Posted by Sam Engel in Affiliate Tactics
04 Dec 2013
Online merchants were promoting deals in full force earlier this week, leading to a record high for Cyber Monday sales. That uptick should provide many eCommerce companies with a significant holiday boost. But at the same time, the increase in demand carried some questionable (and potentially costly) affiliate behavior with it.
After all, Cyber Monday is probably the busiest eCommerce day during the busiest time of the year for eCommerce. The high volume of sales—fueled by deep discounts—creates an incentive for affiliates to employ non-compliant tactics. A blackhat affiliate stands to gain quite a bit if they can work their way into just a tiny fraction of those abundant sales. And in some of our investigatory Cyber Monday monitoring, that’s exactly what we found.
Both of these are ad hijacks, meaning they go through affiliate links before redirecting to their respective merchants’ websites. And both attempt to garner clicks by promoting Cyber Monday offers. The first, targeting Saks Fifth Avenue, produces a rather convincing ad that’s indistinguishable from the merchant’s regular ads. The affiliate quotes the actual discount percentage offered by Saks on its landing page, includes an ad extension at the bottom of their ad, and even uses the trademark symbol to make the ad look more official. The result is an ad that’s not only enticing to click on, but also difficult for an affiliate manager to catch.
Alternatively, the Best Buy hijacker presents us with a more suspicious-looking ad. The brand name is not displayed prominently. The ad is missing punctuation. “Sight” is incorrectly used instead of “site”. It would certainly raise some red flags if it were seen by an affiliate manager or PPC marketer. However, the likelihood of searchers clicking on the ad is less certain. It’s possible that they might pick up on the same red flags—but would they be paying as close attention as marketers?
Regardless of how enticing each of these ads is to the user, it’s clear that the affiliates behind them are specifically targeting Cyber Monday as a hijacking opportunity. Considering that Cyber Monday only lasts a single day, it must carry some significant financial potential if affiliates can justify making ads especially for it (as opposed to engaging in run-of-the-mill hijacking). The high volume of sales probably has a lot to do with that. Not only are there more opportunities to hijack, but it might also be easier for affiliate hijackers to hide.
Aside from the hijackers, we also found some interesting ads placed by coupon sites. While there are certainly some legitimate ways for coupon sites to help promote brands on Cyber Monday, the methods we found were questionable at the very least. For example, take the ad at the right for promopanther.com.
This ad does very little to indicate that it will take the user to a coupon site. There is no mention of “coupon” or “promo code” in the ad copy. Outside of the curious display URL, the ad doesn’t even mention where it will take the visitor. Instead, the advertiser seems rather interested in keeping these details vague—perhaps with the hope that the words “Cyber Monday Lowes” will entice the user to click. And strangely enough, if one does click on this ad, one simply ends up on promopanther.com’s homepage. There’s no landing page specific to Lowe’s. In fact, upon further investigation, it’s unclear whether there were ever any Lowe’s deals posted on the site at all.
Let’s look at another example from the site CouponClickClub.com. This ad does a similar job of being vague and avoiding coupon-related terminology. Furthermore, it even takes things a step further by mentioning “Free Shipping” at the end of the ad. Why would a coupon site promote free shipping? Have you ever seen a non-merchant promoting free shipping before? There’s the outside chance of a coupon that grants free shipping—but no such coupon exists on the ad’s landing page. Instead, CouponClickClub seems intent on imitating NoMoreRack in order to boost its traffic.
Are merchants’ standard affiliate agreements enough to cover Cyber Monday? Sure, our hijack examples could have been prevented with the use of negative keywords on brand terms. But should affiliates be allowed to directly link to merchants’ sites on keywords like “Cyber Monday” or “Cyber Monday deals”?
Furthermore, what role should coupon sites play in merchants’ Cyber Monday promotions? If a merchant is offering sitewide discounts, does it make sense for a coupon site to advertise the promotion on the merchant’s branded keywords? As Cyber Monday continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how compliance evolves with it.
The holiday shopping season can be a great boost for merchants, but it’s not without its compliance challenges. Because of the tremendous uptick in demand, affiliates have more incentive to employ non-compliant tactics. Furthermore, since affiliates know that merchants’ marketing teams will be swamped, they might be expecting to get away with such violations.
