Today's special post is brought you by our friends over at GeniusLink. One of the most advanced affiliate linking tools out there.
We've invited them, they've accepted, and in a few weeks we'll both be sharing even better stuff with you and the entire HPD family.
For now though, I want to introduce you to one of their founders, Jesse Lakes, as he's come to drop some knowledge bombs. The following guide has been gaining traction on their end and was originally published here.
With their permission, we're showcasing it here for ease but if you have any comments or questions. They'll be monitoring the original version so head over there.
Without further ado, take it away Jesse.
You’ve just had an awesome month. You’ve been putting in the hours, your clicks keep growing and you hit a new record for the most affiliate commissions in a month! Life is feeling pretty good and you feel like you’re really getting the hang of this Amazon affiliate thing!
Then it happens. What appears to be a regular email (maybe to congratulate you?), ends up being the exact opposite:
Your Amazon.com Associates Account – …
Hello from the Amazon Associates Program,
While reviewing your account, we have been unable to…
…If we do not hear from you regarding the above, or, based on your response, we will be unable to verify that your methods are compliant with the Operating Agreement, we will close your Associates Account and may withhold fees.
We appreciate your understanding and hope to hear from you soon.
Best regards,Associates Account Specialist
You have to read it twice, three times even. It’s a bit vague but the general sense is not good. The pit in your stomach grows. Are you getting kicked out? What did you do wrong? Withholding fees? Ouch! Of course, you didn’t read EVERY single line of their Operating Agreement when you signed up but you didn’t think you were doing anything wrong because really you were just following the advice you were reading online…
Believe it or not, a lot of us have gotten a note similar to this in our inbox, especially in the last 12 months. So, first things first, take a deep breath, this isn’t the end. Rather consider it a very important learning experience (maybe even a rite of passage).
On that note, it’s important to keep an eye on your inbox and not to ignore emails from Amazon! Missing one of these emails is bad new bears and could make a situation worse.
If you haven’t seen this email grace your inbox, good for you for being proactive. Don’t stop reading now, avoiding this email will save you days of stress and anxiety.
It appears that Amazon has ramped up their compliance game significantly in the last twelve months. And for good reason, there is a lot on the line for them, and you. From what we can tell the Amazon Associates program is massive (nearly a millions affiliate publishers?) and unfortunately, from what we see, too many publishers aren’t following the “rules” or some of the best practices necessary to ensure that “affiliate marketing” doesn’t end up with that negative connotation it had a decade ago.
Join us in walking through the top reasons we’ve seen and heard that gets Amazon affiliates in trouble and sometimes even removed from the program.
Please note a few important things before we dive in. First, PLEASE read the Associates Operating Agreement and the accompanying Policies page. It’s a bit dense but it’s very important that you understand what’s going on, it’s the “rules” you have to play Amazon’s affiliate game with. Second, we are not lawyers so please don’t substitute our notes below as legal advice, it’s merely our interpretation and understanding. Get a lawyer if you want to be certain about something. Third, we primarily focus on the Amazon.com Associates agreement. Each of the regional affiliate programs has one and there are some differences so if you are localizing your affiliate links you’ll want to read them all! Finally, the Amazon Associates Operating Agreement is a living document and is updated frequently. Be sure to always read emails from Amazon!
1) Cloaking Links
Not only does the term “link cloaking” have differing definitions, there is a lot of conflicting information about the value of cloaking your links in relation to affiliate marketing.
From what we can tell, one of the fastest ways to get in trouble with the Associates program is to obscure that a link is actually an Amazon Associates link. Whether you call that cloaking or not, you have to be careful when and how you use 3rd party tools with the Amazon affiliate program.
On the Policies page, in the “Content on Your Site” section of the Operating agreement it states (emphasis is our own):
8 (v) You will not cloak, hide, spoof, or otherwise obscure the URL of your Site containing Special Links (including by use of Redirecting Links) or the user agent of the application in which Content is displayed or used such that we cannot reasonably determine the site or application from which a customer clicks through such Special Link to the Amazon Site.
(w) You will not use a link shortening service, button, hyperlink or other ad placement in a manner that makes it unclear that you are linking to an Amazon Site.
Okay, so what does that really mean to you? Simply put you need to make sure it’s obvious to a shopper that your link will lead to Amazon. You can do this a few ways. You can mention “Amazon” in near proximity to the link (best for social media like affiliate links in the description of your YouTube videos). Or, if on your website or blog, then in the anchor text or the call to action should include something about Amazon or even a graphical cue to it being an Amazon link. Amazon also seems to be okay with the text shown in the status bar of the browser when you hover over the link.
2) Links In Email
There is no debating that building an engaged email list and recommending products and services to your readers can be very lucrative. But including Amazon affiliate links directly in your email is another great way to get kicked out of the Amazon affiliate program.
While there are a number of notable influencers that include Amazon links in their regular email newsletters this is forbidden in section five of the Policies page for Amazon’s Operating Agreement. It reads (emphasis our own):
5. You will not engage in any promotional, marketing, or other advertising activities on behalf of us or our affiliates, or in connection with the Amazon Site or the Associates Program, that are not expressly permitted under the Associates Program Operating Agreement. For example, you will not engage in any promotional, marketing, or other advertising activities in any offline manner, including by using any of our or our affiliates’ trademarks or logos (including any Amazon Mark), any Content, or any Special Link in connection with an offline promotion or in any other offline manner (e.g., in any printed material, mailing, SMS, MMS,email or attachment to email, or other document, or any oral solicitation).
