Sunday, May 01, 2011

Websites that have links should disclose them

It's tough for all but those with the largest audiences to make any significant money from their blogs. Add-on ad pages that pay based on click-throughs or orders don't generally generate enough to replace a salary you'd get at a more traditional job.

Increasingly, there are efforts to help bloggers tap whatever income they can from outfits that seek to capitalize on that tapping as well.

Affiliate marketing has been around for a quite awhile. It enables website owners to make money if viewers buy products through links on the site. To really make these affiliate-marketing relationships work financially as requires a website owner to sign up with a plethora of individual affiliate programs.

A reader writes that she used to work for a website that built itself on an affiliate model. But it concerned her that her website never disclosed that it was earning a commission on things you bought through links on the website that the website just happened to write about.

"I find this pretty sketchy," she writes, "and it's one of the reasons I stopped working for the company . . . particularly because part of my job was to write the most glowing reviews for the companies that were paying us the best commissions. Ugh!"

Now, she notes, there are companies that enable you to automatically create affiliate links without having to sign up for each account individually. Instead, you sign up with these companies and if you write about how great a company is, a link in your post is automatically created to direct readers to the site you wrote about. If someone buys something from that site after going there through your link, even if the purchase happens much later, the sending website owner makes money -- thanks to "cookies" that continue to track users for days after their initial visit. The buyer would not likely know that the referring site was making money from the company where they made their purchase, unless they were seasoned enough to recognize what an affiliate link looks like.

"So what's the ethical verdict on affiliates and sites like this that allow you to sign on with multiple affiliates as one time?" my reader asks. "Do sites need to disclose if they're making money off of visitor clicks? Or, if visitors would be willing to buy a product anyway, is it A-OK for referring sites to benefit financially without them knowing?"

My take is simple. The right thing is that if a website or blog could receive money based on what it writes about, this should be disclosed to visitors. An exception might be products produced by the website owners themselves, since it should be obvious that people generally make money off the things they make and sell. But if links are embedded in website write-ups that drive a reader to a site to buy something and the linker can make money off the purchasers, such relationships should be clearly disclosed to a reader.

Full disclosure of such relationships is the honest approach. It also helps readers know if there are potential biases in any reviews on the site. If they know that someone might make money from the things he reviews, it's up to the reader to decide how trustworthy such a review is.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

I hope my comment will not be taken as excessively negative, but this week's question portrays the side of the internet, using blogs to entice people to use your site to "buy" something. I use Amazon and eBay and other reputable sites to buy on-line but I would think the person who asked this week's question represents the unknown and possibly the somewhat disreputable side of trying to do business this way. Whenever I read about Facebook business schemes, which you see all the time now and similar use of other such sites, I am discouraged and suspicious of such activity. Facebook seems to me to be a place where unserious people congregate and correctly or not, I place such schemes as suggested in today's question in the category of "questionable". In these desperate times, I think it is proper and wise to stay away from trying to use the internet in the manner discribed by today's question.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Samual said...

Its great Blog. If you have always considered to become an affiliate but never got around to do so for some reason, then you need to think again and take immediate action. There are not many other businesses that can come anywhere near affiliate marketing when it comes to being easy.

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