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Is affiliate marketing evil?

I’ve been dealing with a crisis of conscience over the last few weeks, largely due to the activities of one company: GoDaddy. I’ve used GoDaddy for a long time and have registered most of my domains there. Additionally, I’ve been a GoDaddy affiliate for the better part of 5 years.

Unfortunately, GoDaddy’s recent actions have made me question whether they’re the type of business I want to associate with. Yes, they’ve had a long-standing reputation for, ahem, controversial ads. That’s not news. And, as a marketer and business professional, I fully support companies differentiating themselves however they see fit, even if I disagree with the specific form their differentiation takes.

But, lately, GoDaddy’s actions have caused me to question whether affiliate marketing makes sense at all. Their support for SOPA (which is a bad, bad piece of legislation) and their portrayal of women in their ads really piss me off. A lot. Sitting next to my teenage daughters and watching their ads during the Super Bowl made me feel like a worm. Reading about their on-again/off-again support for SOPA drove me nuts. Putting it all together made me rethink not just my position on GoDaddy, but on affiliate marketing overall.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I thought I’d share my point of view on the issue, in hopes that it may help others dealing with these same concerns.

Why I use affiliate marketing

My business depends on having a robust, full-featured website (actually, I believe most businesses do today). And ensuring a robust, full-featured website isn’t free. Cheap, yes. Free, no. While the overwhelming majority of my revenue comes from clients, I have used affiliate marketing links and some advertising to offset my hosting and design costs for the past five to six years.

None of these affiliate links have made me rich. In fact, most have generated no more than a few hundred dollars a year.

Could I live without them? Definitely.

But, I see no harm in using affiliates where they meet these few criteria:

  1. Does the company I’m linking to offer a service you or my clients can benefit from?
  2. Have I ever used the product or service myself?
  3. If I haven’t, would I spend my own money on the product or service?

That’s it.

These are the same criteria I’ve used since I first started this blog and I believe I’ve always lived up to those standards.

I am going to continue using affiliate links and advertising on the site, albeit always in a fully disclosed and, more importantly, helpful fashion.

Going forward, though, GoDaddy won’t be one of them.

Businesses I affiliate with

As of today, February 14, 2012, these are the businesses I am an affiliate of, along with my experience with each. None of these are affiliate links, so you can click through if you’d like to learn more about each without me getting compensation. I stand by the services and am happy to recommend them freely:

  • Amazon.com I’ve been a customer almost since Amazon began, long before becoming an affiliate. I joined the affiliate program around the time I first started this blog. They’re still my preferred place to buy books, music and electronics and I usually check their prices on most other items I’m in the market for, too. Jeff Bezos is, to me, one of the true visionaries of e-commerce and I recommend the company without reservation.
  • Google AdSense Amazon Associates (their affiliate program) and Google AdSense are the two most successful marketing programs on this site. AdSense powers the ads you see at the bottom of most posts on this site. I’ve used AdSense almost since the beginning of this blog and remain happy with their targeting capabilities. Also, as someone who buys a lot of ads for clients, I like understanding how their platform works from a publishing perspective.
  • Dreamhost I moved my site to Dreamhost in 2007, shortly after my prior hosting company vanished in the middle of the night. I became an affiliate not long afterwards. While not perfect (what hosting company is?) they continue to innovate in their products and services and have provided excellent service over the 4+ years I’ve been a customer (including going above and beyond in one case where I seriously screwed up a WordPress upgrade).
  • ProStores ProStores provides an e-commerce hosting platform for small businesses. They’ve got a good product at a good price. It’s not perfect for everyone (some may be better served by Shopify or Volusion). But it’s a solid offering from a reliable company.
  • Shopify Shopify is another small business e-commerce platform provider. What I like is how simple their setup process is, particularly if you’re not an e-commerce expert. Very cool company and one that seems committed to providing excellent customer service.
  • Thesis theme for WordPress I’ve used WordPress since I started this blog. A couple of years ago, I learned about the Thesis theme, which simplifies design and layout of your WordPress installation. After using the tool for a few months, I joined the affiliate program and continue to recommend the theme to anyone looking to streamline their WordPress management.
  • Squarespace Yet another hosting company, Squarespace contacted me and invited me to join their affiliate program due to the volume of traffic they received from my Squarespace review. Again, the review existed long before I joined the affiliate program, and to their credit, they never suggested (or even hinted) that I should make any changes to the review. While I still use Dreamhost and WordPress, Squarespace provides an excellent, scalable alternative for those uncomfortable with managing their own hosting.
  • Wordtracker A big part of the services I offer my clients is helping them sort out their paid search and content marketing efforts. And a huge part of that is selecting the right keywords. I have used Wordtracker and Google’s AdWords Keyword tool (which is free), for years to support that process. Each has their pros and cons, though I tend to use Wordtracker more for detailed research as it’s got better organization tools built into it.

