Imprudent Decisions Could Cost You Dearly

The issue is still primarily discussed (if discussed) behind closed doors. I decided for this reason to talk about it again, because I believe that it should be discussed openly.

My last post was maybe also not clear enough. The type of comments made would make it seem so. Unfortunately was I not able to get any merchant to provide their comments to the issue, which is sad, because they are the ones that caused and more and more cause the confusion; in some cases even so severe contractual problems that have the potential to destroy year’s long and trusted relationships with affiliates virtually over night.

Who are we talking about here?

Merchants that add to their Affiliate Program terms restrictions that conflict or even violate basic marketing and sales principles not to mention the technical principles of user friendly web design.

I am talking about technical restrictions that would make the affiliate web site search engine and/or user unfriendly, harder to use and/or less efficient in driving traffic to the Merchants Website.

Prohibiting or restricting the use of the Merchant, Product or Trademark name in the Title and/or META Tags, Headlines (also known as H1 …Hx Tags), alt-Tags (text description of an Image for visually impaired people), URL (not domain name, but document or folder name) and/or Content* (this happened to me, no kidding) is for me a reason to ditch the merchant.

Reactions and Misconceptions

I tend to laugh cynically first, ignore the generic emails to everybody and then wait to get “fired” (or not). I used to respond to those emails at first finding out that we had nothing to worry and simply the wording was not reflecting what the merchant wanted to accomplish. This was time consuming every time, time I don’t have and should also not have to spend. Some general education is necessary. Since merchants discovered search and SEM and SEO companies prosper a lot of wrong or incomplete ideas were planted into the heads of a lot of advertisers which gave Affiliates as bad name. Affiliates are as much spammers as Google AdSense publishers are Scrapers. I don’t deny that some are, but that does not justify generalization.

Legal Voids and Loopholes, potential for disaster

You never know, if they mean what they write or if the intentions of the advertiser are something else than what the words in the message say. I only have a problem if the ambiguous wording becomes part of the Terms which state in not ambiguous words that the advertiser can refuse payment of commission if any item of the terms was violated. We are basically in violation with the terms of service, being enforced as spelled out or not, is irrelevant. The Advertiser could come any time he wants and refuse the payment of due commission referencing to the violation. This is a bad position to be in as an affiliate.

Use <> Abuse, Spam, penalty

Restrictions that are aimed to prevent the ABUSE (not the use) of the Brand via exploiting SEO relevant methods and techniques are perfectly fine with me, but if that is the goal, make this clear in the terms and don’t “take aim” at everybody.

This makes a VERY big difference, but this distinction is not made very often. ABUSE is everything that does not benefit the customer or is done to avoid technical issues, like being crawl able by Search Engines and format the content that the SEs can make sense out of it. Replace “Trademark” with “Keyword” and we get to most Search Engines recommendations and Webmaster guidelines.

Search Engines do not penalize the use of “Keywords” where it is appropriate; they actually encourage it, but they do penalize Sites that engage in keyword stuffing and search engine spamming.

Proper use of things

If a page is primarily about a Merchant, Product or Trademark, then it should be part of the Meta Tags and should be used in a headline, if the paragraph is about this “Trademark”. If the whole page is about the trademark, not putting the Trademark in the Title is either laziness, stupidity or the attempt to disguise the fact that the content is about this trademark deliberately (something you would/should do if you fear legal action being taken against you if you use the Trademark).

Who can use your Trademark/Brand without infringing it?

Let’s apply very conservative rules for who can use a trademark and for what purpose on a web page without causing any trademark infringement by any legal standards. Now assume only pages that are about the trademark hence have it in the title, head lines and several times in the general content. Now also consider that Google omits multiple results from the same site, showing up to 2 entries of one site on a page.

Type 1: the trademark owner or authorized licensee
That would be your site most likely

Type 2: You’re an authorized reseller or affiliate of the trademarked products or service
your affiliates promoting your services or products, representing your trademark in a positive manner.

Type 3: Somebody you can not control, person or organization uses your trademark/brand in a way that constitutes “fair use” of the trademark. Because you don’t control it, it can be a good, neutral or bad representation of the brand. Good for you, if it is a fan of yours, bad, if it is an upset customer of yours you disappointed for any reason.

Type 4: Somebody constitutes a “comparative advertisement” as defined by the FTC. That would be most likely your competition

The Odds are against you. No need for an Affiliate Program, if they are not.

Even if you do not accomplish the complete elimination of Type 2 results for any possible keyword phrase that includes your brand, which is what you are attempting by prohibiting affiliates the use of your brand or trademark in the title, keywords, description, Hx and alt tags, and the affiliate still ranks on page one for the phrase, chances to get the user to click on the affiliate site result is significantly reduced.

It will be reduced due to the fact that brand recognition is less likely possible, because the brand name will probably not be displayed properly or recognizable in the SERPs.

Assuming that you don’t spam the Search Engine yourself via operating multiple Websites for a brand or do heavy cross-linking of your sites for various brands to boost each others ranking (also spamming), only 2 results you have control over will show for the users query (if any). Lets say one of your affiliates managed to rank too, but due to the restrictions you put in place, does your brand name not appear anywhere in the title nor short description of the result displayed by the Search Engine.

