Clean Sweep

You’re thinking of working with a merchant, but you don’t want to be involved in any program that includes affiliates using questionable, if not illegal, practices. But how can you know for sure whose program is squeaky clean and whose is not?

It’s not easy to tell which merchants have clean programs. Maybe that’s because it’s not easy to pin down exactly what “clean” means.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” says Kellie Stevens, president of AffiliateFairPlay.com. “The answer varies. Clean means different things to different groups. The definition varies even among affiliates.”

The general consensus at the most basic level is that a clean program will not allow parasites of any kind to sign up and will remove offenders if they are discovered. This means that affiliates with downloadable applications that are installed without the knowledge of the consumer or that redirect affiliate links or overwrite affiliate cookies are out.

But there are those even stricter in their definition.

“For some, even if a user can opt out of the download, they consider that parasite-ware,” Stevens says. “So if a merchant partners with that affiliate, they are considered to be supporting the parasite financially and they risk being labeled as unclean.”

“As far as some affiliates think, there is no clean program,” says Shawn Collins, a consultant. “They have a very black-and-white view of anyone who uses adware. They think there are no possible [good] intentions from anyone who uses adware.”

Collins calls that “a simplistic and lazy viewpoint.” “Maybe they don’t understand the issues completely or they are taking this stand from a selfish or competitive viewpoint,” he says.

Under that stringent definition of clean, Collins says any affiliate manager that partners with any loyalty, reward or incentive program would be considered dirty. He disagrees.

“If an affiliate is using the adware for something like shopping and the application is very compliant in allowing users to uninstall the program, I think that’s okay,” Collins says. “Not all adware should be grouped together. It’s not like they are all drive-by downloads or installed or bundled without users’ consent.”

He notes that many in the online marketing community do not consider RemindU from UPromise a parasite, but notes that it uses the same technology as eBates, which is often targeted as being a parasite by affiliates.

Affiliate managers themselves seem a little more lax about what constitutes a rogue affiliate. According to a poll on AffiliateManger.net, a community message board and forum, 54 percent of affiliate managers stated that some adware affiliates are dirty and some are clean. Talk about straddling the middle ground.

But affiliates don’t always see eye to eye with program managers. Most affiliates agree that parasites typically prey on merchants that are ignorant about such nefarious practices or affiliate managers that turn a blind eye to these activities because their program is making a lot of money from rogue affiliates.

It’s a Matter of Trust

That’s why developing trust between affiliates and those managing programs is a crucial component of doing business. Both parties must feel that they’ve entered into a partnership. When you do business with partners there is an implied level of trust that the relationship needs to work for both parties.

“The trust sustained between a network and affiliate is paramount,” says Bret Grow, vice president of LinkMo Advertising Network. “Our affiliate trusts that we keep our links alive, pay a competitive price for their sales/traffic and report it honestly. Networks trust affiliates to provide credible data and lawful traffic no matter the level of volume.”

Andy Newlin, affiliate marketing supervisor for SierraTradingPost.com, knows about trust. He’s earned it. Two years ago, his program was widely criticized by very vocal affiliates. But Newlin listened to those critical affiliates and worked hard to weed out the bad affiliates. His continued clean up efforts and willingness to listen earned him a certain level of trust and respect with the online marketing community. Now if a bad apple slips in, affiliates alert Newlin and he takes care of it immediately. In other words, affiliates are now willing to cut Newlin a little slack.

“Back then I didn’t know about running a clean program and relied on affiliates to educate me,” Newlin says. “And once I had a good idea what a bad affiliate was, I took on every affiliate account and tested it myself and then made a decision on whether or not they were clean and could stay in the program. Every now and then an affiliate will alert me that a spyware or parasite-ware affiliate has snuck in. I’ll thank the affiliate for letting me know and then take the appropriate actions right away.”

Newlin says that if you take the advice of good affiliates and ask for their help, they get over the hard feelings.

Some affiliate managers are revered by the affiliate community as managers who run clean programs. Chris Sanderson of AMWSO, an affiliate marketing firm based in Bangkok, Thailand, and Andy Rodriguez of Andy Rodriguez Consulting are the most notable and mentioned the most often.

“Eighty percent of the [ABestWeb] board hates LinkShare,” says Haiko de Poel Jr., president of ABestWeb.com. “But they love Chris Sanderson. And if he says a program is clean, then come hell or high water, affiliates believe him. By definition, a trusted program is a Chris Sanderson program or an Andy Rodriguez program. There is a huge trust factor with those guys and affiliates.”

This summer Rodriguez held the first Affiliate Program Manager Certification seminar in Florida. The response was so overwhelming that Rodriguez has a second one planned for October.

“Andy is probably the most trusted affiliate manager out there, and it comes as no surprise that he’s the first to offer such a seminar,” says Greg Rice, an outsourced affiliate program manager with Commerce Management Consulting in Medina, Ohio. “As a veteran affiliate, I’m very interested in this topic.” Rice worked as an affiliate several years ago when Rodriguez managed the affiliate program for Tiger Direct.

