Toolbars in Affiliate Marketing

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A poll was posted at ABestWeb today where one of the affiliates is asking other affiliates to express their opinion on whether ShareASale, an affiliate network known to stand up for affiliates’ interests, should start allowing affiliates to use downloadable toolbars in their marketing.

The question stems from this post in ShareASale’s blog and this thread of Brian Littleton, the founder and president of the ShareASale affiliate network. ShareASale is contemplating changing their Terms of Service to start allowing affiliates to use toolbars. On 3 February 2009 Brian is holding a roundtable where he wishes “to lay out a base guideline document” regarding what toolbars may be acceptable for use by ShareASale affiliates, and what mechanisms to put in place to police the unappropriate behavior (however it is defined).  Kellie Stevens rightfully called this a “shift from the historical policy of ShareASale which has not allowed software in the network,” a shift that has naturally produced a “heated discussion” in the above-quoted ABestWeb thread. [source]

Much can be written about the topic, and I certainly encourage my readers to review all of the above-quoted links (it may take you some time, but it’ll be a time worth spent — especially, if you do not know much about the problem), but in this post I would like to draw people’s attention to the results of the poll. At the moment of this writing, over 85% of the poll participants have said “no” to toolbars.

Having been discussing this issue over the past several days with different affiliates and fellow-affiliate managers, I have heard different opinions. The basic undertone of every conversation that I’ve had has been that of concern that by allowing toolbars in, the affiliate network makes itself vulnerable to parasitic affiliate behavior. One affiliate told me: “I’m afraid that if the door is opened, even just a little bit, it’ll be a disaster. You can’t control in real time what is downloaded on the customer PC.”

I do applaud Brian for setting an unprecedented example of a real time communication channel between the affiliate network and all other involved parties. I also applaud his boldness and his openness. I am, however, in agreement with those affiliate marketers that see the dangers of allowing toolbar affiliates in. I’ll be present at the roundtable teleconference tomorrow. I pray it is constructive, as it is a historic moment both for one particular network, and for the industry as a whole.

20 thoughts on “Toolbars in Affiliate Marketing

  1. Hi Geno,

    I’m R7 and I started the thread in order to focus on feelings about accepting toolbars in affiliate marketing with an affiliate thrust.

    I applaud you for seeing “the dangers of allowing toolbar affiliates in” but I sensed perhaps that some OPMs, AMs, and/or merchants might favor the acceptance of toolbars already.

    Polls are best when they are kept simple, so I wanted the opinions to be expressed by affiliates, not by a mix of merchant related representatives who already might be in favor of the toolbars and who would skew the results of the poll. I have a feeling that the merchant viewpoints will be well represented during the course of the SAS telephone conference; merchant representatives are more likely to “attend” that conference.

    I will not be participating in the roundtable teleconference tomorrow, but I was hoping that a specific number or percentage might have an impact in the sense that Brian, the CEO of SAS, will consider the points of view expressed by the poll as a collective affiliate response.
    Thank you for your blog entry and for highlighting the thread.

  2. Rhianna,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I don’t want to speak for all OPMs and merchants, but several have already confirmed in this thread that there is no change in their attitude towards parasitic toolbars and BHOs. I expect the heated discussions to continue, but it is my understanding that neither Brian, nor any other OPM or merchant that was previously known as anti-parasite (i.e. before Brian’s 01/28/09 announcement of the “Toolbars Roundtable”) have changed their creed.

    Geno

  3. Good post Geno. Though it concerns me how few OPMs are presently voicing their concerns over this issue, and likewise how the issue of channel cannibalization is being brushed aside as a side issue. No matter what one calls the “BHOs” there is little to no way to prevent them chewing up a merchants’ other online sales channels and adding to the cost of customer loyalty programs.

  4. Chris,

    I want to believe that there is a way to eliminate both channel cannibalization and parasitic activity of the toolbars. At present time, however, allowing a toolbar affiliate into the network carries multiple complications, the biggest one, IMO, being the problem of effective blocking (policing, intervention and prevention) of the parasitic behavior.

    Geno

  5. Geno,

    I have to disagree that the biggest complication is effective blocking of parasitic behavior. IMO, the biggest problem is one of public relations in allowing non-parasitic toolbars into the network.

    Other forms of promotion present a much greater challenge in monitoring (although for me it’s Quality Assurance vs policing..a very big difference). Monitoring such bad behaviors as email spamming, hidden forced clicks on third party web sites such as MySpace or even trademark bidding can be extremely challenging. The ability to hide the bad behavior is less costly and technically much easier than hiding the bad behavior of a toolbar. It’s a matter of putting the correct monitoring protocols in place, which many just have not invested into doing. Technically speaking, it’s not as easy to program some obstufaction techniques into a toolbar as it is for desktop apps. The kinds of practices we’ve seen in the past, such a multiple timers to elicit different responses under several different circumstances. They needed more complex programming in the form of a desktop application to achieve those goals.

