The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

Is it possible to use affiliate links without turning into a sleazy affiliate marketer?

There aren’t many good ways to monetize a blog. Ads degrade the reader’s experience; membership paywalls restrict reach; sponsorships restrict freedom. Affiliate links have the potential to be a non-destructive monetization option.

In theory, affiliate links needn’t have any effect on the reader’s experience, or what the blogger writes. In practice, affiliate links create incentives to act disingenuously, which are hard to resist.

Sleazy affiliate marketers

… fail to disclose the affiliate relationship

The most common thing sleazy affiliate markets do is pretend that they're not sleazy affiliate marketers, by “accidentally” failing to disclose that they will get a commission if the reader buys products they recommend.

See that in action at otherwise-respectable publications like [REDACTED]. In fact, some affiliate programs’ official documentation uses sites that don't disclose at all as examples and success stories!

Why is disclosure important?

  1. It’s required by law.
  2. It allows the reader to try to compensate for blogger’s *cough* potential *cough* bias to …

… encourage consumerism

Affiliate programs incentivise the blogger to encourage the reader to buy more things. Full stop. Even if the blogger is already recommending products, they encourage the blogger to recommend more expensive products, and cajole readers to buy them.

… recommend bad products

When bloggers become too focussed on affiliate revenue, they recommend products they don't actually believe in. They also start recommending stores that have affiliate programs over competitors that don’t.

For example: most bloggers who write about books link to Amazon sales pages, rather than linking Wikipedia or local independent bookstores. (They also tend to turn every reference to a book into an Amazon affiliate link, even if they wouldn't naturally link to the book — or necessarily even reference it.)

BookShop.org is a more-ethical Amazon competitor specifically targeting affiliate marketers. Readers are more accustomed to buying from Amazon with one click, though; so there's an incentive to link to Amazon instead of BookShop, even if it is a worse choice.

Recommending lousy products is bad enough. But once a blogger starts seeing success with a particular affiliate program, they will often churn out blogposts they wouldn't have otherwise written just so they can fill them with affiliate links.

Case study: I had a Ghost affiliate link I'd never figured out how to use. I had figured out how to run Ghost on Fly. I would have written the article anyway, but I remember feeling a certain motivation to write it and promote it so that I could try using my Ghost referral link. Perhaps I wouldn't have used the adjective “shiny” to describe Ghost(Pro) if I wasn't trying to get a juicy referral commission.

Is it possible to resist these incentives?

In theory, it’s easy. The ethical affiliate marketer just ignores the alluring scent of fiat currency, and recommends the exact things they would recommend if they weren't using affiliate links. In practice, it’s hard to get those sweet sweet affiliate commissions out of one’s mind when planning and writing articles.

The ethical affiliate marketer

I can only think of one blog in the known universe that seems like a positive example of affiliate links: The Marginalian, by Maria Popova.

Looking again, it isn’t a perfect example. She uses Amazon affiliate links rather than BookShop (one demerit), and the disclosure is in grey text in footer (two demerits) … and was added only after she got bad press for failing to disclose the affiliate links (three demerits).

However, the experience is seamless: she writes about books, she links to the books, she makes a living, she discloses that this is how she makes a living.

Having come up with one example, I decided it was within my power for there to be a second website on the internet that used affiliate links ethically: this one.

So, what does it take to do so? In my view, an ethical affiliate marketer must ...

The FTC requires disclosure; but most blogs hide their affiliate disclosure in tiny grey text in their footer, or worse yet in their terms.

It’s more forthright to put the disclosure next to the link, like this: Ghost(Pro) (referral link).

However, this can be tiresome and off-putting for the reader. I don't need the fact to be forced down my throat; I just want to know so I can make an informed decision.

If there are many links in one post, another approach is to put the disclosure near the first link, like this:

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links, meaning I will receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase based on my recommendation, at no cost to you. This helps to support the work I do and means I can continue providing this content ❤️

Here’s my idea for striking a balance between a) underplaying the affiliate disclosure by hiding it in the footer, and b) irritating the user by putting (referral link) next to every (referral link) single link (referral link) in a post: put an affiliate symbol next to each affiliate link.

