or How Affiliate Marketing Gets Hurt

Let me start with a story, a true story. I hosted a table at the last Affiliate Summit’s Meet Market. Meet Markets are networking events held for the purpose of affiliates, merchants, affiliate networks, outsourced affiliate program managers, and other agencies to “meet-and-greet” each other during the first day of the conference. At one point a lady (with a tag “Affiliate” on her badge) stopped by my table, stretched out her hand to grab one of the giveaway items I had laying on the table, then raised her eyes to my badge — which simply read: Geno Prussakov, President, AM Navigator — dropped the giveaway item, said: “We’re ShopAtHome — you don’t like us!” and left… Once the Meet Market ended, I went up to my hotel room, and searched both my own blog, and ABestWeb for any posts that I might have made about ShopAtHome, as I wasn’t sure I’ve actually made any. I was correct. Not a single post that would specifically point at them, or explicitly state that I “don’t like” Then I did a bit more thinking, and remembered that back in December of 2006 when I was finishing “A Practical Guide to Affiliate Marketing” I did write a brief section on “spyware operators” and among others did mention ShopAtHomeSelect (cf: pp. 98-99). I also quoted Wikipedia’s summary of how spyware works, which back then read:

Spyware which attacks affiliate networks does so by placing the spyware operator’s affiliate tag on the user’s activity””replacing any other tag, if there is one. This harms just about everyone involved in the transaction other than the spyware operator. The user is harmed by having their choices thwarted. A legitimate affiliate is harmed by having their earned income redirected to the spyware operator. Affiliate marketing networks are harmed by the degradation of their reputation. Vendors are harmed by having to pay out affiliate revenues to an “affiliate” who did not earn them through a contractual agreement.

Educate yourself further: read more about how ShopAtHome fits into this picture (and what hurt they are bringing about) on the “Debunking ShopAtHomeSelect” page by Ben Edelman

Aha! So they’ve read my book (or at least got to those two pages where I warned affiliate managers about spyware)! Moreover, there is another important conclusion to be made from the above-quoted story: they have nothing to counter my statement with, apart from stating: “We’re ShopAtHome — you don’t like us.” They are not denying the fact that they are the spyware that hurts the affiliate marketing industry, and neither are they doing anything to stop being one.

But wait, it gets even more interesting!

Back in 2005 ShopAtHomeSelect was removed from Commission Junction “for violation of the publisher service agreement and the Publisher Code of Conduct.” [source] But yesterday, my friend Elena, who is an affiliate and is concerned about these issues, reminded us that this very ShopAtHome that is known for “automatically overwriting affiliate clicks,” runs an affiliate program where they pay affiliates $2.10 (per download) to distribute their toolbar. The said affiliate program is run through the LinkShare affiliate network. [details]

So, a spyware that forces clicks which overwrite other affiliates’ cookies runs an affiliate program for these very affiliates to distribute the guillotine. WOW.

Now, besides pointing out to this strange (to say the least) “affiliate program” Elena asks a very important question: “How come so many merchants are OK with what they do?” redOrbit states that there are “more than 1,500 leading retailers” featured by ShopAtHome! [source] The list of these retailers includes all of the Top 10 Online Retailers by Conversion Rate (Dec 2008 data) and many more famous brands! The quick answer to the question of why these merchants are not doing anything against it is ignorance. Yes, regardless of how large the brand may be, the people at the helm of their affiliate program management are often lacking basic education on the subject of spyware and parasites, and the negative repercussions that this parasitism has for their affliate programs in particular, as well as for the affiliate marketing industry in general.

The purpose of this post is to once again draw the attention of affiliates, affiliate program managers and merchants to the one of the main problems of the present-day affiliate marketing – adware (also known as parasiteware). If you are reading this post, and you do not know what it is, how it works, or how it hurts your business, you are an easy prey for such parasitic affiliates as ShopAtHome, Claria, Ebates, Zango, TopMoxie, Dollar Revenue, Targetsaver, WhenU, and others.