This got us curious about what tactics we might find, so we ran some preliminary Black Friday monitoring for a selection of branded keywords. In the process, we encountered a rather strange ploy. It involves a collection of domains that reference and imitate popular brands. The basic formula is [BrandName]blackfriday.net for the domain, along with a website design that includes the brand’s official logo. Take, for example, this ad and subsequent landing page for a site called bestbuyblackfriday.co.
So, what’s the purpose of this site? Based on the domain, it would seem like the advertiser is trying to poach some traffic from Best Buy. But to what end?
Well, if you scroll down on the landing page, you’ll find an affiliate link (pictured at the right). The link belongs to LinkShare affiliate 74V3jETE6hM and leads to a pre-Black-Friday sale page on Best Buy’s site. The link is the first in an array of other images, each of which highlights some upcoming deals at Best Buy. Most of these appear to simply be screenshots taken from Best Buy’s own site—or perhaps some sort of Black Friday flyer. Interestingly, only a couple more of these images serve as affiliate links. The rest simply lead to pages with full-size images.
Although the affiliate activity on this site is rather limited at this point, it will be interesting to see how this changes over the next few days. As we approach and then experience Black Friday, the affiliate will probably have more deals that they can link to. We may start to see those affiliate links pile up as new images on the site. Similarly, we may also observe increased paid search activity by this affiliate as they try to lure in visitors (and thus commissions).
The affiliate is also running a series of nearly identical sites targeting other brands, so we’ll be sure to monitor those as well. That should give us a much better understanding of this tactic over the next few days. But regardless of what those results end up being, this example should certainly underscore the significance of compliance during the holiday shopping season. With so many transactions on their way, there are many ways for blackhat affiliates to get creative and slip by unnoticed.
Posted by Sam Engel in Affiliate Tactics
21 Nov 2013
Blackhat affiliates frequently come up with new tactics for driving traffic. While the specific details of these tactics may vary, they’re all based on similar concepts: brand imitation, misrepresentation, or other attempts to confuse customers. During the course of our brand monitoring, we catch a wide variety of affiliate abuse—from ad hijacking to the republishing of exclusive coupon codes.
We’ve recently found a new example to add to the list. In this scenario, the affiliate copies and masquerades as the merchant’s site, baiting customers into clicking on links that seem like they’re part of the merchant’s own site—but are actually affiliate links. Here’s how it works:
Here’s a quick way to understand just how similar the two sites are. See how many differences you can spot between the two web pages below:
We originally discovered this after a search for “Blu Cig” (a popular e-cigarette brand) returned a suspicious ad (pictured on the right). Why would Blu’s “Official Site” be hosted on WordPress.com? This raised an immediate red flag, the significance of which we then confirmed by inspecting the ad’s landing page. The ad sends you over to blucigsstore.wordpress.com, which looks strikingly similar to Blu Cig’s actual homepage. However, if you look at the WordPress site a little longer, some of the distinctions start to show.
Unfortunately, while all of this is pretty clear in retrospect, it may not be so obvious when the user initially experiences it. “Official Website” may attract more attention than “wordpress.com” in the ad title and display URL. And once the customer reaches the affiliate’s copycat page, they’re likely to click somewhere—even if they’re suspicious or confused. After all, a click can give a quick answer to the “what’s going on with this site?” question. But that’s all it takes. Once the user has clicked, the affiliate has set the cookie and is ready to receive a commission.
What impression will the average customer get from this? Will they be able to tell what happened behind the scenes? Probably not. Instead, they may only remember a strange landing page that delayed them from getting to their intended destination. Or worse, they might even think that the site is acting up and having technical difficulties (a bug, slow server, or some other issue). That not only causes immediate friction—it can also result in a longer-term negative impression of the brand.
In the past, we’ve noticed similar affiliate tactics with iFrames rather than images. We’d also expect that some affiliate managers would have some similar stories to tell about affiliate sites that misrepresented or abused their brand in some way. Wade Tonkin from Fanatics and AffiliateWarrior has an interesting post on the subject where he identifies some the ways that affiliates try to create brand confusion for visitors.
If anyone has had similar experiences with these types of tactics, we’d welcome any stories or examples that you’d like to share! As always, the more knowledge we accumulate about blackhat tactics, the more we can prevent them.