I hope you only have GOOD Type 3 sites, at least NEUTRAL ones and no BAD Type 3 Sites and god beware, NO Type 4 Sites

The odds, even for 2 word phrase searches are not very reassuring.
It gets worse with 3 and more keyword searches, because the chance that even you appear in the results is getting dimmer and dimmer because the relevance of the brand name in the query gets smaller and smaller.

If you got this entire thing covered to your advantage to ensure that you get the traffic; great! That means that everybody knows and loves you, nobody hates you and there is no real competition out there that is a serious threat for you. You do you have an affiliate program at all? That does not make sense.

Lag of brand supporting the marketing or sales message reduces conversion

Restrictions that reduce or eliminate the brands exposure not only potentially reduce the traffic from the affiliate to the Merchant, but probably also reduce the conversion as well due to the lag of brand supporting the message send to the user.

Using (exposing) the Brand Name in the Marketing message that must be in alignment with what the brand represents does leverage the brands recognition and enforces its image, especially if no additional marketing messages are sent to the customer at the same time.

A web page exclusively dedicated to one Merchant or Brand is like a full page Ad in a magazine. No distractions surrounding the Ad that might alter the message to the prospect completely in a less favorable way.

A strong marketing message using the brand, re-enforcing it without added distractions will not necessarily increase traffic, but certainly makes it more targeted and higher converting.

This is a thing that should be embraced and encouraged by every merchant that has a marketing machine working, be it Affiliates, an Agency, In-House or a combination of the three.

Summing up

You can have the best sales person in the world creating the perfect conversion machine for you in form of a maximum converting ecommerce website but you will still not convert any prospect your marketing efforts brought to your website that is completely OFF-targeted. I use a derivation of the title of the latest book by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg as example. Your Dog-Targeting super-converting sales machine will not get a Cat to bark like a dog.

A cat sent to the site is as off targeted as it gets. The weaker the marketing message, the stronger the sales message has to become to ensure that the same traffic sent to your site remains targeted enough that you can convert it.

Affiliates strength lies in Marketing and not Sales. If you take away the marketing tools, you better improve the support of your affiliates with Sales tools or your actions are as helpful for your affiliates as friendly fire hitting your own forces during a strategic significant battle. Some might be able to move on, others will be left wounded or dead as casualties on the battlefield and your enemy can use this blunder to over run your fortifications and eliminate you.

I used on purpose a strong analogy, because possibly wrong strategic decisions in a competitive marketplace can cost you dearly, if not everything. Double checking decisions never hurt and can only support your business.

I have no problem whatsoever with things that are being put in place to protect the Merchants Brand from being misrepresented (emphasis on MISrepresented!).

The Internet is so vast and the way people are looking for and finding content is countless. A merchant can’t be at all those places, even if the user is looking for something from your brand. He does not always type [brand].com or simply [brand] into his address bar or search box. Beyond that does it become less and less likely that you can ensure that your site being returned as top result in the SERPs.

If your affiliates are not there to “cover” for you, somebody you don’t want at all will be there instead, either your competitor itself or your competitors affiliates. It’s your choice, but however you decide, makeyour intentions clear to your partners and make sure that your terms reflect that. You don’t want something in there that means something else than you meant when you wrote it.

Nobody wants good relationships to end because of wrong words used in the Terms that outline the relationship. The affiliate does not want that and I am sure you don’t want that as well. You better check your Terms of Service sooner than later.

About Carsten Cumbrowski

Internet Marketer, Entrepreneur and Blogger. To learn more about me and what I am doing, visit my website and check out the “about” section.

Twitter: ccumbrowski

2 Responses to Imprudent Decisions Could Cost You Dearly

  1. Lee Gientke says:

    Great post Carsten. Tradmarks are always sticky. That said, I've always been all for trademark bidding because most of my PPC affiliates use the high conversions and sales from trademarks to subsidize less profitable keywords and ad buys. In the end, it comes down to AM's having open communications with their affiliates and the mindset that an affiliate is a partner and not some yahoo. That said, affiliates need to communicate with their AMs and uphold their end of the partnership.


  2. Hi Lee,

    Thanks for the comment. The Article is more concerned about organic search than PPC.

    What seems to be a relative straight forward issue their (what it is obviously not) becomes 10 times fold more complicated when it comes to organic search.

    While you can prohibit or restrict an affiliate in the use of PPC as method to promote your business, is it not as simple with organic search.

    High ranking sites don't necessarily utilize actively SEO Methods to get there, especially "black hat" SEO methods.

    Some sites do well, because they are actually useful, rich in content, recommended by a lot of people and are well designed without employing any cheesy tricks.

    Wait a moment, that is the original idea and prime goal of search engines, return good and relevant content.

    Now prohibiting your Affiliates to create well designed and good quality web sites or pages within their Website that promote your business exclusively (or primarily) and are doing it so well, that they even get returned within the top 10 spots of the SERPS for searches involving your brand name is ridiculous right?

    More Merchants add SEM related restrictions and limitations to their Terms of Service.

    No problem, unless you add something intentionally or by accident that prohibits affiliates to do what I just used as an example.

    Now the phrase "intentionally or by accident" adds a lot more complexity to the whole thing, because the range of things to consider is much broader than PPC ever could be.

    Its about time to start working on those things and hammer out the details 🙂