    I’m starting to get the feeling that many people are equating certain behaviors/practices seen historically with desktop applications (already clearly not allowed in SAS TOS) with behaviors from toolbars. While a toolbar can certainly be “parasitic”, I do think that some are attributing certain behaviors with toolbars that just isn’t usually seen (unless they are installing an underlying desktop app as well like in the case of SAH).

  6. Kellie,

    I am glad to have you chime into this. For those of you that don’t know Kellie of AffiliateFairPlay.com, I would characterize her as one of our industry’s detective that exposes adware and parasitic affiliates. Here’s a good article to learn about what she is/does: “Fair Play: Q and A with Kellie Stevens.”

    I have a question to you, Kellie. You said that you believe that the biggest problem is that “of public relations in allowing non-parasitic toolbars into the network.” Having listened to the entire ShareASale’s Toolbars Roundtable webinar yesterday afternoon, I am still left with this feeling that once an affiliate network allows a “non-parasitic toolbar” in, they make themselves vulnerable to what the owner of that toolbar can switch on and off as they please. Wouldn’t you agree?

    One of very few ways to make affiliate toolbars work may be to institute a rigid one-strike policy where upon the very first confirmed cookie overwriting (of another affiliate) the toolbar affiliate simply gets banned from the affiliate network.

  7. “Having listened to the entire ShareASale’s Toolbars Roundtable webinar yesterday afternoon, I am still left with this feeling that once an affiliate network allows a “non-parasitic toolbar” in, they make themselves vulnerable to what the owner of that toolbar can switch on and off as they please. Wouldn’t you agree?”

    Yes and no. 🙂 I heard those concerns during the Roundtable and have also seen them expressed elsewhere. I think that some of the comments are borne out of concern and fear and not all of them are based on facts. I can certainly understand the concern (which goes back to my PR point).

    I will agree that anytime a network allows any affiliate in, they have made themselves vulnerable to bad behavior regardless of the mode of promotion. That will never change because there will always be people who do things they shouldn’t. It’s human nature.

    Does it follow that an affiliate with a non-parasitic toolbar can easily change the behavior to become a parasitic toolbar and it not be detected? I disagree there. We are not talking desktop apps which can exhibit a far greater range of behaviors. Technically speaking, a complete upgrade would need to happen to the base code of the toolbar to go from a Level 1 to a Level 3 with parasitic behaviors (using the classifications from the roundtable). That’s just a technical fact. Additionally, to be able to utilize programming to avoid detection (such as geo-targeting, day-parting)would require programming that goes beyond the realm of basic files associated with the download of a basic toolbar. I look at every single change made to my system after I install a piece of software. I know what I’m expecting to see (or not see) depending on the type of software being installed. I monitor that because it provides insight into the possible behaviors I can expect. That’s not so hard. Behaviors such as geo-targeting and day-parting are not unknown tactics used by affiliates doing things they shouldn’t outside of adware. It’s not uncommon to see it with trademark poachers and affiliates doing hidden forced clicks on their sites. Those attempts are easily thwarted when monitoring. It’s just a matter of having the proper merchanisms in place.

    I personally have a high confidence level in SAS’s and Brian’s abilities in establishing the necessary protocols and technology to address compliance of toolbars once he has established what the policy will be. Don’t forget, Brian in no techno noob himself. He coded the SAS technology himself afterall. It’s not he’s a network exec who doesn’t understand technology, programming and what those can do.

    So no, I don’t agree that it is a simple matter of selectively hitting a metaphorical switch where the system could be so easily gamed.

    I do agree that penalities can (and do) go a long way in deterring bad behavior. I also do believe that having some strict penalities for violation of whatever the toolbar policy ends up being will be critical in an overall compliance program. But I’ve have my own experiences (years worth) of knowing Brian’s reaction when I have ever reported any parasitic behavior in violation of the SAS TOS…it has been swift (many times within minutes), consistent and firm. There is nothing to make me expect a change in that stance with violations of any new SAS policy.

  8. Good to find this discussion here Geno and good to see Kellie offering some authority input to the questions. I do believe that fear of the unknown is driving an awful lot of the commentary that is running through the discussion. I don’t have a clue how toolbars are controlled and updated so when a snippet of the toolbar in questions’ code was posted showing that an option to redirect is a switch in the code it set off a lot more speculation. The toolbar that was the subject of November’s big ABW topic uses xml to dynamically control the toolbar’s behavior (as described by Haiko, it can turn on a dime) and people are naturally imputing that ability to this current topic.
    Not everyone knows that Brian has any coding background at all. There are a few agent provocateurs in the mix who have no stake in the topic at all, but like to keep it lively. It is getting harder to sift out any useful information from either the original discussion or the results of the conference. I am hoping that there will be some more concrete information to help clear the fog shortly. It is hard to be specific about very much right now.
    Kudos to Brian for his patience up to this point. It’s a very difficult task that he’s set for SAS.