13 Nov 2013
Whenever we come across particularly suspicious-looking ads in the course of our monitoring, we flag them for investigation. These ads often turn out to be affiliates cloaking their links, laundering their referers, or running a questionable script on their page.
One key warning sign is any mismatch between the domain of an ad’s Display URL and the domain of its destination URL. This explicitly violates the AdWords Display URL policy as well as Bing’s Display URL policy. Bing’s policy states the following:
The display URL should be either the actual destination URL or a shortened version of the destination URL (for example, the top-level domain of the landing page URL).
Is this policy perfectly enforced? According to a small sampling of suspicious ads that we’ve found recently, the answer is “No.” Although Google returned zero Display URL violations, the Yahoo Bing Network turned up a number of examples. These sample ads range from honest mistakes to what seem like intentionally misleading tactics.
Are Display URL violations always an indicator of blackhat intentions? Certainly not. Take, for example, this ad that was placed by Lego. The ad shows “lego.com” in the Display URL, but actually leads to chimaonline.com.
As the ad indicates, Chima is a video game subbrand of Lego. There’s no deception intended here. Instead, it seems that the manager of Lego’s PPC account changed the ad copy and destination URL of the ad that was previously running—and simply forgot to modify the ad’s Display URL. This would also explain how the ad made it through Bing’s approval process. Since the previous version of the ad had already been approved, the updated ad may have been allowed to run while the changes were pending review.
But does this really matter? There’s little—if any—impact on the user experience here. After clicking the ad, the user is still taken to a Lego-owned domain featuring the game that was mentioned in the ad. By and large, brand integrity remains intact.
This example is less clear-cut. Here are a few facts to help piece together what’s going on here:
Everything about the ad makes it seem like it was placed by Ticketmaster. But instead of taking the user to Ticketmaster’s site, the ad actually points to the Blue Man Group’s own website. By clicking on the ad, you end up on this page.
So why did this happen? Did a PPC agency simply mix up two of their accounts? Or alternatively, was a PPC marketer for the Blue Man Group trying to grab some additional traffic from Ticketmaster’s branded keywords? The answer isn’t perfectly clear, but this sure seems less accidental than our previous examples. The keyword “ticketmaster las vegas” implies that the searcher is interested in attending an event in Las Vegas but hasn’t yet decided on what particular show to see. This searcher would probably be open to ideas. That creates an opportunity for advertisers to propose some options—and interestingly, we see this ad doing exactly that.
The mismatch between Ticketmaster’s domain and the Blue Man Group’s domain is rather obvious. Although it may be against the Display URL rules, it’s probably going to be clear to users that they ended up on a different site than they expected. But this distinction isn’t always so evident. Take, for example, this ad and landing page that showed up for the keyword “oldnavy.com coupon”:
It isn’t immediately clear that this site is owned by someone other than Old Navy. Although the plaintext logo in the upper left of the page could be a giveaway, the rest of the design manages to create a decent cover. The logos of Old Navy and various other Gap brands are spread across the top navigation, “Old Navy” appears more than 10 times in the “Categories” section, and the social media buttons link to Old Navy’s official accounts. Upon my first inspection of the site, I actually thought this could potentially be a spinoff site owned by Old Navy.
After checking DomainTools, old-navy-coupons.com returns “Domains by Proxy” as its owner. For comparison, Gap properties such as gap.com and oldnavy.com specifically mention the Gap Hostmaster in their WhoIs records. From that, it seems highly unlikely that old-navy-coupons.com would be owned by Old Navy (or Gap). Furthermore, the site appears to operate as a “click-to-reveal” coupon site—just without any active coupon links. If you try to click on the “Sale” or coupon code links, you won’t actually be taken to oldnavy.com. It’s unclear why, but could be because this site was in Old Navy’s affiliate program at one point and then got removed for non-compliance.
It’s interesting that we only found these issues on the Bing Yahoo Network. That could be a result of sample size more than anything else, but may be an indication that Google has taken additional steps to clean this up. At the same time, these findings should underscore the persistence of Display URL issues on the Yahoo Bing Network. These violations are very significant for advertisers, and can lead to many forms of brand misrepresentation and fraud.