“That’s where I got firsthand knowledge of how he inspires trust in people. If he says he’ll do something, he does it. He quickly resolves issues and he did a lot of cleaning up of that program to get the parasites out,” Rice says.

Rodriguez says it’s all about building relationships with people.

“If you respect people and are honest with them, they respond to that,” he says. “In my opinion that is what affiliate marketing is about – people and treating them with the same respect you expect to be treated [with].”

But people change jobs, so don’t confuse the merchant with the affiliate manager of that program, advises de Poel. “I know of a couple of programs that were well-managed and clean, but once the affiliate manager left, the programs went to trash. Things like that happen every day.”

Investigate, Sherlock

To get more information on a merchant, you can also talk to affiliates already in the program.

“The quickest way to find out about an affiliate program is to check in with existing affiliates,” Newlin says. “The affiliates will definitely know if the program is clean. With most other sources – such as lists on websites – you run the risk that they may not be up to date or they could be run by a competitor.”

Also check the online affiliate forums or message boards. Many have lists that are frequently, but not constantly, updated. And with thousands of active affiliates, you can always pose questions on the boards about a specific program and see what kind of response you get.

“Trust the forums. If a program is not clean, the posters on these boards won’t hesitate to chime in and tell you immediately,” Newlin says.

Rice agrees: “There’s a good chance that if someone is up to something, then someone on the boards have caught wind of it.”

And in some cases, companies that are known for using adware or parasite-ware will post a list of their partners right on their website. “Once you see who is on that list, we can avoid doing business with them,” Rice adds.

Protect Thyself

Making sure someone is running a clean program is hard work, but for most online marketers it’s something that they need to do for themselves.

Newlin says that both for affiliate managers and affiliates the only real way to be sure about anything is to do your own testing. While it takes some level of expertise to perform the testing and you have to know what to look for (such as testing applications to see if they override the affiliate tracking or the affiliate cookie), it’s worth the effort, he says.

“Before you put the links on your page, actually cut and paste the links into the browser to make a test purchase to see if it tracks,” AffiliateFairPlay.com’s Stevens suggests.

For affiliates, de Poel says there are key things to look for and specific questions to ask affiliate managers. Look for programs that offer a fair commission rate in the industry. Find out if the affiliate manager has more than one point of contact. Can you reach them by phone, email, instant messenger? Make sure the program has the tools and resources to help the affiliate (data feeds, product showcases, frequently updated creative). Is the affiliate manager active in the industry? Do they post on message boards? Are they visible at industry events? Does the affiliate manager quickly address concerns?

While Stevens is sympathetic to affiliates’ concerns, she wants to see them take more action.

“We need to put more focus on holding the affiliates’ feet to the fire,” she says. “They are right that they are losing justly earned revenue, and they are entitled to that. But they need to take a stance and do less complaining. It’s always ‘Microsoft should be detecting problems. Google should be doing this or that.’ They want everybody else to take on the issue. They need to say ‘What can I do for myself to fix these problems?’ “

Especially since affiliates are unlikely to get support from consumers on this issue.

“The average consumer has no idea what link hijacking is and that cookies are being overwritten,” Rodriquez says. “They don’t have a clue and they don’t care. The pressure has to come from the merchants and OPMs that are managing programs. This is crap and it’s hurting the industry.”

Certification or Regulation?

LinkMo’s Grow says that one of the biggest problems his company faces is a lack of affiliate identity verification. His company is inundated daily with fraudulent affiliate sign-ups. “Manually sifting through all of them to find those who are legitimate is time-consuming,” he says. “But no matter how much work it is, it’s critical to weed out crooks that would send bad data and spam across the network.”

Instead of guessing who is doing what, Grow says a possible solution to the problem is an industry-wide, third-party, affiliate verification service. LinkMo is developing a new service called Certified Affiliates to determine which affiliates are legitimate and which are fraudulent before they gain access to any network. LinkMo plans to reward affiliates who get certified through CertifiedAffiliates for the time and expense the service saves LinkMo.

Certification is not a new idea. de Poel says he tried it a few years ago. He started ATrustedMerchant.com, a program that gave out certification logos to merchants that met the predefined criteria for running a clean program.

But several companies that failed to receive certification due to the inclusion of parasitic affiliates raised a stink about their competitors being certified. Calls from the legal department at one of the companies followed, and the whole situation raised issues about the legality of compliance.

“It really become a pushing point for me,” de Poel says. “Everyone keeps on wanting me to make a list of clean merchants, but it got to a point where the list was not valid and there was inaccurate information on the site. It’s just too dangerous to certify merchants as being clean or trusted. Things change too fast to make sure that once a merchant got the certification they stayed clean.”

de Poel was also surprised at the lack of volunteers to help in his efforts, given the volume of messages on his forum devoted to voicing complaints about dirty programs.

“The community is coming out and saying they all want clean programs. Managers want this and affiliates want this, but no one is willing to do the damn work to make it happen. They all want to pass it off to someone else to do the work,” de Poel says. “I asked for help with ATrustedMerchant.com and only five people offered to pitch in. That’s not right.”

