Talking tech since 2003

I absolutely love the Internet as the “information super-highway” has made the way we do things so much easier.  Even over the last few years the heightened adoption rate of Internet-based services (e.g. online banking) has quite honestly become a part of just about everything I do, making what would otherwise be dreaded tasks into trivial chores.  One of the best examples of this concept is online shopping through one of the countless online stores in existence today.  Not only can one go onto a site and buy a product and arrange to have it shipped directly to their doorstep, but the constantly rising number of blogs and review sites online have really made it possible to investigate and buy products with minimal effort.

All of that said, the value behind online shopping and online review sites/blogs really hinges on the honesty of the individuals rating products.  Sure, most of the people who take the time and effort want to write a valuable review choose to do so in order to assist other users in making their buying decisions, but the fact of the matter is that just like in the streets of the real world the Internet is filled with people looking to make a buck off of your trusting them.  This is where the abuse of affiliate links comes into play.

To understand my point here, you’re going to first and foremost need to understand what an affiliate link is.  In essence, some online retailers allow users to generate a link to either the front page of their storefront or directly to a specific product page.  While this links will appear to function just as any other link, the reality is that the link is “special” in the sense that it contains a unique identifier that tells the online store to give the owner of the link (and the affiliate account that the link is associated to) a credit for any sale made by users clicking on said link; be it a percentage of the receipt total or a flat amount.  For example, I could give you a link to “example.com/product/?aff=mikemansell” that would bring you to the exact page you would see if you found the product on your own, but gave me a commission for referring you.  While you wouldn’t be charged any more on your order, the company would give me a kick-back for referring a new customer to their service.

Now, I personally think that affiliate links are a beautiful concept.  In many cases affiliate links work better than traditional banner ads because the link goes directly to a specific company’s site, giving a bit more flexibility to the blogger or author than tradition ad rotations that webmasters typically have less control or insight over.  What this means is that when an affiliate link is used correctly bloggers are able to get paid for recommending services that they would recommend anyway.

But that’s where things get complicated.  Some people simply are not honest and throw affiliate links around whenever possible; regardless of if they’ve used or had positive experiences with the product or company that they’re advertising or not.  In some cases these authors tend to generate a bias towards companies that give them kick-backs for recommending or mentioning them, and ultimately slip away from writing solid reviews, instead focusing on whatever earns them a quick buck.

As a consumer, I’m sure you can understand where this can be rather harmful, as your purchases can indeed become influenced by a blogger that cares more about his or her bottom line than giving you an honest opinion.  Of course the blogger probably thinks very little of it, but the reality is that you could very well end up spending money on a product or service that doesn’t meet your expectations simply because of the greed of an author.

Being a blogger myself, this is quite frankly something that sickens me.  I write to help and inform others as much as possible, and I take several hours out of my week to do so.  So when a blogger decides to pull a cheap stunt with affiliate links it really disappoints me because when it comes down to it, it makes all bloggers look bad.

Don’t get me wrong though.  I think affiliate links are great.  But when people misuse or mislead people with them my blood really does begin to boil.  And while the FTC has gotten a bit stricter about how websites must disclose endorsements and testimonials in their articles [PDF] I honestly don’t feel that enough has been done to ensure the honesty of people using affiliate links.  I mean, even if one is to disclose their kick-backs, what’s to say that they really used a product or service before “reviewing” them and cashing in on affiliate traffic?

Trust me, I’ve been there.  As a commission retail salesman there have been countless times where I could have upsold a customer into buying a product that I got a better commission on, but each and every time that such an opportunity has come up I’ve bit my lip and avoided it.  Why?  It’s the ethical and moral thing to do, and really my reputation is worth more than the few extra dollars that I could have made by being dishonest.

On the flip side, though, there are honest bloggers out there that are more than open about their use of affiliate links.  In a few of his posts where he has used affiliate links, Jeff, for example, has (from what I’ve seen) always put the words “affiliate link” in brackets next to an affiliated hyperlink in his articles so that readers can be entirely certain about what they’re clicking.  And of course Jeff’s affiliate links – and the affiliate links of other honest bloggers – have never bothered me because I know that there are a great many bloggers out there that only use affiliate links for products, services, and companies that they have used hands-on.  Really, it’s a small few that ruin it for the whole.

But ultimately, as much as I look down on bloggers who misuse affiliate links, most of my frustration with such links comes from the stores and companies that implement affiliate programs.

You see, just like some bloggers aren’t very open about the fact that they’re taking a kick-back from orders placed by using their affiliate links, there are a great many online retailers that seem to hide the practice from the eyes of consumers as well.  It’s not at all uncommon for someone to click a link containing an affiliate code (e.g. the “example.com/product/?aff=mikemansell” example that I used earlier in this article) and be immediately redirected to the “regular” URL (e.g. “example.com/product”, without the affiliate code).  While the site will still store the affiliate information in the session or via cookies, it seems that many sites don’t want visitors to know when their visits have come about via affiliate links.

Why do they do this?  My best guess is that retailers simply do not want users to know that the blog that they just read an excellent review on may very well have been biased by the fact that money could be made by referring users to a particular company or brand.  To me this pretty much makes it seem as if retailers encourage sneaky and unethical affiliate link utilization, something that deeply angers me as a consumer.

When all is said and done, all I really want is honesty.  If you’re going to give me a solid and fair review for a product, I honestly could care less if you’re getting a kick-back for it or not.  In fact, I’ve asked users to share affiliate links before, because I feel that word-of-mouth advertising is a key component in business, and if someone is able to inadvertently sell me on a particular product or service I really do think they should be compensated.

So what do you think about affiliate links?  We’d love to hear your comments!

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