Unfortunately, it seems that it’s up to the brand to monitor and stay on top of such forms of abuse. Furthermore, it can be rather difficult to uncover such abuse through manual investigation. Dozens of clicks may be needed to detect the first violation. Those clicks will not only cost the brand some of its PPC budget, but they can also be rather time-consuming for the investigator. To avoid these issues, it may be useful to employ an automated monitoring system.
If anyone has seen additional examples of these violations, we’d be very interested to hear from you. In particular, we’d love to know about any recent Display URL mismatches on Google.
16 Oct 2013
Referral programs are a useful means of acquiring new customers and users. By encouraging word-of-mouth with incentives, companies can accelerate growth at a reasonable, consistent cost. Referral programs are also a great way to transform loyalists into full-fledged brand ambassadors. With the opportunity to gain some extra perks, these star customers can bring on a lot of incremental traffic and revenue.
But is this always incremental? When it comes to online referrals, many companies rely on URL systems that can easily be gamed by blackhats. These users exploit referral programs by locating their unique referral link and then running PPC ads through it. Whenever a visitor comes through that link and completes some sort of action (signs up for an account, places an order, makes a booking), the referring account gets a reward. This usually comes in the form of account credit or a discount, but can also be cash.
In order to push a significant amount of PPC traffic through their referral link, these users tend to engage in brand bidding—poaching traffic from their target company’s branded keywords. This helps them ensure a high conversion rate and a relatively cheap cost-per-click, allowing them to turn a profit in the process. Furthermore, since the referrer’s ads always land on the brand’s domain, they can also displace the brand’s own ads. This makes this tactic nearly identical to affiliate ad hijacking that we expose so often at BrandVerity.
To determine the extent of the tactic, we decided to monitor referral programs for a number of brands. Here’s an early example we found targeting the accounting software service FreeAgent:
This ad doesn’t really try to hide what’s going on here. The advertiser is pretty direct about it, even using the term “Referral Code” in the headline of the ad. The ad takes the user to this landing page on FreeAgent’s site, crediting the referrer 4392kdp8 with any subsequent customer signups. Not only that, user 4392kdp8 will also receive 10% off on their own account for every month that the referred customer pays for FreeAgent.
Furthermore, according to FreeAgent’s referral scheme, these account credits are stackable. By referring 10 customers, someone can get FreeAgent absolutely free. By referring more than 10, a user may even become eligible to earn a referral fee. Considering that the 10% discount applies to both the referrer and new customer, this can really start to add up.
Another brand, Gilt, also had some particularly high incentives behind its program. Promising a $25 discount to both the referrer and referred user, Gilt could stand to lose $50 any time a signup resulted from ad hijacking. Gilt places its own PPC ads and advertises on its branded keywords. So any ad placed by a referrer could displace one of Gilt’s own ads—and would drive up Gilt’s cost-per-click as well.
As you see on the right, we found an example of ad hijacking for Gilt at the top of a Google Mobile SERP. While Gilt’s normal PPC ads for its branded keywords use copy such as “gilt.com – Gilt – Official Site – Daily Sample Sales. Insider Prices?,” this ad is focused on the discount, offering “$25 off your first purchase.” This discount is featured despite the fact that the search term (“www.gilt.com”) implied no specific intention to find a discount, promo or coupon.
This particular ad leads to this page on Gilt’s site, the referral link for user 19916034ar2vd34pyhg2. That’s $25 to 19916034ar2vd34pyhg2 every time a searcher clicks on their ad and then signs up. With 9,900 monthly searches on Google for the term “www.gilt.com”, that could already represent a significant number of unearned discounts.
Beyond the financial impact of these tactics, it’s also important to consider what effect these ads can have on a company’s brand. With messaging being left in the hands of many autonomous referrers, each with their own set of incentives, there are many opportunities for inconsistent or even deliberately misleading communication.
For example, take this ad targeting Dropbox that touts 16 gigabytes of free space. According to the plans on Dropbox’s pricing page, users start with only 2 gigabytes of free space. Although users can increase their free allotment to 18 gigabytes (by referring new users, amusingly enough), this probably isn’t the typical case. The ad seems perfectly content to avoid mentioning that caveat in favor of promoting the most enticing offer it can.
