You Need to Disclose Affiliate Links

Posted on Dec 10, 2011 | 5 comments

A Shady Trend

In the past week, I’ve seen posts on five or six different blogs that included affiliate links that were not identified as such.

It’s a disturbing trend that began months ago.

Someone at an affiliate marketing conference told attendees that they didn’t have to disclose affiliate relationships. That statement traveled through the blogging community. It was discussed during a panel at a blogging conference.

doing it wrong

It’s wrong.

Those Thesis buttons on the bottom of many blogs? Whether they’re labeled or not, they’re probably affiliate links.

The ebook buttons in the sidebar of many blogs? They’re probably affiliate links, too.

The links to iTunes? Affiliate links.

Links with lots of numbers in the URL? Links with id= or aff= in them? Most likely, they are affiliate links. The site owner is paid a commission for each sale made through the link.

Affiliate Marketing

Before I get any further into this post, I want to say that I have no problem with affiliate marketing.

When I’m making a purchase from Amazon or e-junkie or any number of other sites, I intentionally look for a friend’s affiliate link. I post affiliate links on my site, and I earn money from them.

Selling products as an affiliate is a workable revenue stream, and I would encourage all bloggers to learn how to do it.

However.

In order to maintain the trust and respect of your readers and the greater blogging community, you have to be honest and transparent about affiliate links.

No matter who you are.

The problem that I’m highlighting here is the failure to identify links as affiliate links, the failure to explain to readers that it’s there to make money, or even worse, cloaking links to make them look like they’re not affiliate links.

The FTC Guidelines

After a recent Twitter exchange about affiliate links, FTC attorney Stacey Ferguson (who blogs as Justice Fergie) pointed me to the FAQ in the Business Protection Center, a division of the FTC.

All of the quotes below come directly from that FTC FAQ page.

It’s always been the law that … if an endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the marketer’s product – the ad is misleading unless the connection is made clear. (emphasis added)

This law is nothing new; it dates back to the original FTC endorsement guidelines from 1980. If you endorse a product or service and get something in return (affiliate income, straight up payment, a bottle of ketchup, or anything of value), then you are ethically and legally bound to disclose the payment or goods.

The FTC Guidelines apply to affiliate marketing

When the guidelines for endorsements were released a couple of years ago, there was a big debate about them. That debate has (fortunately) died down.

What remains an oft debated point is how all of this endorsement disclosure business relates to affiliate marketing.

The answer is simple.

Affiliate links need to be disclosed just like free products and upfront payment. In the eyes of the law, affiliate payments are exactly the same as sponsorships or any other perk.

The FTC requires that disclosures be clear and conspicuous:

I’m an affiliate marketer with links to an online retailer on my website. When people click on those links and buy something from the retailer, I earn a commission. What do I have to disclose? Where should the disclosure be?

Let’s assume that you’re endorsing a product or service on your site and you have links to a company that pays you commissions on sales…  In some instances, where the link is embedded in the product review, a single disclosure may be adequate. When the product review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship – and the reader can see both the product review and the link at the same time – readers have the information they need.

If the product review and the link are separated, the reader may lose the connection.

As for where to place a disclosure, the guiding principle is that it has to be clear and conspicuous. Putting disclosures in obscure places – for example, buried on an ABOUT US or GENERAL INFO page, behind a poorly labeled hyperlink or in a terms of service agreement – isn’t good enough. The average person who visits your site must be able to notice your disclosure, read it and understand it.

I have started making the link title “This is an affiliate link.” so that pops up when someone hovers over the link. I also put a statement at the bottom of my post, something like “This post contains affiliate links.”

There is no common wording, and the FAQ page goes on to explain that the disclosure need not be legalese. It simply needs to make readers aware of the affiliate relationship.

But everyone knows it’s an affiliate link.

That’s not good enough. Everyone doesn’t know.

Isn’t it common knowledge that some bloggers are paid to tout products or that if you click a link on my site to buy a product, I’ll get a commission for that sale?

First, many bloggers who mention products don’t receive anything for their reviews and don’t get a commission if readers click on a link to buy a product. Second, the financial arrangements between some bloggers and advertisers may be apparent to industry insiders, but not to everyone else who reads a blog. Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads “a significant minority” of consumers. So even if some readers are aware of these deals, many readers aren’t. That’s why disclosure is important.

But I have a Disclosure page on my site.

Terrific. It’s not good enough.

Would a single disclosure on my home page that “many of the products I discuss on this site are provided to me free by their manufacturer” be enough?

A single disclosure doesn’t really do it because people visiting your site might read individual reviews or watch individual videos without seeing the disclosure on your home page.

Would a button that says DISCLOSURE, LEGAL, or something like that be sufficient disclosure?
No. A button isn’t likely to be sufficient. How often do you click on those buttons when you visit someone else’s site? If you provide the information as part of your message, your audience is less likely to miss it.

There is nothing in the guidelines or in the FAQ that requires every single link to be identified, as long as there is a disclosure in the vicinity of every link.

In other words, every post or page that contains affiliate links must include a disclosure.

Stop believing what you’ve heard.

The bottom line is that the FTC guidelines and their supporting documents are very clear.

Affiliate links must be disclosed as such, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong.

5 Comments

  1. Ugh! I understand why they are doing this and I support the idea of it but if every single thing, including things that are obviously ads on the sidebar of a site, need to be labeled in plain text prominently it is really going to affect designs. I like the idea of putting it in the title tag but some browsers/computers don’t see those and do people always look to see what is popping up? I’m wondering if a simple “Ad:” above the area would suffice vs having to type out the word “affiliate link”… Thanks for providing this easy to understand post. It is an important topic! I’ve reposted it to my FB page!
    Karen

    • I know what you mean. You don’t have to label each one individually. If they’re in the sponsors section of your site, for example, there is already a header that states they are paid advertisers (or something similar), right? If you label them as a section and are clear about that section being related to some advertising relationship, you don’t have to mark each one as paid ad, affiliate link, psa, or something else.

  2. What about sites where the links are not promoted or sponsored, but rather just displayed? I’m specifically thinking about Pinterest.com where they are (allegedly) using Skimlinks to get affiliate commissions.

    Do you think they have a case that they are not endorsing the products since they are not doing the pinning? Would that excuse them from having to display a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure?

  3. Thanks for the info! I was trying to do a little research on whether or not to disclose my text links and you offered some great solutions.

    I mostly have HootSuite links so I changed the pop-up text to say “HootSuite Affiliate Link” and I put “This article contains affiliate links” at the bottom of each post. This is a nice discrete way of disclosing your links (oxymoron?)

    Thanks again!

    • That’s pretty much what I do on Feels Like Home. There’s no good way to do it, but I think unobtrusive is better than big and ugly.

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