Stevens agrees there are many obstacles to certification. “It’s a huge technical challenge, and whoever undertakes such an effort is going to need a large pool of resources in terms of the time it takes, people and money,” she says. “I just don’t know if certification of affiliates is a viable financial business model.”

Consent is a huge issue in the certification process. Clean merchants will readily agree to a voluntary accreditation process, but anyone using questionable practices is not likely to submit to the necessary scrutiny, according to Stevens.

“It’s a sticky wicket,” she says. “People that want to conduct tests regardless of having the consent of the merchant or affiliate may face a lawsuit if they don’t pass.”

Instead Stevens would like to see some test-purchase protocols that could be used by affiliates.

The Networks’ Role

Some claim that the solution might not rest with affiliates, but rather with pressuring the networks to kick affiliates with parasite-ware out of their networks.

“A certification process is no good if networks continue to allow dirty affiliates in. At that point it doesn’t matter if I’m certified as clean,” Rice says. ShareASale.com is the largest network that has rigorous policies regarding adware, spyware and parasite-ware. To ensure no offenders enter its program, ShareASale does not allow any downloadable applications. Period.

“Affiliates could pressure the networks by refusing to do business with them,” Rice says. “The whole issue is driven by money, and right now the networks think that allowing parasites means more money for them. Affiliates need to show them it’s short-sighted and untrue.”

Many vocal affiliates are always informing the networks about nefarious activities. But these whistle-blowing affiliates often don’t feel that appropriate measures are taken against the offenders.

“The networks need to take action on the information from affiliates about bad practices,” Newlin says.

Collins says it’s going to be hard to satisfy all parties. “There’s just no way to placate people. If affiliates are required to provide more information about themselves to get into programs, then they consider that an invasion of privacy, but on the other hand the same affiliates are hollering that programs often let anybody in, including rogue affiliates. They want things to change but they don’t want it to impact them,” he says.

He cites LinkShare’s implementation of more restrictions with its Athena program, an enhanced affiliate registration and management system that allows merchants to verify affiliate contact information when an affiliate first registers in the network and when the affiliate changes any element of their contact information.

“People were screaming from the rooftops that this was an invasion of privacy,” Collins says.

“Project Athena is a great idea that was needed and I give kudos and credit to Steve (Messer, Linkshare CEO), but the execution of the project was chaotic and a disaster,” Rodriquez says. “When launching something of that level, you need to test in beta and retest in beta and test again and then bring it out. They had the launch before it was ready, but it was good for the industry.”

Many affiliates remain distrustful of the networks and say that despite publicly paying lip service to the issue of parasites, most networks are not doing enough and will get their comeuppance.

Rice says he believes “a day will come when this activity is illegal and affiliates will remember who did business with parasites and they will get what they deserve.”

Some encourage affiliates to vote with their wallets.

“Return on investment is key for the networks,” Rodriquez says. “And the networks don’t own affiliates, so affiliates should go where they can get the best return on their money.”

If the networks aren’t doing enough, then some would welcome government intervention.

SierraTradingPost.com’s Newlin would like to see the government step in and take over the regulation of affiliates. “I see parasites stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they should be sued for it. The government should help,” he says. “I envision it like the CAN-SPAM regulation.”

But Newlin concedes that the government lacks the manpower to truly crack down on cyber-crimes. “They are probably not hitting 90 percent of the spammers,” he says.

Some affiliates say New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer may be the one to finally exterminate parasites.

Spitzer, a candidate for governor of New York in 2006 is best known for his high-profile crusades against conflicts of interest in business. Now he’s focused on cyberspace. In April, he filed a civil lawsuit against Intermix Media of Los Angeles accusing the company of secretly installing software that delivers nuisance pop-up advertisements. He says such programs are fraudulent and threaten to discourage e-commerce.

Spitzer has publicly stated that he looks forward to a time when technology will provide a comprehensive solution to stop spammers, parasites and spyware, but until that time there needs to be a cop in cyberspace who will stop the most egregious abuses.

But any mention of the government getting involved raises heated debate. Rodriquez is opposed to the government getting involved. “The last thing we need is for the government to say this is under their control. That is the very last thing we need. Still, he admits that the industry has evolved and there are tools and companies that are taking advantage of the system.

“If some of the activities in the online world were happening in the regular brick-and-mortar space, some of these people would be in jail,” Rodriquez says.

The Clean Advantage

But just because a program is clean doesn’t mean it is well-managed, according to Newlin.

It’s a lot of work to run a clean program, but there are rewards.

“If you are clean, then legitimate affiliates will promote you harder,” Newlin says. “A lot of super-affiliates will not even touch merchants that have parasites. If the affiliate manager is not selfish in driving their own channel within their company, they will make sure the affiliate program isn’t going through the roof. It’s in their best interest to see if the parasite applications are stealing affiliate commissions in their own channel.”

AffiliateFairPlay’s Stevens expects things to change as the industry evolves and affiliate managers become more savvy about the online market, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Rodriquez says that, in the end, in order for the online marketing space to grow and succeed, everybody has to win. “To become successful you need to help others be successful.”