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John Lewis in potential deep water with their affiliate marketing

1 August, 2011

Brands and Social Media

All of the big retailers know the importance of branding their products and the largest organisations spend millions on creating and protecting their brands and “brand reputation”.  Branding has become a very powerful part of the marketing process and companies like Coca Cola and Chanel go to great lengths to develop and protect their brands.  Developing an effective brand strategy is a vital part of marketing and generating brand loyalty with customers.  Recent years have seen many of the larger organisations spending less on traditional advertising and more on developing brand loyalty through social media strategies and other digital media.

Organisations that have successfully undertaken this process will also spend hefty sums on protecting their brands.  There’s a huge market for “knock-off” goods which results in loss of sales for the brand owners and, with the imitation products being of inferior quality, the perception by consumers that the brand is not living up to its promise of quality.

So much is spent on branding that it’s difficult to understand why some companies are not doing all that they could possibly do to protect their brands on the internet.  A case in point is John Lewis – this company has obviously gone to great lengths to develop their brand which is synonymous with excellent quality.  You know that if you buy from John Lewis you can expect your purchases to be of a high standard.  In fact, last year John Lewis joined the ranks of the most influential brands in the UK – the company actually ranks higher than Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook.  This is no mean feat and demonstrates how much importance the company places on branding.

The John Lewis partnership is an employee-owned organisation which includes John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets along with several other services.  The company is owned by a trust on behalf of its employees who all contribute to the running of the business and receive a share of the annual profits.  John Lewis beat Marks and Spencer to become the UK’s best high street website in 2010.  The department store chain has a reputation for providing an upmarket shopping experience, appealing to middle and upper class shoppers all over the UK.  The business which was founded in 1864 as a draper’s shop in Oxford Street, London, has seen a steady rise in annual turnover and profits for the past ten years or so.

John Lewis Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing has become an integrated part of business plans and marketing strategies for many companies, especially those that are dealing online.  It can be a great way of advertising products and services, but it’s essential to use a reputable company that follows guidelines and more so engages only in White Hat SEO (Search Engine Optimization) methods.  Because most affiliates are paid for sales that result from the visitors that they refer to the merchant’s website, some affiliate websites will use methods of gaming Google to ensure that they appear above the merchant’s website in the search engine rankings.   This means that when a prospective customer is searching for a product online, they are likely to discover the affiliate website before they find the merchant’s website – this usually results in the customer clicking through to the merchant’s website from the affiliate and any sales generated will result in commission for the affiliate.

It seems astonishing that organisations who are putting so much money and effort into branding their products successfully are not following through by directing resources into monitoring the activity of their affiliates to make sure they are not cheating the system with unfair SEO techniques.

I was recently surprised to come across an affiliate marketing company that’s used by John Lewis using some undesirable methods to increase their rank, ultimately getting more website visitors.  John Lewis runs a successful affiliate programme with several affiliate companies and one of these is MyVoucherCodes, a company that describe themselves as the “UK’s #1 Voucher and Deals Website”.

In an aim to increase the number of links to their own website, some affiliate websites employ people to visit forums and join in online discussions on many of the popular blogs.  On most forums the name you register becomes anchor text and is a clickable link. The idea being is that if I commented on a forum you would be able to click me and find out a bit more about me. In this case if you click on the person’s name, it will take you to the affiliate website directly to the page that contains a link to a retailer’s website.  This seems to have been what has happened with John Lewis.  On the Search Engine Roundtable website “somebody” called “John Lewis UK” has engaged in an ongoing discussion on Google’s Panda Algorithm in a thread underneath the main article.  If you click on the name John Lewis UK, you are immediately taken to the John Lewis page of the MyVoucherCodes website where there is a link to the John Lewis website.

The Comment Reads: “My ranking badly affected by this updation in algorithm. But now a days it starts getting better again. Hope will get the same position soon.”

