Kellie Stevens is the president of AffiliateFair-Play.com, which is committed to providing a better understanding and interpretation of the behaviors that impact the affiliate marketing space. Stevens’ goal is to create a fair and competitive marketplace, and she does this by focusing on the actual behaviors – not the technologies – leading to unfair competition and abuse in the marketplace. Her tireless efforts, which started in 2000, have won her the respect and affection of many in the industry as well as the ire of those who are looking to skirt ethical practices. Regardless, Stevens vows to continue her mission to provide the community with resources for striving toward fair practices in affiliate marketing.
Lisa Picarille: What motivates you to find out who is using adware or acting in an unethical manner?
Kellie Stevens: Many of the behaviors I research and document go beyond just ethics. They are behaviors which I strongly feel impact negatively on the affiliate marketing channel as a whole. Affiliates who are automatically redirecting the merchant’s own traffic (both organic and paid traffic) as their own commissionable traffic, devalue the channel overall. Affiliate links showing extensively in adware security companies have deemed that security risks have contributed to blocked affiliate links and tracking cookies flagged as security or privacy risks. This impacts on everyone. Those are just a couple of examples. It’s the overall impact on affiliate marketing, from a business perspective, that is my main motivation.
LP: How did you get started pursuing those exhibiting bad behavior?
KS: Back then there was very little information available. Security companies weren’t researching these adware companies and their software. You couldn’t go to a security site and search their database. Only a few people were even talking about how some affiliates were driving sales and revenue. So I installed a few applications to see for myself. I began talking about what I saw in the community. The day came when I had a couple of applications installed on my computer and I went to my e-commerce site checking on a customer issue. When I got to my shopping cart, I received a pop-up with a blatantly false message encouraging the customer to buy a product from the adware company. That was very personal. I contacted my State Attorney General’s office and found out they knew very little about adware, but they wanted to hear more. I talked with them about six months later and they had a much better understanding; they didn’t like the practices at all but felt there were no existing laws in place to prosecute. Things gradually evolved over time as I continued testing for myself to understand what was going on out on the Internet and reporting back to the community on a somewhat ad hoc basis.
LP: How much of your testing is done without being paid?
KS: When I first started, and for quite some time, it was all done for free. As the demand for the information and my expertise grew, I gradually increased the amount of time I spent doing research and reporting. I’m now doing this full time, so of course it’s not all for free now. I still try to balance my time, providing some amount of information for free because the issues are too important to the industry. I haven’t sat down to put numbers to how much of my activities are devoted to free content and revenue-generating information.
LP: How much is consulting? And do you work with the big networks? If so, how often?
KS: I do private consulting as well as the subscription service through AFP. But again, I haven’t sat down and put numbers to the time (hour-wise) I devote to each area. I know I put in a lot of hours each week because there is always something that needs addressing.
I don’t disclose my clients’ identities for confidential reasons. I will say that over the years I have had contact and dialogues with all the major affiliate networks to varying degrees, whether that contact was paid or otherwise. I always welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues facing the industry, whether I completely agree with the points of view or not. I have always appreciated when the networks have approached me asking, “Kellie, what do you think about”?” Dialogue is extremely important if constructive change is to happen in the industry.
LP: Why do you think that there are individuals like yourself who pursue adware folks, but that there are no formal entities to police these rogue behaviors?
KS: There are probably many reasons. The idea of some type of formal entity has been brought up several times. It’s something I’ve had requested of me on numerous occasions. In fact, I am continuously educating people that AFP doesn’t do any type of “certification.” The largest stumbling block to having some type of formal entity is probably the fact that as an industry we have yet to come to a universally (or close to universal) accepted agreement as to what behaviors are and are not acceptable. You have to define what you will be policing before you can police.
LP: You are performing a very valuable service for the industry, yet you seem to maintain a low profile. Why?
KS: I don’t think I maintain a particularly low profile. I am out and about in the community. I don’t use my research findings to just sensationalize and garner PR for myself. I think the information is too important to dilute with such tactics. And doing so marginalizes my ability to bring about change towards more fair business practices in the industry.
I have found that I have been more able to achieve change by working quietly “behind the scenes” when it comes to specific issues/incidents at times. My ultimate goal has always been, and remains: changes in certain policies and practices in the industry.
I am focusing more of my energies in 2007 towards educating the community on issues related to adware, so in that sense people will probably be “seeing” more of me.
LP: Are you ever worried that these adware firms will retaliate against you?
KS: Anyone doing this kind of work should be cognizant of such possibilities. I have spent quite a bit of time over the years cultivating the way I both approach my work and present the information to minimize those types of risks. Ultimately, I want to be spending my time doing my research and providing information to the community, not dealing with retaliation tactics, legal or otherwise.