In other cases, we found ads quoting deeper discounts than were actually available. For the prospective customer, this is not a great experience. Furthermore, even when such discounts are accurate, they can create an unrealistic expectation that a customer will never have to pay full price with that brand or the impression that the brand is a “discount brand.” Such perceptions can certainly harm a brand—particularly when the brand has no knowledge that these perceptions are being created.
In our monitoring, we’ve found evidence of ad hijacking by referrers of a more than a dozen brands. So far, the targeted brands include:
Of course, our testing has not been entirely exhaustive thus far. Based on the results we’ve seen, we would expect that significantly more referral programs are experiencing this type of abuse. As always, we’re also happy to field any questions from brands who are concerned that they might be affected by this—and we’d also encourage anyone to chime in if they’ve had any experience with this tactic.
18 Sep 2013
How is PPC arbitrage similar to Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon? It may sound like the setup to a bad joke, but here’s the point I’m hinting at: PPC arbitrage can produce multiple layers of removal from the user’s intended destination. Arbitrage can essentially take a user from intermediary to intermediary, potentially without ever resolving on a landing page with any useful content.
When we’ve previously written about these tactics, we’ve generally identified a pathway that circles back to the brand’s domain in a rather direct way. Or, at the very least, it’s gone to some kind of final destination that isn’t another arbitrager. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.
Recently, we’ve observed some interesting activity from a site called SaveSmart. SaveSmart has been engaging in some basic PPC arbitrage, targeting various branded keywords related to coupons and then serving up ads that it syndicates from Google. By itself, that’s nothing new. But here’s where it gets interesting: many of the ads that appear on SaveSmart’s landing pages lead to other arbitrage sites!
Normally, your basic form of PPC arbitrage can be defined as an advertiser purchasing ads so that they can show other ads. In other words, ads leading to more ads. But here, we actually see it go a step further: ads leading to ads leading to even more ads. And it can go beyond than that. Let’s dive into an example below.
After following the links that turned up on SaveSmart and other sites, we identified this potential user pathway. It’s a bit convoluted, so I’ve broken it down into steps below:
Step 1: User searches for “Lands End coupon” on Bing, and clicks on a SaveSmart ad.
Step 2: On its landing page, SaveSmart loads in new ads (which it syndicates from Google) for the search term “lands end coupons codes.”
Step 3: User clicks on the WiseShop ad that claims 50-75% savings.
Step 4: On its landing page, WiseShop loads in more ads (which it syndicates from Bing) for the search term “lands end coupon code.”
Step 5: User clicks on the Savings.com ad at the top that claims a 40% discount.
Step 6: After landing on the Savings.com site, the user clicks on a “Get Coupon Code” affiliate link.
Step 7: User finally ends up on LandsEnd.com.
Depending on how you look at it, this sequence has either 2 or 3 intermediaries between the user’s original starting point and their final destination. If you count the coupon affiliate Savings.com as an intermediary, it’s 3. If you count only the arbitragers, it’s 2. (This is probably a topic for a different post, but since the original keyword used the term “coupon” in this case it seems reasonable that a user would be looking for a coupon site instead of the merchant’s site).
In either case, this would be a nightmarish user experience. It simply adds new hoops for the user to jump through, creating friction. If the intervening steps don’t bring the user closer to their goal, they may simply bounce. So ultimately, that friction is bad for the brand because it can quickly result in attrition.
Beyond that, these ads also inflate the cost-per-click (CPC) on branded keywords for Lands’ End. We noticed some interesting cases where a Lands’ End ad would even show up in the results on some of these arbitrage sites. So it’s entirely conceivable that, in a different scenario, a user could move across a series of several arbitragers, finally clicking on a Lands’ End ad that takes them to the brand’s site. In that scenario, Lands’ End would essentially be subsidizing the PPC arbitrage.
I’ll explain that a bit further. Arbitrage only works when there’s another advertiser down the line who’s willing to pay for clicks. That’s the only way for arbitragers to skim a profit. If they pay for clicks to get traffic and then can’t get enough ad clicks on their own site, there’s nothing in it for them. That means that other advertisers are indirectly (and unintentionally) financing this. In our initial example, that advertiser ended up being Savings.com. But based on our observations, Lands’ End would also be subject to this.
