A Call to Action by Chris Trayhorn, Publisher of mThink Blue Book, January 1, 2007 Someone is hijacking your traffic and stealing your commissions. That someone might be a competing affiliate marketer, or worse, the merchant whose products you are promoting. To my dismay, I discovered that traffic from one of my sites was being diverted when a friend sent me some screen captures of that site’s home page. The first screen shot showed my site open in a browser window with 80 percent of the page behind an AdultFriendFinder pop-up window – despite the fact that my site does not have a pop-up to AdultFriendFinder.com on the home page. The main domain in the pop-up window’s address bar was AdultFriendFinder.com, but the affiliate ID was not my affiliate ID for AdultFriendFinder, or for any site within FriendFinder’s network. A portion of the URL included my domain name (preceded by .sub), which clearly indicated interest in referrals from my site. However, this was not so FriendFinder could compensate me – their long-standing, loyal affiliate – for referrals from that page, but rather to ensure that its Zango advertising campaign was returning a good ROI. This fact was made apparent from the prominent white-on-blue banner splayed across the bottom of the pop-up window that read, “This ad served by Zango software downloaded by Zango.com. Click here to learn more.” Enter Zango, a company formed by a merger of Hotbar and 180solutions in June 2006. During its incarnation as 180Solutions, the company was dropped as an affiliate by the major networks, including Commission Junction and LinkShare, for invalid activity (cookie stuffing, etc.). 180’s detrimental effects on affiliate commissions have been well-documented by anti-spyware expert Ben Edelman and others. Zango’s current service works as follows. In exchange for access to free programs and tools, surfers are required to download the Zango Search Assistant. With the Search Assistant installed, Zango’s advertisers’ Web pages are popped open when certain keywords are detected in Internet search or browser windows. Now enter Zango’s advertisers. If a domain address is listed in an advertiser’s campaign and a visitor to that site has the Zango Search Assistant installed on their computer, the advertiser’s window will pop open, virtually obliterating the view of the first page visited. The situation occurs regardless of whether a Zango surfer reaches the page via paid or natural search engine listings. But wait, it gets worse. Merchants and their competitors are bidding on their own and each other’s domain names, to ensure that their own ads are popped by Zango when their sites are visited. So, even if the Zango surfer finds your site behind a pop-up and clicks on one of your affiliate links, chances are good that the merchant site that opens with your affiliate ID embedded will be covered up by yet another pop-up window coded with an ID that isn’t yours, which means that as an affiliate you can say goodbye to your commissions. Zango claims a customer base of 20 million users that grows by “more than 200,000 new opt-in consumers every day,” according to a September 26, 2006 press release from the company. When you add 100 million MySpace teenyboppers who all want to redesign their profiles with VideoCodeLab’s free design tools – available through a Zango download – it’s no wonder that advertisers are jumping on the Zango bandwagon. However, I can’t understand why a merchant partner would list an affiliate’s domain name in its Zango advertising campaign and risk accusations of commission shaving, or worse, losing affiliates by the boatload. So, I asked FriendFinder’s CEO Andrew Conru, and Lars Mapstead, vice president of marketing. Both stated that Zango supplied FriendFinder with a list of keywords that included my domain name. In another conversation, Mark Ippolito, Zango’s vice president of sales, confirmed that Zango provides its advertisers with a list of suggested industry-related keywords upon request. To their credit, FriendFinder removed my domain name from their campaign soon after my request. The pop-ups continued, however, and further research uncovered that LoveAccess.com, another dating service with an affiliate program, was also bidding on my domain name. Steve Piotrowicz, director of marketing for LoveAccess.com, had “no comment” on my request to remove my domain name from his campaign or on how Zango’s advertising tactics impact affiliate marketers. To find out which of my other merchants’ sites were being advertised on Zango, I opened a test advertiser account at Zango through AdConnect.Zango.com, and learned that the scope of the problem extends into every sector of the industry. Commission Junction merchants such as LowerMyBills, Esurance and Magellan’s had bids up to .518 cents per impression and up to 12 advertisers bidding on their URLs. Attempts to enter URLs for Google, Yahoo, eBay, WeightWatchers and Expedia were “predenied” by Zango as they were insufficiently targeted, Zango’s Ippolito explained. However, he flatly refused to remove my domain name from Zango’s list. (If only it had been that easy!) Interestingly enough, when I suggested to Ippolito that advertisers should bid on the term Zango, after hesitating a moment he replied that Zango “retains the right to refuse certain listings.” Go figure. When asked how he would react if paid traffic to his site was repeatedly diverted to other sites, Ippolito responded that my question was “irrelevant” and “best discussed over a glass of red wine,” followed by another assertion that although Zango’s business methods are “aggressive,” they are “entirely legal.” Legal? Let’s take that scenario off-line. How long would it take the police to arrest Zango’s workers if they showed up with 10-story sheets of plywood to block 80 percent of a storefront each time someone was poised to enter the premises? What Zango does is legal only because the case hasn’t yet been properly made. Even given a successful outcome, worldwide enforcement would be a logistical nightmare. So, what’s an affiliate to do to prevent shaving to the point of decapitation? Ending your affiliation with the merchant would seem to be the easiest solution. Unfortunately, giving up does not solve the problem. Merchants and affiliate competitors will continue to bid on your URLs, and their Zango pop-ups will still obliterate your home pages to divert traffic from the other merchants that you promote. A more drastic alternative would be to give up affiliate marketing entirely and go back to work for some employer who wouldn’t steal from your paycheck. That, however, is not an option for most of us and it certainly will not make things right. Here are a few suggestions that may help to start making things right: Open up a Zango advertiser account and enter your own domains and the domain names of your merchant partners to find out which are being targeted. Contact Zango at 425-279-1200 and leave a message demanding that your URL be removed from their keyword lists. They probably won’t respond, but your call will be on the record come court time. Next, contact applicable merchant partners and ask that your URLs be removed from their campaigns immediately. Discuss your concerns for lost revenue, and you may want to introduce the term “commission shaving” at some point in your conversation. If your merchant’s program is affiliated with a network, file a complaint with that network as well. If either Zango or your merchant partners refuse to stop popping in your territory, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the FTC at http://www.ftc.gov/ and your local district attorney’s office. Regardless of complaints from affiliates or the threat of class action lawsuits, it is time for ethical merchants to take the high road and close their Zango accounts. As for those affiliates who cherish their little 45-cent Zango leads too much to play on the white side with real affiliates – the Zango affiliate voodoo dolls are currently in mass production. ROSALIND GARDNER is a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com. Filed under: Revenue Tagged under: 15 - January/February 2007, Adware, affiliate networks, Columns, Coupons, mtadmin, Spyware About the Author Chris Trayhorn, Publisher of mThink Blue Book Chris Trayhorn is the Chairman of the Performance Marketing Industry Blue Ribbon Panel and the CEO of mThink.com, a leading online and content marketing agency. He has founded four successful marketing companies in London and San Francisco in the last 15 years, and is currently the founder and publisher of Revenue+Performance magazine, the magazine of the performance marketing industry since 2002.