LP: And how do you protect yourself from this potential pitfall?
KS: I try to use common sense along those lines. That means being able to support what I report and staying clear of approaching matters in a way that is viewed as just being inflammatory. My goal is to be able to provide people with objective data and information from my research. So far, this approach has served me well.
LP: What’s the best part of doing your job?
KS: I probably have to say, when I see positive change happen. When I see a merchant or network change their policies or implement internal mechanisms to better catch bad behavior. When I have an affiliate come back and tell me their conversions (and revenue) have significantly increased after they took action on information I provided them. Or when a merchant tells me they are showing higher growth and ROI/ROAS in their affiliate channel based on the information they received from me. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all really about and makes the hours in front of the test computer worthwhile.
LP: What’s the worst part?
KS: I don’t know if I would call them the worst part, but there are some things that I find frustrating.
I find there is still quite a bit of misinformation and old information out there. I see people making [what appears to be] business decisions based on the inaccurate information.
I become very frustrated whenever I hear people say, “I don’t like the practices, but there’s not anything I can do about it and it’s just a cost of doing business.” In my honest opinion, that kind of apathy just encourages the bad behavior. There are many things that could be done within our industry to combat the bad behavior. It’s a matter of being committed to doing what can be done. And to say it’s the cost of doing business is devaluing the affiliate channel.
I really become frustrated when I see companies using anti-parasite policies, compliance and fraud detection as primarily PR spin to market their business, when in reality they are eyeball-deep in the relationships. People shouldn’t believe everything they read, but rather, engage in due diligence in understanding the business models/practices of those they partner with.
LP: What’s the most misunderstood element of dealing with adware?
KS: That could probably be a full article by itself; there are so many. One is that it is easy to monitor all of the potential bad behavior out there. It isn’t by a long shot. Could the industry as a whole be doing better? Yes, but that doesn’t make it an easy task. I remember catching wind of a particular application that I wanted to test. It took me two years to finally track down a copy of the software to test. When I did, they were using quite a few techniques to hide the fact from networks and merchants that adware was involved. Programming has become much more sophisticated, allowing adware to “hide” itself more easily from the end user (that it is even installed). And distribution methods have become more stealthy and sneaky as well.
A more global, or big picture understanding of how adware is operating within online advertising as a whole is still not fully understood by many, nor are all the different ways it can impact upon online businesses and affiliate marketing in particular.
There are still many misconceptions about the very basics of how adware functions. I still hear people talking about adware replacing their affiliate links on their websites, and their implementing programming on their site to prevent this. But the majority of adware does not even do that. In fact, some of the “protective coding” they implement could actually put their traffic at higher risk for interception by certain types of adware.
LP:What percentage of commissions do you estimate are lost to the bad behavior of adware?
KS: Lost to who? Affiliates, merchants or networks? All three happen now. There are also many ways a commission can be “lost.” Some of those ways are very blatant and obvious, like the automatic overwriting of an affiliate link by adware. Other ways are less obvious, like lost traffic or redirection into another advertising channel.
I don’t think anyone knows the exact dollar amounts, in truth. I’ve heard speculation of anywhere from 5 percent to over 40 percent of revenue in the affiliate channel attributed to adware. I’ve seen reports which put total revenue for adware, which included all advertising channels and other means adware companies have of generating revenue, at anywhere from $2 billion to $20 billion a year.
The problem with coming up with hard data along these lines is knowing all the adware players and those using adware [i.e., third-party ad buys]. Security companies face an ongoing battle detecting adware applications on the end user’s computer. Most adware companies are privately held, so their financial information is not public knowledge. Others operate outside of the U.S. When you start factoring in very rogue players and the world of botnets, the picture becomes extremely cloudy.
I think most agree that there is a significant amount of online advertising dollars that end up flowing through adware coffers.
LP: What is the future of adware? Will it ever be wiped out?
KS: Adware is here to stay. You don’t put the technology genie back into the bottle. As with all things related to the Internet, what we will see is the way in which adware is behaving and playing on the Internet. This has been the case so far as well.
LP: Who should be responsible to help in this fight? The government? Merchants? The networks?
KS: I think everyone is responsible to varying degrees and in different ways: affiliates, merchants, networks, consumers, regulators and adware companies themselves. Whenever there is a lot of money up for grabs, as there is in online advertising, there will always be people out there who are willing to use unscrupulous tactics to get their hands on some of the dollars. It’s unfortunate that adware has become synonymous with such tactics. My dream is to see the industry become more proactive on addressing the issues surrounding adware and being less reactive primarily when the stuff starts hitting the fan.