  9. Bottom line, IMHO, is that toolbars are designed for marketing purposes, not customer service – when Affiliates are thrown into the equation.

    Even a toolbar that “stands down” when on a merchant’s or another affiliate’s site is marketing. The toolbar has a logo on it, and that is marketing.

    However, compliance between networks and toolbar affiliates can be done with technology. It all depends on how much the network wants to insist on having “compliance monitoring codes” in an affiliate’s toolbar. Whatever that “compliance monitoring code” would consist of.

    This is not an easy task for a network that has not allowed this type of action to occur in the past. It’s much easier to just emulate the networks that allow parasitic affiliates or simply stick to your original stance and say – “no toolbars”.

    I choose the latter.

  10. @ Kellie: Oh, I’m not saying the change of toolbar behavior cannot be detected. In fact, as I wrote here, I am all for a “technology that could effectively police, and intervene with” such behavior. Neither do I doubt Brian’s abilities to come up with a technology that would do it. What I am saying is: the risks associated with allowing a toolbar affiliate in (whatever “level”), are far greater than by allowing “any affiliate in”. It’s a different type of vulnerability, and until there is a robust system of “protocols and technology” in place (tested and proven to work) I wouldn’t play with it.

    @ Nancy and @ Convergence: Thank you for your input, folks. The networks that have “allowed this type of action to occur in the past” have historically not cared about the unethical flipside. ShareASale has been different. That’s why the task is especially difficult.

  11. “What I am saying is: the risks associated with allowing a toolbar affiliate in (whatever “level”), are far greater than by allowing “any affiliate in”. ”

    What specific risks do you feel are greater? And why do you think they are greater? Just curious.

    And it’s certainly within your rights to decide the use of toolbars aren’t in the best interests of your clients. Just as you can make that decision for any form of promotion. I’m sure there are other practices you don’t allow by affiliates because you don’t feel they are in the merchant’s best interest. Indeed, you’d be remiss in your obligations if you didn’t give due consideration to the overall policies of the programs you managed.

  12. “I don’t have a clue how toolbars are controlled and updated so when a snippet of the toolbar in questions’ code was posted showing that an option to redirect is a switch in the code it set off a lot more speculation. The toolbar that was the subject of November’s big ABW topic uses xml to dynamically control the toolbar’s behavior (as described by Haiko, it can turn on a dime) and people are naturally imputing that ability to this current topic.”

    Nancy…so good to see you again! It was great being able to spend time with you a Summit.

    Ahhhh..speculation. I prefer to deal in facts when possible. Although speculation often drives my research. 😀

    Yes, there are toolbars that are XML driven. I like getting those kind to test. 😉 And it is correct that the XML can impact how the toolbar will respond to the file (such as a prompt vs an automatic redirect). Most likely we would be talking about a Level 3 toolbar based on Brian’s classification to begin with. So if you know that is what you are dealing with to begin with, then I would suspect a specific compliance protocol would be implemented based on that fact.

    Now a Level One toolbar probably wouldn’t even have that XML file associated with it. And if the affiliate decided to change from the Level 1 to Level 3, they would need to do more than just suddenly download an XML file. The base code of the toolbar would need to be altered as well to even amke use of the XML file.

    What an XML file is also going to restrict is the types of things like having bad behavior at only certain times, every 15th activation of the software, etc. It’s going to be an all or none type situation. On or off until a new XML is made available for download onto the end user’s computer. A much easier thing to monitor IMO.

    You don’t easily flip a switch between a search toolbar with maybe some glorified bookmarks to a toolbar with flashing lights and/or pop-ups. Those have to be integrated into the base code. All kinds of potential ways to look for that.

  13. “What specific risks do you feel are greater? And why do you think they are greater?”

    When a software (or a toolbar) affiliate is allowed into an affiliate network, the latter opens itself up to totally different set of challenges (compared to a non-software/toolbar type affiliate). An analogy of a half-open gate seems to be appropriate. Until there is a robust system of policing and prevention in place, it may (and will) create situations where the intrusive behavior of a toolbar constructs real problems for affiliates, and as a consequence, negatively effects the network’s image.

  14. The toolbar issue is going to be one of those hot topics for a long while, especially when you consider how many different types of toolbars there are/could be and how they react.

