When Specialty Links Go Wrong
Alternatives to the typical affiliate marketing relationship, such as referral programs, MLM (Multi-Level-Marketing), and sub-affiliate arrangements can be useful tools for brands to gain new customers. These systems often have lower barriers to entry than traditional affiliate networks, and can quickly introduce fresh traffic and incremental revenue.
However, because these systems are so open and flexible, they can also be manipulated by black hats, exposing brands to abuse.
Fewer Hurdles Mean More Potential Threats
Although affiliate networks are not immune to exploits, such as brand bidding and ad hijacking, they do provide some valuable measures to mitigate these issues. Compliance teams, affiliate approval processes, reports, and commission reversals all contribute to accountability.
Alternative systems, on the other hand, do not usually provide these layers of security. There are few, if any, ways to appropriately vet or check up on your pseudo-affiliates. They are essentially anonymous—making it easier for them to hide, obscure their tactics, or mislead a brand.
Who makes a better spokesman than a loyal customer? By rewarding your biggest fans for speaking up about your brand, you can stimulate some valuable gains in traffic and revenue. But do you know how your brand ambassadors are getting the word out? Unfortunately, if your referral program uses special URLs to assign your rewards (as many do), a good portion of this traffic could be generated by PPC trademark poaching. A black hat simply has to locate their unique link identifier and then bid on some of your branded keywords to get started.
MLM (Multi-Level-Marketing) Scenarios
Some brands’ reward systems even go to the lengths of offering customizable landing pages or personalized stores. These allow your brand representatives to take their referrals to the next level, adding some of their own personality and salesmanship to the visitor experience. Complete with vanity subdomains or some other unique identifier in their URL structure, these systems can be gamed in a similar fashion. Furthermore, MLM systems may be more likely to award cash, rather than discounts or account credits, putting them at additional risk.
Transparency can be a real challenge in these systems. While a sub-affiliate can usually be added with a simple URL parameter, the brand will have little visibility into or control over how its sub-affiliates drive traffic. This makes it easy for a sub-affiliate to run PPC traffic through its unique link. Even though the first-tier affiliate may still be complying with the brand’s policies, brand abuse can still proliferate.
Unfortunately, the available data makes it hard to distinguish brand poaching from successful marketing. And without the recourse of turning to the network for these issues, the onus falls entirely on the brand to monitor and police such promotions.
So if you run any of the programs above, we recommend putting some effort into evaluating whether they’re truly adding value. By starting with some manual searches for your branded keywords, you can at least identify any obvious examples of abuse.