Have you ever noticed that some bloggers (myself included) post links to a genealogy-related site that don’t look quite like the original URLs for the companies? These are almost always “affiliate links”, which are special URLs that represent a financial arrangement between a company and an “affiliate marketer” (the person posting the link). The arrangement provides a commission to the affiliate marketer if you, the reader, follow though with a transaction after clicking on the link. AncestryDNA, 23andMe, FTDNA, Living DNA, and MyHeritage all have affiliate programs, and even free uploads can generate a commission for the affiliate marketer.
Why does it matter? If you’ve already decided which purchase (or transfer) to make, it doesn’t; you don’t pay any extra by using an affiliate link, you aren’t be influenced, and you can help support the efforts of your favorite bloggers at no cost to yourself.
However, if someone writes a rave review of a product that convinces you to buy it, you’d want to know whether they had a financial stake in the outcome, right? After all, their praise for the product might be unknowingly affected by the potential commissions. Someone using affiliate links is not necessarily biased; some of the bloggers I trust most use them. But you, the consumer, have a right to know about the business arrangement so you can decide for yourself how much weight to give the recommendation.
For that reason, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission says “if there’s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed.” The FTC also has explicit guidelines for the use of affiliate links. Here is a sample question-and-answer from their website:
I’m an affiliate marketer with links to an online retailer on my website. When people read what I’ve written about a particular product and then click on those links and buy something from the retailer, I earn a commission from the retailer. What do I have to disclose? Where should the disclosure be?
If you disclose your relationship to the retailer clearly and conspicuously on your site, readers can decide how much weight to give your endorsement.
In some instances – like when the affiliate link is embedded in your product review – a single disclosure may be adequate. When the review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship and the reader can see both the review containing that disclosure and the link at the same time, readers have the information they need. You could say something like, “I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.” But if the product review containing the disclosure and the link are separated, readers may lose the connection.
As for where to place a disclosure, the guiding principle is that it has to be clear and conspicuous. The closer it is to your recommendation, the better. 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. Neither is placing it below your review or below the link to the online retailer so readers would have to keep scrolling after they finish reading. Consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it. [Emphasis mine.]
How to Tell if Someone Is Using Affiliate Links
You might not be aware that someone is using affiliate links if they embed their special URL into the text of their blog. For example, both of the following links will take you to the website of 23andMe, but one of them is an affiliate link: link1 or link2. Do you know how to tell which one? Hover your cursor over each (no need to click), and look at the text at the very bottom of your internet browser window. For the first link, you should see “www.23andMe.com”; a blogger using that link does so solely for your convenience and does not benefit financially if you click on it. For the second, you should see “http://www.anrdoezrs.net/click-8335428-12698258”, which is an affiliate link. (Because I used a real affiliate link for this example, I include my standard disclaimer, even though this post is clearly not an endorsement: Note: I earn a small commission if you purchase through the links in this post. The cost is the same for you. Click here for more information.)
Bloggers embed links to make the text easier to read, not necessarily to hide their affiliations. But, keep reading.
Sometimes affiliate marketers use a URL shortener like bitly.com or tinyurl.com. Especially when posting on social media, they may do this simply because affiliate links are long and ungainly.
However, some affiliate marketers use URL shorteners to hide the fact that they’re using affiliate links in the first place. The screenshot below was taken on 9 Aug 2017 of the home page for tinyurl.com, one of the companies that offer shortened URLs:
I’m going to repeat that: “Are you posting something that you don’t want people to know what the URL is because it might give away that it’s an affiliate link?”
Wow. Just wow. And I don’t mean the terrible grammar. Someone who goes out of their way to hide their financial connection to a company is not someone whose advice I would take. That means you need to be aware of what affiliate links are and how they are used, so you can decide whether to trust the messenger.
Are Genealogy Bloggers Misusing Affiliate Links?
The short answer is: yes, some of them. Without naming names, I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Example 1: Misplaced and incomplete disclaimer
This text appears at the bottom of a favorable review posted to a popular family history site. The review was of a free DNA transfer program.