On this site, it looks like this: ye old affiliate linkA. See that A symbol? That's a link to the affiliate disclosure page, or affiliate disclosure section of the article, which will...

Some users balk at sleazy affiliate marketers. I know I view any content containing affiliate links with a certain mistrust. What would change that? A way to opt-out.

I have never seen a website offer a way to opt-out of affiliate links.

Here are two ways it can be done:

  1. The simple way. Put a superscript icon next to each affiliate link, which is a non-affiliate version, like so: Affiliate linkĀ.

  2. The slick way. Put a button on the affiliate disclosure page that allows the reader to turn off affiliate links site-wide. Under the hood, this button sets a cookie, and pages with affiliate links have a JavaScript function that strips the affiliate tracking parameters out of links if that cookie is set.

I use the second approach on this blog. It took a while to set up, but it is much tidier. (Autodidacts members get free access to my snippet at the bottom of the post.)

Don’t think about affiliate links. Don’t plan content around affiliate links. Don't think about how much money is in your bank account. Don’t think about pageviews. Don’t think about street cred. Just write.

Write the best post you can. Write an article ranting about affiliate links, and fill it with affiliate links — you know, for science.. Write about what you care about, not what will drive traffic, or ad-impressions. Don’t write for the algorithm. Write for your readers. Don’t think about affiliate links. Don’t think about affiliate links! Don’t think about affiliate links!!!

Praxis

Can I use affiliate links without turning into a sleazy affiliate marketer? Maybe. But, can I get rich using affiliate links ethically? It seems the answer is … nope.

This blog follows the examples I have recommended for ethical affiliate marketing. The affiliate links on this blog have not made a cent.

Perhaps there is a niche for radically honest affiliate marketers. (Some of my attempts have been comical, if nothing else.) But the niche doesn’t seem to be a lucrative one. So, my working hypothesis is that rule-abiding, ethically sound affiliate marketing tends to self-sabotage. Naturally, I’d be delighted to be proven wrong 🤑.

Thanks for reading!


Bonus content for Autodidacts email subscribers everyone (for now) ♥ Use the affiliate opt-out system I wrote for The Autodidacts on your own blog! Just grab the code below and follow the instructions to get it set up:

This snippet goes on your disclosure page, in your footer, or in the disclosure section of your articles.

<button	id="affiliatetoggle" onclick="affiliateOptOutToggle()">Set a Cookie to Opt Out</button>

<script>
  var affBtn = document.getElementById("affiliatetoggle");

  function updateAffiliateToggleState() {
    if (localStorage.getItem("affiliateOptOut")) {
      affBtn.innerHTML = "Opt Back In";
    } else {
      affBtn.innerHTML = "Set a Cookie to Opt Out";
    }
  }
  
  affiliateOptOutToggle = function () {
    if (localStorage.getItem("affiliateOptOut")) {
      localStorage.removeItem('affiliateOptOut');
      updateAffiliateToggleState();
      stripAffiliateLinks()
    } else {
      localStorage.setItem('affiliateOptOut', true);
      updateAffiliateToggleState();
      window.location.reload(true);
    }
  }

  window.onload = function() {
    updateAffiliateToggleState();
  }

</script>

This goes in your code injection on any page that uses affiliate links. You need to add your tracking parameters to the fragments array on line 1.

<script>
  var fragments = ["?via=curiositry", "?ref=something"];

  stripAffiliateLinks = function (){
    let anchors = document.getElementsByTagName("a");
      for (var i = 0; i < anchors.length; i++) {
        if(fragments.some(el => anchors[i].href = anchors[i].href.replace(el,""))) {
      }
    }
  }

  window.onload = function() {
    if (localStorage.getItem('affiliateOptOut')){
      stripAffiliateLinks();
    }
  }
</script>

Note: I have done my best to make sure these snippets work, but they are provided with NO WARRANTY. You should probably mention on your disclosure page that you can't guarantee the opt-out will work as designed.