Here’s a list of good free resources where you can start educating yourself on the subject:

Should you have any specific questions, please do not hesitate to post them in the “Comments” area below. It is an extremely important issue, and I strongly encourage you to start learning about it (and taking a stand against it) today.

26 thoughts on “ or How Affiliate Marketing Gets Hurt”

  1. Geno,

    I believe you hit it right on the head, ignorance. Many don’t understand the various technical aspects of what spyware can do and thus aren’t able to make a qualified decision on whether to work with them or not. They rely on the networks. “If the networks let them in, they must be ok”. Each merchant has to know about these things and make the decision themselves, they can’t rely on networks. Too much conflict of interest.

    Many in house managers also are in a conflict. Some of those orders that are being overwritten are other channels. So if they get rid of some spyware, their channel may lose sales.

    The answer is education and more posts like this.

  2. Jamie,

    You’ve brought up an important point. “They rely on the networks” and if the affiliate networks are accepting the spyware “affiliates” in, many merchants just pre-suppose that these affiliates are okay to work with.

    Merchants must understand that there are very few networks out there that do the careful affiliate pre-screening on the application phase, and policing on the post-application phase (or when the affiliate is already on the network). I personally know of only 3 U.S. affiliate networks that are currently being concerned about the spyware problem and proactively against it: AvantLink,, and ShareASale. And it is truly sad that the other affiliate networks out there are not deeming it to be one of their priorities.

    Now, having said this, I would also like to emphasize that just as no affiliate program can be run on an auto-pilot, no merchant should rely on the affiliate network only when it comes to affiliate screening. As I have previously mentioned elsewhere, active policing is key.


  3. Geno,

    I never understood how people could steal revenue from others who have done all the work. It’s just not the right way to do business. As far as why merchants are not doing anything against it, I blame ignorance and the fact that some of them just don’t care because they are making money no matter what.
    We take this issue seriously and will continue to fight for ethical business by conducting ongoing policing.


  4. Ayako,

    Thank you for your comments.

    You wrote that “some of them just don’t care because they are making money no matter what” — Very true. But they could be making considerably more if they kicked out such super-thief-affiliates as ShopAtHome et al, and had the real super-affiliates join their affiliate programs. They need to realize that until they boot the spyware ones out, they will have no chances of growing past the level of sales that the spyware affiliates can refer to them (because no decent affiliate will work with them)!


  5. Geno,

    I agree with you 100%. We spend a lot of time educating all merchants about these issues prior to signing up with us as well as after going live. It’s not always easy because many merchants do work with multiple networks and may not be aware of these issues until we point them out. We do not tolerate spyware and protecting our network will always be our #1 priority.


  6. Thank you for your continual efforts to educate and publish your findings. I agree with all affiliates and managers who wish we could find a way to eradicate the spyware, but I also look at it from my site visitors perspective.

    If someone visits an online shopping site and ends up with anything other than a good shopping experience, they might decide that my site is the problem. I don’t want my customers to end up with computer issues that can be thought to originate from my site because of any merchant I partner with for sales.

    I personally spend time on a merchant site making sure that I’m not annoyed by pop-ups, chatty salespeople, etc. before I add them to my sites.

  7. Geno,

    It is your knowledge of the affiliate industry that makes your posts so valuable.

    With the help of posts like yours and the help of sites like and we all can give back to our industry by further educating Merchants and Affiliates alike.

    Keep up the great work!

    ~ Denis

  8. Judi,

    Thank you for your comment. You’re bringing up an important point too (one of intrusive merchant behavior). Yes, that is definitely an issue too, but with adware, when you partner with merchants that are being promoted by adware/spyware affiliates, you are risking ending up doing what some call “free branding” for those merchants, as your cookies stand high chances of being overwritten by the parasitic affiliates. I would encourage affiliates to be constantly bringing it up to the attention of the uneducated merchants. Tell them why you’re not working with them, point them to this post about, and to the other resources I’ve mentioned. Let’s work together on cleaning our industry up!!