Fortunately, because these ads all use the brand’s trademark in their ad copy, they are eligible to be taken down by sending a trademark complaint to the relevant search engine (the Google trademark complaint form, and the Bing trademark complaint form). Of course, if you’re a BrandVerity client, you can already generate these complaints in bulk within our interface.
By sending these complaints, a brand stands to benefit in a number of ways. Beyond being able to maintain stronger brand integrity and brand image, the brand can also increase visitors (by preventing traffic from being diverted) and decrease CPCs. In this case in particular there seems to be a lot for the brand to gain, simply due to the volume of arbitrage ads and the level to which they saturate the market.
It would also be interesting to see what the typical user experience is like in these scenarios. This would probably shed some light on the economics that are working themselves out here. It might even help provide an understanding of the relative share of arbitrage ads as opposed to ads by the brand or ads placed by coupon sites. If anyone has encountered something similar in the past, we’d certainly be interested to hear what you may have learned from the experience.
21 Aug 2013
Affiliates who violate their programs’ PPC policies are always trying new ways to hide. One of the most common tactics employed by ad hijacking affiliates (who display the brand’s domain in their ad, pass the user through their affiliate link, and then send the user directly over to the brand’s site) is to redirect through disposable URLs or front sites. This enables them to hide their HTTP referer, preventing the true source of the traffic from showing up in the affiliate manager’s reporting tool.
At BrandVerity we generally call this ad hijacking technique Referer Laundering. We see affiliates attempt this in a wide variety of ways—sometimes through a URL shortener like Bit.ly, other times by running their traffic through a seemingly-legitimate front site.
Recently, we encountered an affiliate using a new variation of the technique. Strangely enough, in this case the affiliate managed to trigger the redirect from the Dropbox.com domain.
The affiliate started by placing this ad on Google, which appeared in the #1 position on the SERP. After clicking the ad, the user is immediately taken to this page on Dropbox’s site:
That page redirects to a similar page within the domain Dropboxusercontent.com, which subsequently sends the user through an iDevAffiliate link, then over to the Photocrati homepage.
Feel free to test this out for yourself. If you follow the link in your browser, you should end up on the Photocrati site. (We’d also be happy to provide the ad link from the Google SERP to anyone who might be interested). The link has now been disabled by Dropbox—see our update at the bottom of this post.
But how is this possible? It’s not like it would make sense for Dropbox to be acting as the affiliate here. So how can this affiliate be orchestrating redirects on Dropbox’s domain?
Some additional investigation quickly clarified what’s going on here. Essentially, the affiliate is using Dropbox as a web hosting service and then manipulating it to trigger a redirect. This is all possible because Dropbox allows users to store HTML files and make them publicly available. Some users have even started taking advantage of this feature to host entire websites on Dropbox. In this case, the affiliate has set up a very simple HTML page that can perform client-side redirects.
The takeaway for affiliate managers is pretty clear: be suspicious of any affiliate traffic referred by dropbox.com or dropboxusercontent.com. Ask these affiliates to explain why their traffic is coming from those sites. You probably won’t receive a convincing response, since it’s unlikely that there’s any legitimate affiliate use case for these domains.
Of course, Dropbox is just one of many options for ad hijacking affiliates to hide their referers. Affiliate managers should stay on the lookout for any other questionable domains (ones that are unlikely to produce legitimate affiliate traffic). As always, if someone finds a new tactic that’s worth noting, we’d be happy to hear about it.
Updated on 8-23-13:
After reaching out to the legal team at Dropbox, we have been notified that Dropbox has disabled the link and taken action against the user. You’ll notice that this link no longer redirects from the Dropbox site.
31 Jul 2013
As we’ve learned from a number of investigations in the past, popular branded searches can often become the target of search arbitrage or other brand bidding schemes. Advertisers choose to poach these terms because they’re searched frequently, relatively cheap to bid on, and associated with a trusted brand (thereby easing users’ skepticism and luring them in).
