Can you trust gift guides and product reviews online? What consumers must know about affiliate links

ByJames Dennin

You can find them for moms, dads, him or her — for party animals, stoners, homebodies, avocado lovers — and even for people who think the world is about to end. We’re referring, of course, to online gift guides, and there’s a sneaky reason that could help explain why you’re seeing more and more of them each holiday season.

Ever heard of affiliate links? In recent years publishers have increasingly started using these hard-to-spot customized hyperlinks in product review and gift guide posts directing readers to the web pages selling those items. If you actually click through to buy the product in question, the publisher gets a cut. While not all the reviews you see online (or linked above) necessarily use affiliate links, many do. And it can be hard to tell the difference, as a reader.

From the perspective of publishers, there are many reasons this growing business model is “very attractive,” as New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson put it last year when the paper bought its own affiliate linking operation — a product review site called Wirecutter. Unlike traditional web-based banner ads, affiliate links can’t be thwarted by ad blockers. And if a media brand is already writing about gifts or books, they might as well earn a few bucks in the process. Right?

The problem, media ethicists worry, is that the existence of affiliate links is not well-known — and if not properly disclosed, these links might further blur the line for readers between trustworthy, unbiased recommendations and paid advertisements. The Federal Trade Commission requires that affiliate links be disclosed, but disclaimers are often inconsistent or easy to miss. Several publishers put disclosures on some posts with affiliate links, but not others, making it even more confusing which links are and aren’t monetized.

Affiliate links are very different from traditional web advertising, like banner ads, which are typically placed without editorial input, said Nushin Rashidian, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “Half the time publishers don’t even know who’s buying the ad, because programmatic ads are automated,” Rashidian said. “But when you get into things like branded content, when you get into affiliate links, you have these direct one-on-one relationships where there’s shared revenue, and both the publisher and the brand have a shared desired outcome of performance and money.”

Mic /Google

Now, this isn’t to say traditional web ads are perfect — or that affiliate linking can’t be done transparently and responsibly.

Technology magazine Wired recently tweaked its review site to make disclosures more prominent, and published a page that explains how you can actually change the affiliate URLs so that Wired won’t get a cut of the sale, even if you do buy the product. Yet its sister Conde Nast publication the New Yorker buries its affiliate link disclosure in the fine print of its website footer.

New Yorker/Condé Nast

To be fair, the stakes are different: Wired reviews many products, including pricey (and thus high-commission) items like computers, while the New Yorker uses affiliate links only in its book reviews and occasionally film reviews, according to a spokesperson. And notably, affiliate links appear in such reviews whether the critic liked the work or not.

Yet this inconsistency across a single company is a reminder of why some fear affiliate linking: Without clear, upfront disclosures of each publication’s policy, why should readers trust that a product is sincerely recommended, and that the commission isn’t playing some role in editorial choices?

Here are the most important facts that consumers should know about affiliate linking, including how widespread it has become, what happens when the practice goes awry and how to inform yourself as a shopper — and spot an affiliate link with your naked eye.

How big is affiliate marketing?

Affiliate marketing has actually been around for more than a decade and was originally the domain of bloggers: Self-help books telling people how to make a fortune “Turning Clicks Into Cash” with affiliate hyperlinks date back to at least 1999. But the business model arguably caught the eye of mainstream publishing after a 2015 Wall Street Journal piece about the success of the now-shuttered Gawker’s affiliate linking operation.

“Nick Denton really put a lot of effort into really rolling out affiliate links throughout Gawker,” said Mathew Ingram, who writes about the future of media for the Columbia Journalism Review. “He wanted people who would write knowledgeably about things you could buy, and then they would drop affiliate links in there. He didn’t see those jobs as any different from regular journalism.”

Gawker’s nascent affiliate operation was wildly successful — the WSJ estimates it made as much as $345,000 off a single 10-item post — and soon pretty much everyone in media was experimenting with affiliate links. The number of publishers adopting (and coming to rely on) this model keeps on growing. BuzzFeed expanded its commerce operation this year, and CNN recently launched a new site, “CNN Underscored.” Bustle has projected that its affiliate linking revenue could grow nearly sixfold from 2016 by the end of 2017.

With a few exceptions — like when the Washington Post was criticized for using Amazon affiliate links after the paper was bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the practice has been growing without much uproar or controversy.

In fact, affiliate linking is expected to be at least a $6 billion industry by 2020, according to a projection from research firm Forrester. And even the Washington Post decided to experiment again with affiliate links in 2017, this time partnering with nonprofit Consumer Reports to provide recommendations, to help avoid conflicts of interest.

Yet, despite efforts to keep the practice pure, transparency still remains severely lacking. Disclosures are inconsistent and can be difficult for readers to find; though the FTC guidelines require affiliate relationship disclosures, the commission doesn’t stipulate exactly where or how.