This is obviously a case of somebody who is being paid by MyVoucherCodes to trawl the internet and leave irrelevant comments in a bid to drive traffic to the MVC website and from there to the John Lewis website with the possibility of a transaction that will result in commission for MVC.  The comment itself has clearly been written by somebody who doesn’t even use the English language properly (probably a freelancer in a developing country who is being paid peanuts) and adds no value to the discussion going on about the Panda article.  The comment is designed solely with the intention of driving traffic to the MyVoucherCodes website. Do a google search for “John Lewis Voucher Code” you will see MVC appear at number 1, and John Lewis are not even present on the first page. Using the name “John Lewis UK” as the author/anchor text of the comment increases the risk of the John Lewis brand being damaged by this comment.

John Lewis Comment

It’s a pretty sure bet that John Lewis does not endorse this type of SEO behaviour by an affiliate and is unaware of it. It reflects negatively on John Lewis and will have the effect of diluting the core brand value that they have worked so hard to establish.  With the successes enjoyed by John Lewis over the years and the fact that they obviously place a great importance on their upmarket reputation, this type of behaviour by an affiliate could have the knock-on effect of bringing the company into disrepute.  There are measures that the company would be wise to take to ensure that affiliate companies do not put their brand name at risk.

Protect your brand

A Strict Set of Rules will help avoid the Pitfalls

Having spent so much money and effort developing brand equity, organisations need to make sure that they have effective strategies to ensure that they protect their brands from potentially damaging behaviour of affiliate marketing companies.

Some steps that organisations can take to protect their brands are:

  • Making sure that they have strict rules and a stringent set of terms and conditions for affiliates.
  • Developing a strategy to monitor the internet to ensure compliance with their terms and conditions by affiliates and also to find and address any negative use of their brand.
  • Whilst doing so put strategies in place to monitor all social media, conversations and news items connected with the brand. (there is free software to enable you to do this including Google Alerts, SocialMention and IceRocket to name a few)

However, most retailer websites are not checking up on this or taking any steps to prevent it.  With the larger online companies, they will have a marketing budget that is so big that it seems a waste of time and a bit petty to take steps to address the situation.  However, even if the sums of money wasted are practically negligible in terms of their total marketing budget, they don’t seem to realise the damage that is being done to their reputation.

Bad News for Search Marketing

Risking the Wrath of Google

While every organisation needs to make sure that it ranks high in the search engine ratings, not all companies are doing this in an acceptable manner.  As mentioned in a recent SEO post of mine, J.C.Penney hit the headlines earlier this year when they were penalised by Google for using “deceptive” techniques to increase their website’s visibility and increase their visitors.  Online search expert Doug Pierce of Blue Fountain Media, the New York based, award winning website design and online marketing specialists, described J.C.Penney’s behaviour as “the most ambitious attempt to game Google’s search results” that he has ever seen.  He added that these are methods that “Google considers tantamount to cheating”.  These are pretty harsh words and this sort of negative exposure could have a seriously detrimental effect on an organisation’s reputation and future sales.  It seems that for quite some time shoppers searching via Google were coming across links to J.C.Penney’s website whatever the search terms they were using – it seemed that Penney was the most visible online destination for all manner of goods.  Google then began what it termed “manual action” against Penney with demotion in the rankings aimed specifically at that company.  The reaction by Penney was to fire its search engine consulting firm, SearchDex who it seems may have been using external link farm schemes in order to get to the top of the rankings.

There is a strong argument that Googles’ automated algorithms could see this as an attempt by John Lewis to game Google, its only 2 inbound hops from their home page!

This demonstrates clearly just how vital it is for brands to monitor their affiliate partners very closely at all times to make sure that their brand reputation and Google position doesn’t suffer from dubious techniques by the affiliates to raise their profile in internet search results.

Do you agree / disagree that if a John Lewis customer saw these types of comments it could simply damage the brand? Or more still do you believe this type of activity could have a negative impact on John Lewis’s rankings? Do you monitor your own brand online? What methods do you find the best? I’d love to get a discussion going, so welcome all your thoughts!

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