    I commend Brian Littleton for taking a step that others have ignored in trying to, at the very least, look at this in public manner.

  15. “and as a consequence, negatively effects the network’s image.”

    Full circle…the PR issue I was talking about. 🙂

    “the latter opens itself up to totally different set of challenges (compared to a non-software/toolbar type affiliate).”

    I agree and disagree there. The mechanisms may be somewhat different for detection. But the underlying issue is the same: an affiliate link being invoked when it shouldn’t. In the case of a forced click, it’s a forced click whether it happend via software or on an affiliate’s site. And because it is a forced click regardless, many of the red flags will be the same.

    If you ever venture into a black hat forum, you will see that the techniques to hide bad behavior and the red flags they try to avoid are indeed the same regardless of what mode they are using. There is a definite overlap.

    “it may (and will) create situations where the intrusive behavior of a toolbar constructs real problems for affiliates”

    No doubt because no compliance efforts are 100%. I think most recognize that. And many behaviors can’t be acted up until the behavior happens (you can’t penalize an affiliate because they might do something, you penalize when they do it). But that situation exists already with other forms of bad behavior. I find affiliates doing things they shouldn’t in SAS outside of adware. I have my own personal experiences of how SAS reacts to the things I’ve reported and the timeframe.

    For me it’s not so much an issue about whether it will happen (it will) but rather how will SAS react when it is found to be happening. Do they act quickly and within the framework of the policy they set up.

    I can understand those who may want to take a wait and see approach on how SAS does react with regards to compliance.

  16. Hi Kellie (waves) Good to see you in here too! Hope everything is going smoothier for you now 🙂
    Hi Convergence and Ron too, makes it like home here, lol!
    An old discussion was revived today questioning whether eBates currently has a toolbar because one can’t be found for download on their site. It turns out that there are two, but neither is hosted by eBates- and a third is expected that will probably replace the current ones. The old eBates MoeMoneyMaker has been replaced by one that shows it is hosted by freecause (hmmmm) and it shows that things definitely aren’t static with the older players.
    It may take a lot of things playing out to know why Brian has decided to do what he’s doing, everyone wishes it could be “like it was”. It was never as clean and pure as we liked to believe it was, so really it is a good thing for Brian to do what he’s doing. I don’t think it can be done without revisions and rewrites (hehe) as events play out. The fact that he’s listening is more than you’ll get anywhere else, and far more people – affiliates and merchants – are getting themselves educated on the topic than would have otherwise. That’s a good thing.

  17. Ron, Kellie, Nancy,

    Thank you for taking the time to voice out your opinion on the subject here. This post is quickly becoming one of the most popular ones in my blog (so far, the most popular one has been on ShopAtHome.com or How Affiliate Marketing Gets Hurt), and I am pleased to see it starting to get indexed by major search engines. Here’s how it already ranks:

    Toolbars in affiliate marketing post ranking on 8 Feb 2009

    C’mon AOL, you’re the only search engine that isn’t yet indexing this!!

    It is an important topic, and I think it’s good that new merchants (and affiliate managers) will be able to find this blog post now.

  18. For whatever my 2-cents may be worth I feel I must comment on your post, Geno. My attitude may come from my former 22 year professional career as a teacher of children.

    Whatever constraints (rules) against any form of parasitic activity are put on the implementation and/or acceptance of a toolbar it seems as though there will always be room for, or the potential for, some form of abuse. If the potential is there, then some abuse will undoubtedly occur.

    One cannot be just a “little bit” unethical. The choice is either ethical or unethical.

    I have always tried to live by ethical standards and have tried to instill those standards in the students whom I have taught throughout the years. I also conduct my business activities ethically. With that in mind, I am totally against toolbars in an affiliate program. No toolbars – no way. Period.

  19. Bill,

    I apologize for not replying to your earlier. I appreciate your 2 cents. Opinions separated again as the newly proposed ShareASale’s toolbars policy has been discussed in this thread over the past two days.

    Also, I have just seen that someone has found this post of mine by searching for a “list of affiliates using toolbars” at Google. Does anyone know if there is a list out there (listing unethical toolbar affiliates that overwrite and stuff cookies)?

  20. I have just received information that Good Cause (aka GoodSearch.com) is launching a new toolbar on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. The fellow affiliate manager that has contacted me about this, said he was told the toolbar will function in two ways (depending on the merchant’s preference): (i) the primary promotion will mirror that of the OneCause toolbar (stuffing cookies), and (ii) the secondary will happen through popping a window that requires the user to click and visit Good Cause before a commission is earned. I was told that they will also give merchants the ability to opt out of the toolbar altogether (although this will be done only on special request, and they will not mention this openly as an option).

    Sounds like toolbars aren’t going anywhere.

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