Recently, we found some of this activity on Google Mobile, specifically surrounding various app-related keywords. The tactic wasn’t nearly as malicious as examples we’ve seen in the past, but it was still similar at its core—attempting to divert traffic away from a popular brand. In this case, the Korean-owned messaging app LINE was trying to snag extra traffic from branded searches for other apps (and presumably use that diverted traffic to increase downloads of its own app). Here’s an example:
The #2 ad here actually goes to the LINE app download page. And although Evernote’s official app appears in the organic results below these ads, the fact that “evernote” first stands out in bold for a completely irrelevant app is troubling. What’s more, the mobile setting probably makes the user more likely to click on this ad because of two factors: 1) decreased screen real estate, and 2) the increased difficulty of distinguishing ads from organic results on phone screens.
At the very least, this is a poor user experience. More likely, the diverted traffic is also reducing some of Evernote’s installs. The numbers may not be staggering since a pretty simple click on the back button will return the user to the expected organic listing. But nonetheless, the increases in friction and confusion are likely to cause a portion of searchers to bounce.
Spotify is an even more popularly searched app. And here, it gets buried by two separate ads for LINE app. The first, strangely enough, is a more official ad for LINE, complete with the app’s icon and some Javanese ad copy (according to Google Translate). The second ad follows suit with the Evernote example above, probably using Dynamic Keyword Insertion to place the requested app’s name in the headline of the ad. The reasons for this ad copy isn’t entirely clear, but the presence of these two ads suggests more of a specific intent to target this keyword and divert traffic to LINE.
Here’s a LINE ad that appeared on a search for “Google Docs.” It’s a tough one to explain. As are the many others that we found targeting various Google products including YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Offers, and more. Why would LINE take the risk of having Google find about this? After all, Google is the gatekeeper for all the ads that LINE is running. Perhaps LINE thought that Google wouldn’t notice, maybe it simply placed these ads by accident, or there’s even the unlikely possibility that some third party attempted this as a sort of prank.
If LINE was indeed engaging in this intentionally (which seems probable), it’s unclear why it chose to do so. According to this piece in Digital Trends, LINE USA’s CEO Jeanie Han mentioned that as of early 2013 LINE had been growing organically in the US “by just word of mouth” and that there would be more focused marketing efforts for LINE in the future, including celebrity endorsements. That doesn’t sound like a marketing plan that needs cheap, diverted traffic, in order to grow.
Perhaps the two most relevant points for brands are that 1) A single advertiser can take up multiple ad slots when the destination URL is an Android app, and that 2) even keywords that a brand might not choose to bid on can be targets for trademark poachers (particularly in PPC areas where they have less direct visibility).
Our Spotify example shows the dangers of #1 in particular, with two separate ads that each link to LINE app instead of Spotify—both appearing above Spotify on the SERP. With no ability to enforce a “one domain per SERP” policy when it comes to apps, this may become increasingly significant for brands who have apps, particularly if Google decides to introduce more ads to the top of the Google Mobile SERP.
22 Jul 2013
When it comes to brand bidding and trademark abuse, the breaking stories often center around new schemes and tactics. But today we have some more positive news. 5earch.com no longer seems to be actively engaging in search arbitrage. And furthermore, the site doesn’t seem to be active at all anymore.
5earch was running a pretty basic search arbitrage setup, for the most part. It would typically place ads on branded keywords, and then take the user to a results page loaded with ads (from the Google Search Network). By covering the SERP with extra ads, 5earch hoped to generate additional ad clicks and thus skim some margin—which is a pretty cookie-cutter search arbitrage setup.
However, 5earch did have one differentiating factor: even its “organic” results were ads! Its top 3 organic listings would all lead to interstitial advertisements on the URL shortener AdFly. If you’re curious, we recently wrote up an exposé about AdFly over at PerformanceIn. Basically, AdFly forces the user to view an ad before passing them along to the destination URL. Whenever it sent traffic over to AdFly, 5earch would receive some compensation for the ad impressions it generated.
While that may have been a clever hedge by 5earch, it was definitely a poor user experience. Imagine this pathway:
While 5earch may have only been a tiny fraction of the search arbitrage out there, we’re glad to see its retirement. It’s a positive result, both for brands and consumers. We’re also optimistic that this may indicate a changing landscape for arbitrage itself. If 5earch couldn’t turn enough profit on it, others may not be able to either. And the less of it there is, the better.
