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Why Affiliate Direct Linking Activity Has Doubled

Direct linking, sometimes also referred to as ‘URL Hijacking’, occurs on paid search when affiliate marketers assume the identity in paid ads of the represented merchant.

Direct linking occurs when the affiliate uses the merchant’s website as the display URL, with an affiliate link as the destination URL. The effect of this tactic is that the affiliate does not need to operate a website because it is directing traffic straight from the search page to the merchant’s website.

This tactic, while economical, efficient, and easy for the affiliate, creates problems for merchants.

Common issues include:

1.   Channel Conflict

Channel conflict arises when the merchant and the affiliate are advertising on the same keyword set. In this instance, Google, Yahoo, and Bing only show one advertiser at a time with the same display URL.

Because the affiliate and the advertiser are using the same display URL, the two are in essence competing to be served on the SERP. The end result is a bidding war between the affiliate and the merchant on whose behalf the affiliate is advertising in the first place.

2.   Messaging Conflict

Messaging conflict occurs when the affiliate has developed its own ad content that doesn’t match your messaging.

Examples include off-brand messaging, outdated offers, or offers that you do not want promoted against certain keyword combinations. As in issue #1, here, only one ad can be served at a time. If the ad served is the affiliate’s ad, then your brand message isn’t being seen.

3.    Revenue Wars

Revenue wars refer to the struggle between your SEM team and affiliate teams to each gain credit for conversions, actions, and/or sales from paid search keywords.

If revenue is not properly attributed to the SEM team, for instance, then ROI calculations will suffer, causing issues with your bidding methodology and most likely the logic and algorithms in use by your campaign management vendor.

Because we have the affiliate ad on the one hand, and the SEM team’s ads on the other hand vying for impression share, it is likely that revenue attribution will be skewed when direct linking is deployed.

The Search Monitor and other compliance vendors have been working with SEM Brand managers and affiliate teams over the past several years to identify instances of direct linking in order to rectify the problems noted above by eliminating the direct linking tactic from the affiliate’s arsenal.

It is noteworthy that some affiliates are allowed to direct link, in which case, these affiliates are white listed and empowered to run with this tactic, however, in the vast majority of instances, direct linkers are violating the terms and conditions of the affiliate agreement.

It seems to be a reasonable hypothesis that the deployment of compliance vendors would generate lower instances of direct linking over time.

However, the trends are actually the opposite. We looked at a 10 month time frame spanning from June 2010 thru March 2011 across nearly 20,000 keyword variations, across many different vertical markets. What we found is that the instances of direct linking is actually growing, and not shrinking at all.

In fact, the rate of direct linking affiliates has more than doubled since June 2010. Keep in mind when reviewing the chart below, that not all of the keywords checked contained affiliate marketers and the trends below are averages across all terms reviewed.

The Search Monitor Affiliate Direct Linking Trends

Three reasons why the rate is on the rise rather than decreasing is a function of several factors:

1.  As with all types of fraud, there are times when fraud levels off, re-surges, declines, levels off, and resurges again. Downward trends can happen if other better tactics are discovered to be more beneficial for the fraudsters. When those tactics dry up, old tactics are recycled again.

2.  There are simply more affiliates than there are merchants who have adopted compliance tools and therefore, only the most diligent merchants have cleaned up their programs. We are still in the early stages of this type of compliance checking and therefore, most users are early adopters.

3.  The summer months generate less traffic then the winter months, and therefore, direct linkers perhaps take a sabbatical during those times. However, if this were the sole cause of the trend, we would see a big spike during the holiday season, and a leveling off toward March.  This is not the case, and instead we see a steady growth pattern, with a surge in March.

We are also seeing the same types of resurgence with spam trends.

According to Symantec’s State of Spam and Phishing monthly report for March 2011: “As forecasted in the last month’s report, average daily spam volume did increase for the first time since August 2010. The average daily spam volume increased 8.7 percent in February month-over-month. Overall, spam made up 80.65 percent of all messages in February, compared with 79.55 percent in January.”

Unfortunately, those affiliates and other types of fraud purveyors are always looking for ways to get around detection. Merchants engage with great diligence for periods of time, and then there are time spans when attention is directed away from compliance, thus, opening up the opportunity for an increase in undesirable tactics.

It is a cycle that is continuous. Just as direct linking is on the rise today, it is entirely foreseeable that it will decrease over periods of time in the future as well.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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