  9. Convergence,

    Thank you, Denis. The more of us write (and talk) about this — the sooner the changes will come.

    In their recent “Leadership the Outward Bound Way” volume, Raynolds, Carter & Chatfield argued that the process of initiating change starts from “creating readiness” for the change. This readiness for change is created by (a) instilling “a sense of need and urgency,” followed by (b) “building confidence,” and (c) “fostering a culture that seeks continuous improvement.” Speaking of creating a sense of urgency, these researchers explain that it is important to “communicate the need for change and paint a picture of the new vision,” thereby “raising the urgency level,” and cultivating a desire for change (p. 278). In case with the adware/spyware affiliates problem, it is essential to create a sense of urgency among merchants that are being effected by the problem — often not even knowing about it. Once the sense of urgency is created, the merchants will be ready for the next steps: ceasing their partnerships with and other unethical affiliates, filing relevant complaints with the affiliate networks, and rebuilding their affiliates programs through good affiliates.

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, I applaud what you are doing at Keep up the good work too! Let’s create the sense of urgency about this very real problem!


  10. is still a highly active affiliate on CJ.

    I shall commission a review of affiliates registered with programs under our management. Feel free to send me a list of potential offenders and the reasons for their inclusion.

  11. John

    I would review them all in the light of the toolbar technology. Any affiliate that has a toolbar should have the toolbar tested by the affiliate manager (ideally, prior to accepting them into the affiliate program). If the toolbar intrudes with the end-user’s shopping behavior, making him/her click the toolbar offers (most frequently used ones are those of cashback, and donations to charitable or scholarship organizations), or even forcing a click, thereby overwriting the cookie of an affiliate who at that moment is doing the pre-sale job, the affiliate should not be accepted into the affiliate program.


  12. Kellie Stevens of has brought up an important point in her today’s ReveNews post. She said that the problem is not with adware as such, but with “how adware is allowed to behave in the affiliate marketing channel” (read: allowed by the affiliate networks that are getting a cut in form of the transaction fee of every affiliate transaction, clean or dirty). She stated that it is important to understand that adware “isn’t inherently good or bad.” What is bad though, is “the manner in which many adware applications generate revenue in the affiliate marketing channel,” and I have described this manner above.

  13. Wonderful post Geno! Parasitic affiliates are an ongoing problem in many affiliate programs simply because BHOs are so widely available and the manager is under incredible internal pressure to make the channel produce. I expect in this economy that we will start to see a much wider use of these “earn your cash back” types of toolbars and unfortunately, many merchants may choose to turn to affiliates who offer them simply to boost numbers temporarily. It’s important for a manager to stay on top of policing and educate themselves well on the issue so they can properly respond when upper management asks “why aren’t we working with so-and-so”.

    I definitely agree that networks can do a far better job of pre-screening affiliates and providing full disclosure of contact information, but you should never, ever rely on any network to handle your approvals, even one that keeps a fairly clean house. Essentially, you’re hiring a sales team and you need to know who you are working with and the only way to do that is to process applications manually. Time consuming, certainly, but the rewards are far greater down the road.

  14. Karen,

    Great points.

    I agree on the benefits of manual approval of affiliate applications. It can get “time consuming” but it will save you from major affiliate marketing disasters (including the ones that can be brought to you by such players as,, etc)


  15. Excellent post, Geno. Your experience and knowledge in this industry can reach so many people, thanks for taking the time to post such informative and detailed messages. I am also working with trying to make a difference in this industry. Education is key for affiliates, merchants and even Affiliate Managers. Unfortunately, the quick buck makes things look attractive only to find out in the long run it came at a very high price.

  16. msladybug,

    Thank you for taking time to comment.