Posted by Sam Engel in affiliate marketing
11 Jul 2013
The latest FTC disclosure guidelines (or .Com Disclosures) issued by the Federal Trade Commission have left many marketers wondering how they should respond. Expanding on the original FTC disclosures from 2000, these 2013 guidelines have been updated with new requirements for blogs and social media, among others. Early indications suggest that these requirements are rather stringent—which should pose some interesting challenges for the affiliate marketing industry, particularly in the area of compliance.
So, to get a better understanding of what this means for brands and marketers, we asked Eric Goldman from the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University for his take on these new FTC disclosures. Of course, you should always consult an attorney for specific advice about your own situation, but we think the opinions Eric expresses here should provide you with some clarity and insight about these guidelines.
Without further ado, here are our questions and Eric’s responses:
EG: The FTC Act prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices. The FTC enforces this act through investigations and enforcement actions, which often lead to settlements but sometimes can lead to litigation.
To educate industry about the FTC’s interpretations of what is deceptive or unfair, the FTC often issues reports or other guidance. The .Com Disclosures report is an example. The guidance doesn’t have the force of law—the FTC still must convince a judge that its interpretations are correct if a defendant challenges those interpretations—but most companies find it wiser to accede to the FTC’s interpretations than to challenge them.
EG: The FTC is constantly researching how consumers behave in the marketplace and then issuing guidance to industry about ways that the FTC thinks companies are improperly manipulating consumers. The FTC is aware of many ways that marketers can play tricks with online user interfaces, so the FTC initially provided guidance to the Internet industry in a document called “.Com Disclosures” issued in 2000. The recent .Com Disclosures guidance provides a more modern explanation of the FTC’s views to reflect technological and industry developments over the past 13 years.
EG: The FTC initiates investigations in response to complaints from competitors, consumers, consumer advocates and others. The FTC also proactively looks for problems, including conducting “surf days” where staff members sweep the Internet. Still, the FTC has limited staffers, so they tend to focus on really bad actors defrauding consumers, small companies that will fold even if the FTC’s legal position is unreasonable, and big branded companies that the FTC can use to scare other industry participants.
Even though a company trying to do the right thing has relatively low odds of getting a call from the FTC, most companies find it cheaper and safer to comply with the FTC’s guidance than to risk getting a call. An FTC investigation can easily cost a targeted company hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in defense costs—and that’s not even considering the damages or fines the company must pay if it didn’t comply with the law. The FTC also imposes onerous compliance restrictions on companies in its settlements, and those restrictions can severely hinder a company’s future competitiveness as well as drain the company of more cash for years.
EG: Parts of the .Com Disclosures guidance are quite reasonable. For example, if a website makes a required disclosure (such as limits on its offer), it’s completely reasonable that consumers should see those disclosures no matter what technological platform they are using.
Other parts of the .Com Disclosures are less reasonable. For example, the FTC expects an advertiser to make all required disclosures within the ad itself. If the advertiser wants to post that ad to Twitter, the FTC expects all relevant information to be included in 140 characters—or the FTC thinks the advertiser should not make the Twitter post at all.
This is especially problematic given the FTC’s overbroad interpretation of what constitutes an ad. The FTC thinks that if a blogger or Twitter user gets a freebie, the resulting post about the item is an ad. That’s not how most consumers would interpret the rule; and it means the FTC expects the blogger or Twitter user to make all required disclosures in their post or not make the post at all. I think this is an unreasonable position because it is difficult or impossible for advertisers to control third parties so tightly.
EG: As usual, companies should consult with their attorneys and review their websites and other online materials to ensure they comply with the law. This includes checking to see that all disclosures are clear and conspicuous, and that they can be seen in every technological format that consumers are likely to use.
If the company has paid spokespeople or gives away freebies, the company should also adopt a policy that those folks should identify their company-related statement as ads, inform the spokespeople or bloggers of this policy, and monitor the statements of the spokespeople or bloggers to see if they are complying with the policy.
EG: As I indicated, as a practical matter, we’ll probably never know. Legitimate companies rarely fight the FTC in court; they find it cheaper and easier to just do what the FTC says. As a result, the FTC’s interpretations are almost never validated by an independent judge, yet they act as de facto legal rules.
You can find the FTC’s full set of guidelines on its website.