

Branded result with 2 sitelinks:

Branded result with 2 sitelinks

Branded result with 4 sitelinks:

Branded result with 4 sitelinks

Branded results with 6 sitelinks:

Branded result with 6 sitelinks

How to make sitelinks (subheadings) appear in google search?

Sitelinks for branded searches are generated completely automatically, but as they are based on the algorithm, they rely mostly on the internal website link structure. In other words, there is not much we can do about it but make sure we’re linking properly (with proper and clear anchor text for each internal link) to the most important pages you wish Google will display.

We also need to differentiate between sitelinks for branded searches and sitelinks under one specific URL.

Sitelinks under one specific URL will link to a different section within the same given page, for example:

Sitelinks example

You can create them easily using anchor links

How to remove (demote) Google sitelinks? Can you use Google Webmaster Tools?

Although we never really had full control over sitelinks on Google, in the past, Google Search Console (back in the days when it was called Webmaster Tools) used to enable us to prevent specific URLs from showing up on the sitelinks section.

Unfortunately, this feature was demoted by Google in October 2016.

So nowadays the only way to ensure Google won’t display a specific URL is to block it with a Robots Meta tag:

 <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex” />

You might be surprised, but even the robots.txt file won’t always prevent Google from displaying the URL as part of the sitelinks. 

For example, if will search for “github login” (which has a clear user intent), you will find it, even though it is blocked by their robots.txt file:

sitelink blocked by robots.txt

According to Google’s announcement (following the sitelinks demoting feature removal from Search Console):

“our algorithms have gotten much better at finding, creating, and showing relevant sitelinks, and so we feel it’s time to simplify things.”

There is no doubt that the algorithms have gotten better, but is it really enough to completely give up this feature?

Let’s dive into our main story.

Case Study – expect the unexpected

Without providing the name, we can only tell that our client in question provides insurance services (with an eCommerce option to make online purchases)

It all started when I was conducting a normal routine search for the client’s brand name on Google to see their sitelinks. I wasn’t surprised to find a link to the purchase page, I was surprised to find out that this link had an affiliate parameter, which means it was an affiliate link (!).

At first, I thought it’s a mistake on my end, maybe it’s just some kind of a cookie redirect, so I started to dig deeper.

I went to the Google Search Console performance report and checked the number of clicks and impressions for this URL:

Clicks and Impressions in Google Search Console

Wait, but why?

For the record, this affiliate link, which shouldn’t even be on the index in the first place, was getting over 65,000 impressions.

After checking the queries, the picture was starting to get clear – during this period, the branded searches surfaced this URL within the results. In other words, every user who was searching for the company, and wanted to make a purchase directly from the sitelinks, was attributed to an affiliate purchase.

The client, without any intention, had sent all the users to this one lucky affiliate. Checking their Analytics account also showed that a total of 27 purchases were made via this link, which may not sound like a lot, but we’re talking a very nice commission for practically doing nothing.

Not to mention, this affiliate got from zero to over 65k impressions almost overnight. That’s pretty crazy.

How did we handle it?

First, we weren’t waiting for Google’s mercy – we used the URL removal tool right away to remove this URL and practically all URLs that had the same pattern.

Second, we wanted to check why these pages were indexed in the first place. There was no canonical tag, robots.txt or Meta Robots.

The canonical tag is suggestive and from our experience, even blocking by robots.txt is not sufficient, and Google can still choose to show the URL within the search results this way.

The best way to ensure these pages won’t appear again is by noindexing them via Meta robots tag.

As you can see, the URL had dropped to zero clicks and impressions after this quick fix:

Drop in clicks and impressions

Main Takeaway

  • Make sure to monitor your brand’s sitelinks at least on a monthly basis
  • Don’t rely on Google’s algorithm to understand which pages to keep or drop – make sure to deploy the right tags (preferably not suggestive)
  • It’s also important to mention that the affiliate URL didn’t have any internal links pointing at it (nor external links)
  • Tip from Google – Make sure you use an informative anchor text and alt text, make it short and to the point, and avoids repetition.

Found any issues within your sitelinks? Wonder whether you can / should handle it? Contact me to solve your brand’s SEO mystery!

Posted by Roey Skif

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