“It’s a wild west right now,” said Michael Calore, a senior editor at Wired who oversees the site’s recently updated product recommendation site. “You see a lot of brands now that have a product review vertical that’s basically just a bunch of products. They’ll have affiliate disclosure statements, but they’ll be in a blog post somewhere that they put out but they don’t link to.”

For transparency, CNN’s and Wirecutter’s disclosures run atop the home page or atop each article, respectively. Wirecutter states that writers are “never made aware” of which product links are monetized or not. CNN’s also says that its writers, not advertisers, are “solely responsible” for choosing products.

More often, outlets run the affiliate disclosure at the bottom of story pages, which can be hard for readers to notice. In fact, while Mic does not currently use affiliate links, it has in the past; stories recommending products included a disclosure at the bottom of the story page: “If you buy something through a link on this page, Mic may earn a small commission.” Time similarly discloses at the bottom, though a request for comment on their policy was not returned.

Some of the most confusing policies tend to be on fashion and beauty sites that write about brands and products as part of their core coverage. Sites like Bustle disclose that they might earn a sales cut at the bottom of some stories, but not others that appear to include affiliate links. Refinery29 doesn’t clearly disclose the affiliate links in its stories, though it does have a clause in its terms of service that says you click on its links “at your own risk, regardless of whether or not we receive compensation.” Refinery29 declined to comment for this article.

“Publishers are not marking clearly what is and isn’t” going to result in a sales commission, said Rashidian, the Columbia research fellow.

Mic /Refinery29 and Sephora

Of the 18 media companies Mic reached out to, only the New York Times, Vox, Slate, Bustle, The Skimm, Consumer Reports, Wired, the New Yorker and the Atlantic responded with details about their affiliate program, the latter to confirm it no longer uses affiliate links. Most explained that their links are always disclosed somewhere — or are generated algorithmically by a third-party provider, like Skimlinks, so that writers cannot be influenced to produce certain coverage.

In an email to Mic, a Vox spokesperson said the affiliate links on Racked’s site were “autotagged so our writers are not involved,” meaning the writers aren’t incentivized to plug any one product over another, but also said sometimes editors will add merchant links themselves “if it makes sense to.” Vox didn’t respond to a follow-up question asking for an example of a changed link that might make “sense,” but did say in its initial statement that all changes were approved by a managing editor.

Given all the vagaries of affiliate linking programs, how can consumers ensure that they are really reading unbiased reviews? And what’s the big deal, anyhow?

When affiliate linking goes wrong

While it might seem innocuous for publishers to get a small kickback for referring people to services or products they genuinely like, a recent Fast Company story on warring mattress startups — and the blogs covering them — revealed exactly how affiliate marketing can encourage unethical behavior.

In short: Several mattress blogs, including one called “Sleepopolis,” allegedly racked up millions of dollars by writing dubious reviews with links to the offerings of mattress startups like Leesa.

The problem? The blogs disclosed that they received commissions, but didn’t disclose that some mattress companies paid bigger commissions than others. And not only did the higher-paying startups allegedly get better placement in reviews, they also seemed to secure harsher assessments for their competitors — namely mattress company Casper. The blogs became such a problem for Casper that it eventually just bought the blog sites outright.

What exactly brought about the mattress affiliate linking boondoggle of 2017? It has to do with the startup boom, said Ron Berman, a Wharton School of Business marketing professor who focuses on startups and e-commerce.

Aspiring entrepreneurs have discovered mattresses to be a great way to apply Silicon Valley’s innovations to more conventional consumer categories: As a product, they are high-margin and represent one of the first big consumer purchases young people make. And even well-funded startups prefer to advertise with up-and-coming content brands, because it’s cheaper than running TV spots and other more traditional methods of advertising. Thus, as dozens of mattress brands have cropped up, they’ve encountered many rivals — and only a few niche mattress websites to advertise with.

It was only a matter of time, Berman said, before these mattress startups found themselves in an affiliate linking bidding war.

Although the Fast Company story is specific to the corner of cyberspace dedicated to mattress blogs, it raises larger questions about why anyone who uses affiliate marketing is truly covering a product, as well as the ethics of the practice overall.

It also highlights an important concern about product review sites, particularly lesser known or less transparent ones: Big-ticket items create big affiliate payouts, meaning there is a growing number ways enterprising bloggers can earn a lot of money through a single link — and not always ethically, a point that Forbes writer Alex Konrad made on Twitter.

How to spot an affiliate link — and sift out the good advice from the bad

So how do you know if the product link you are clicking on is going to profit the site that suggested it? First, hover your cursor over the URL.

Affiliate links are typically designed to be trackable, so that when a retailer makes a sale through an affiliate link they know exactly where that customer came from. This usually (though not always) helps you as a consumer to find clues to whether there is a financial relationship between the referring site and the company selling the product or service you’re buying.