What’s wrong with it? First, a reader would have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the article to see the disclaimer. If they were so impressed by the review that they clicked through to transfer their raw DNA data before reading to the end, they might never realize that the review involved a financial arrangement with the company. Second, even if they read to the end and saw the disclaimer, they might not understand that commissions were involved (yes, even for a free transfer) or whether affiliate links were being used at all, because the wording “may contain” is not clear. (This website has since started placing explicit disclaimers at the tops of their posts, but older articles still have the disclaimers at the bottom.)
Example 2: Deceptive use of affiliate links
This post appeared in a Facebook group recently. The poster ostensibly asked an innocent question about pricing, but they used an affiliate link to do it. Worse, the link was masked through Bitly and made to look like it went straight to Ancestry.com.
Most people who read this will naturally want to click on the link to see if the price is still discounted. What’s more, many affiliate programs—including this one—leave a file called a “cookie” on your computer that allows the marketer to receive a commission even if you purchase weeks later for entirely different reasons. So what seems like an honest question in a Facebook interest group is being used to generate income for the poster without any form of disclosure whatsoever. (The poster removed the link when asked to provide a disclosure.)
Do Affiliate Links Always Need to Be Disclosed?
Good question! The FTC’s guidelines clearly apply to affiliate links used in endorsements, which are “any advertising message (including verbal statements, demonstrations, or depictions of the name, signature, likeness or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual or the name or seal of an organization) that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences” of the affiliate marketer. Endorsements can be made on websites, comments on someone else’s website, in videos, and on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and they don’t need to be in words. Even a picture of someone using a product could be construed as an implicit endorsement.
But, what if I use affiliate links in a negative review? Is that an endorsement? What if I just announce a sale price, or simply say that Company X sells Product Y, without any praise or criticism?
Because of this wiggle room, I reached out to the FTC for clarification. To summarize the response: It depends. (Helpful, right?!) If a reasonable consumer could interpret the post as an endorsement, it’s an endorsement. A scathing review of 23andMe that included an affiliate link to 23andMe is unlikely to be seen as influenced by payments, so it’s probably not an endorsement. But panning AncestryDNA then linking to Family Tree DNA would be an implicit endorsement of the latter. Announcing sale prices could be an implicit endorsement, depending on the context. I suspect that the higher profile the genealogist, the more likely any statement, however generic, could be construed as an endorsement.
It’s Not Just Affiliate Links
The FTC endorsement guidelines don’t apply just to online affiliate links. For example, they write, “if you receive free products or other perks with the expectation that you’ll promote or discuss the advertiser’s product”, you should disclose it any time you endorse the product, whether in person, online, or whatever. That would include free DNA test kits, subscriptions, travel expenses, speaker opportunities, or any other “something of value”.
The endorsement guidelines also apply to company employees, whether full-time, part-time, or contractual. Whenever an employee endorses a product, they should disclose their employment status. Here we come full circle to the What is an endorsement? question. If someone at a conference asks whether MyHeritage sells tests in South Korea and an employee of MyHeritage were to reply that they do, that wouldn’t be an endorsement. But if the employee made unsolicited postings in South Korean genealogy groups, they should probably disclose that they work for the company. Similarly, an employee of Living DNA answering a question about the reference populations for their ethnicity estimates might not require disclosure, but touting the product would.
The FTC does not monitor bloggers and social media on a regular basis, and law enforcement would first target the advertisers themselves rather than the affiliate marketers. I have not yet heard of them reprimanding any genetic genealogists. However, given the rapid growth in DNA testing, the potential for lawsuits and negative media surrounding unexpected family discoveries, and the increasing cross-over between genetic genealogy and medical applications, I advocate that we genealogists err on the side of disclosing too often rather than not enough. By policing ourselves, we ensure the ongoing trust of the genetic genealogy community and protect the companies on which we rely for family history research from FTC action.
This blog post by Kerry Scott is an oldie (2010) but a goodie: http://www.cluewagon.com/2010/11/a-peak-under-the-hood-how-bloggers-make-money/