    You know, I’ve been interviewing people in our industry on the problems of present-day affiliate marketing, and among the top 3 problems all of them have pointed out: (i) unethical affiliates (exact phrase used: “parasites and cookie overwriters”), (ii) lack of knowledge on the merchants’ part, and (iii) lack of ethics on the part of select affiliate networks (those that take advantage of the merchant’s ignorance, and allow for unethical affiliates to operate within the merchant’s affiliate programs). My personal views match those of the interviewees with only one difference — that of prioritization of problems to deal with. Just as yourself, I believe that the first priority should be given to education — education of merchants, and affiliates — as only educated people can discern between the right and wrong, the ethical and the unethical; and only educated affiliate marketers can make weighted decisions based on facts.

    Once again, thank you for your comment.


  17. Sheila Williams

    I am glad you made this article available to consumers. I had my computer scanned for spyware and had 41 counts.I will educate myself and be on the look-out for the cookie cutters.

  18. I am one of those victims that fell for the ShopAtHome cashback program. I’ve been a big fan of cashback programs. Last fall I signed up for They advertise great cashback percentages and I was really excited to get the extra savings. ONE HUGE PROBLEM… when I checked the cashback amounts on my purchases, 9 times out of 10 they shorted me on my cashback! Even after escalating the issue, they STILL did not get it right. Just a warning to everyone, if ShopAtHome advertises 6% cashback, make sure they are crediting your account with 6%. Many times I found they were only giving me 1% cashback. I never had this type of problem with other cashback programs, but it appears to be they way ShopAtHome operates, which is nothing short of false advertising. I am so disgusted with this company that I’m trying to put this info everywhere I can so that consumers can be aware. If they too fell for this program, they need to check their account to see if ShopAtHome is compliant with their advertised cashback percentages. Now, after reading your information, I feel so victimized in more ways than one! They need to be sued!

  19. I was just about to sign up for the shop at home affiliate, but definitely will not be doing so. I have a coupon blog and noticed the only other real competition I have is a member of the shop at home affiliate and has the toolbar download on every page. I wanted to make sure it was safe before I started offering it to my visitors, but definitely will not do this!

    I have seen some other coupon websites offering the shopathome toolbar and I now wonder if shop at home just built them all to get more people to download their toolbar.

  20. I think these type of people/companies just don’t get it how much work is put into affiliate marketing. I think companies that associate themselves spend their marketing dollars unwisely and are not educated about how these type of business’s are hurtful to their bottom line. It is up to marketing professionals to reach out to companies to offer better more effective alternatives. Some of us must reach out to local business and educate them. Shame shame.

  21. As I am getting into the affiliate networks with both LinkShare and Commission Junction, your article is a revelation to be aware. Thanks Geno. I will have to pursue this with more detail.

  22. I was recently contacted by Shop At Home to be part of their Bloggers We Love page. In order to participate, they asked that I publish information from their site to my site and suggested that I place their RSS feed in my sidebar in exchange for being listed on their page. I told them that I was willing to publish information about one of their giveaways coming up and then answered their Q&A questions for their bloggers page. I asked if they had an affiliate program and was told they are “looking to expand the program probably next year”. At that point, I googled and discovered this post. I went back to re-read my communications with them and realized the messages were coming from a gmail address. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

    1. Liz, thank you for your comment. I am not aware of their “affiliate program” plans; but what I do see (through by BrandVerity toolbars/adware monitoring interface) is this report on their toolbar: auto-redirects from direct traffic (yes); auto-redirects from affiliate links (no); auto-redirects from paid/organic search (yes); poses privacy risks (yes). So, up until this day the ShopAtHome toolbar cannibalizes merchants’/advertisers’ direct and paid search traffic.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to reply. Affiliate marketing helps me keep the lights on so I don’t want to associate with companies that are engaged in unethical business practices that might jeopardize any relationship I have with ethical companies. Thank you for this post.

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