Here, for example, is what a conventional Amazon link looks like:

But in the version of the URL below, which appears in an Esquire reading guide, you can see the link is extended to include so-called metadata. You can even see “esquire” in the URL, which is how retailers know that Esquire sent them that particular sale.

Mic /Esquire

In general, these codes are usually long and clunky; they may sometimes include the name of the publisher in the link, as in the Esquire example above.

But that won’t always work, as affiliate links can be disguised. So, beyond studying the structure of the links themselves, pay attention to the type of products being recommended.

Blogs using affiliate links tend to push hard on high-commission, high-priced items like jewelry, digital video games, luxury clothes and beauty products. Amazon also pays a higher commission for its own products, which means a reviewer can make more money linking out to the Amazon Echo, for example, than to the Google Home. So cross reference all reviews — and try to read as many independent assessments as you can, if you’re making a tough choice.

A key tip, when reading any product review, is to look for evidence the person who wrote it actually used the item. Wirecutter’s reviews are exhaustive to the point of pedantry — who wants to read 6,000 words about bath mats?

But Wirecutter founder Brian Lam says this is about showing the reader you did your homework. “There are some big publications that are owned by the biggest, most reputable publishing houses, that are paid to run deals,” Lam said. “There’s a golden rule of deals: It’s not really going to be on sale that often if it’s a really good product.”

Another red flag? Link-packing, particularly when there aren’t any strong opinions. One of the mattress blogs mentioned in the Fast Company story, Mattress Clarity, includes 54 mattresses in its ranking of best mattresses, all of them among the author’s “favorite mattresses.”

That’s a good sign that a website is not actually putting much thought into its recommendation. “It’s like if you asked someone for a restaurant recommendation and they give you 30 choices,” Lam said. “People aren’t going to buy 30 TVs. It’s not really helpful.”

Is affiliate linking really such a big deal?

The practice of affiliate linking is generally seen by publishers as innocuous: “There’s a little bit of ‘no harm, no foul’ here,” said Rick Edmonds, who leads News Transformation initiatives at Poynter, a journalism think tank. “No one is making you buy a product.”

And there are a few good reasons why publications that once eschewed affiliate links have come to embrace them, explained Abby Glassenberg, a blogger focused on the sewing and crafting industry. Back in 2015, Glassenberg published a blog post outlining why she would never use affiliate links: “When I write my newsletter I often include links to upcoming conferences or publishing opportunities,” she wrote then. “I’d like for you to trust my recommendations without reservation.”

But the following year, Glassenberg changed tack and decided to start including affiliate links to Amazon in her year-end gift guides. The reason? As her blog grew and people started sending her more and more freebies and bigger ad spends, she said, affiliate links actually felt like the lesser of two evils — since getting paid by Amazon seemed ethically better than getting compensated directly by the brands she intended to write about.

“A big part of what I do on my blog is I write about the industry ... So I want to reserve the right to write about it in a critical way,” Glassenberg said. “Whereas Amazon, it’s not in my niche,” meaning she wasn’t reviewing Amazon itself.

Yet perhaps the biggest problem with affiliate links lies in their subtlety.

“There’s a great risk that many readers do not understand how affiliate links work,” Geanne Belton, a professor of journalism and ethics at Baruch College of the City University of New York, said in an email.

“It’s critical that content providers using affiliate links be highly transparent with their readers about the content provider’s relationship with affiliates, what the content provider stands to gain and how it all works, and whether the use of a link indicates a product endorsement or not,” Belton noted.

To really protect yourself as a reader of reviews ad gift guides, you must be ready to seek out the fine print — and learn which publishers are creating the best safeguards against improper influence.

Consumer Reports, for example, has used affiliate links since 2009, but Jason Fox, chief digital officer at the company, says other policies help to insulate it from advertiser influence, including its nonprofit status — meaning additional transparency requirements — and the fact that it purchases the items it reviews itself, instead of reviewing products received for free, as is common in certain corners of media.

Again, this is not to say that reviews based on freely received items are inherently unethical — just that the practice can create pressure to assess products positively, since negative reviews might get writers blacklisted from receiving future items needed to do their job, as a writer at Racked points out.

According to Fox, Consumer Reports takes seriously its mission to deliver unbiased advice: “All the revenue that’s derived from the program ... goes to support our nonprofit mission,” Fox said. “We try and provide the safest environment that cannot be influenced by advertisers. We do not take any free samples from manufacturers, and we buy all the products ourselves.”

In short, if you’re thinking of buying the first item you see off of a gift guide, first Google. Check it against a few other similar options, and actually read the methodologies on the reviewing websites about how commissions are earned — and how products are chosen. You might realize the gift you be better off giving is something else entirely.

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