I used to be a RevResponse affiliate, but am in the process of dropping them as their content (while solid) doesn’t really fit the needs of my customers as I’ve refined my offering. That’s not their fault; it’s just a natural evolution. I’ve also been invited to join Webmium’s affiliate program; however, I’m still evaluating their product to see if I can recommend them.

Additionally, I’ve just recently applied to the affiliate programs for SEOmoz and GoToMeeting. I’ve used both for about a year and find them to be incredibly valuable in running my business.

I’m not sure whether this looks like a lot or not. What you’ll notice is a common set of themes tying these together: Do they help you build/promote an e-commerce and content marketing-focused website for your business? I can’t imagine I’ll ever partner with anyone where that isn’t true.

Finally, I’m the market for a new domain hosting company. I’m looking at Hover, CheapNames, Network Solutions and others. If you’ve got any recommendations, please let me know. And, yes, I’ll probably join the affiliate program of whomever I move to. But, it’s really important to me that joining the affiliate program follows finding the right partner, not the other way around. For instance, I am leaning towards Hover, who doesn’t offer an affiliate program. When I make a decision, I’ll tell you who. And I’ll tell you why. (Update: I have decided to move my domains to—and become an affiliate of—Namecheap and will have more details why in the next week or so. I also think Hover is a fine option for domain registration, though I am not an affiliate of the service).

Yes, I’m legally required to disclose these relationships. But I want to hold myself to a higher standard than just the legal minimum. And please keep me honest. If you think I’m going off the rails here, let me know.

Moving forward

So what happens now?

Well, first, I’m going through the site and removing references to GoDaddy. I’m going to do it as quickly as I can (the limiting factor is my time and finding the references I’ve made over the years).

Second, for reasons of cash flow, once I find a new domain registrar I’m comfortable with, I’m going to transfer all my domains from GoDaddy (again, I’d love recommendations).

None of this is just to claim the moral high ground. I’m a capitalist and have no problem monetizing traffic to the site. But choosing companies that don’t make my skin crawl helps me sleep better at night. And, unfortunately, for their continued disregard of their customers, GoDaddy no longer passes the test.

Conclusion

Is affiliate marketing inherently evil? No. I don’t think so. But the risk remains that any of us who use affiliate marketing or other forms of on-site advertising can cross a line and place the needs of affiliates and advertisers above the needs of our customers.

I’m going to continue to challenge myself to stay on the right side of this line. I think it’s important. And I’ll continue to review my relationships over time to do what’s best for readers and clients. To me, that’s the right way to ensure that affiliate marketing plays its appropriate role.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, too. Please leave a comment if you have a different point of view or want to chime in. And, as ever, thanks for your continued support.


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Tim Peter

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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    1. Thanks, Veronique. I’d love to hear what you decide. I love your blog and given your relationships with various restaurants, wine labels and purveyors of fine foods, I’d see no conflict if you added banners/badges for those you actually use and endorse. Advertising is always tricky. But as long as it supports, rather than directs, your editorial focus — and is fully disclosed — I can’t imagine it being a problem for your readers.

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