But why can ________ (fill in name here) include affiliate links in their email newsletter? – It’s either because they’ve signed a special arrangement with Amazon or they haven’t yet been caught violating this agreement.
But won’t my conversion rates go down significantly if I send them to my website first? (Or I don’t have a website!) – Yes, typically adding additional steps between the “intent” to purchase (a click) and the ability to purchase (the product page on Amazon) will reduce conversion rates, especially if the intermediary steps have various distractions or require much work.
However, a practice that’s become incredibly popular in the music and book space, is to first send people to an optimized landing page. This provides two benefits. First, you aren’t violating Amazon’s TOS (because your affiliate link is now on an online source) and second, you are able to offer a second or third destination for purchasing your product (which could help increase overall conversions and revenue).
If you are Genius Link users, we’d encourage you to check out our “Choice Pages” (aka User Choice Landing Pages) and use those links inside your emails and newsletters when you mention a product to purchase. Note this feature is now available to all users via our new pricing.
3) Links In eBooks
If someone just finished your book they probably enjoyed it and it’s probably a really good time to encourage them to buy another of your books, especially if it’s part of a series. Unfortunately, another great way to get kicked out of the Amazon Associates program is to include affiliate links in your book.
Whether it’s in the “back matter” of the book or scattered throughout the book, Amazon doesn’t allow “offline” use of their Associates links. In the same section they use to exclude links in emails they also mention “printed material” and “other documentation”. See section five of the Policies page for Amazon’s Operating Agreement. It reads (emphasis our own):
5. You will not engage in any promotional, marketing, or other advertising activities on behalf of us or our affiliates, or in connection with the Amazon Site or the Associates Program, that are not expressly permitted under the Associates Program Operating Agreement. For example, you will not engage in any promotional, marketing, or other advertising activities in any offline manner, including by using any of our or our affiliates’ trademarks or logos (including any Amazon Mark), any Content, or any Special Link in connection with an offline promotion or in any other offline manner (e.g., in any printed material, mailing, SMS, MMS, email or attachment to email, or other document, or any oral solicitation).
You’ve got two options here to ensure good standing with the Amazon Associates program. You can change those links in your ebook to point to a website or to an optimized landing page. As mentioned above, you run the risk of significantly decreasing your conversion rate by sending your readers to a webpage, especially where there are lots of unrelated links or page content. You can also send them to an optimized landing page where there are minimal distractions. Either way, including your affiliate link there is okay (just remember the first note about making sure it’s obvious that it’s going to Amazon).
For Genius Link users, we encourage you to try out our “Choice Pages” to build an optimized landing page. The feature is now included for all users with our new pricing.
4) Mentioning Prices (or availability)
You see sites all the time mention the price of a product on their site. It seems like a great way to improve conversions so you add the price next to the different items you promote. The bummer is that unless you are dynamically updating that price via the Amazon API then you are in violation of the Operating Agreement.
Unfortunately, a quick check or copy and paste of the price, or how many are in stock, from the Amazon storefront isn’t good enough. For good reason, Amazon doesn’t want you making inaccurate or out of date claims about their products. They require that information is never more than 24 hours old. Amazon mentions this in section three of the Policies page. It reads (emphasis our own):
3. Links on Your Site, (a) Special LinksProduct prices and availability may vary from time to time. Because prices for and availability of Products that you have listed on your Site may change, your Site may only show prices and availability if: (a) we serve the link in which that price and availability data are displayed, or (b)you obtain Product pricing and availability data via the PA API and you comply with the requirements regarding use of the PA API in the License.
The simplest option is to remove the specific numbers and rather change your call to action to be something like “Check for best price now” or “View availability here”. For those that really want to include this information (and I can’t blame you!), you might have better luck using one of the multiple WordPress plugins that offer this functionality, such as EasyAzon (don’t worry, EasyAzon plays well with Genius Link)!
For those that with some engineering chops, Genius Link offers a series of Advanced APIs that can provide not only the properly affiliate localized Amazon link, but also timely information such as the current art, price, and availability of a product.
5) Using Their Star Ratings & Reviews
You obviously aren’t the only person that loves this product, look at all of those star ratings and reviews on Amazon.com! While it may be tempting to copy over some of these great testimonials as social proof and the star ratings to help compare similar products, publishing in a way that doesn’t automatically update could be a quick way to getting removed from the Amazon Associates program.
Similar to the issue with publishing the price, or availability of a product, the ratings and reviews are also constantly changing. For exactly this reason Amazon wants you to pull this information and store it dynamically so that it’s always up to date (and not misrepresenting the product or Amazon). This is spelled out in section eight (t) of the Policies page. It reads (emphasis our own):
8 (t) You will not display or otherwise use any of our customer reviews or star ratings, in part or in whole, on your Site unless you have obtained a link to that customer review or star rating through the PA API and you comply with the requirements for the PA API described in the License.
Again the simplest option is to simply remove these external ratings and reviews and solicit your own (but be sure to make that obvious!). Your next best bet would be to use a plugin or tool that makes use of Amazon’s Product API to pull this information dynamically to ensure it’s always up to date.
6) Asking For A Click or Bookmark
Since everyone uses Amazon.com to shop for pretty much anything, isn’t it a good idea to just link to Amazon.com and remind people to shop there or even better, bookmark your affiliate link? Unfortunately, another great way to get removed from the Amazon Associates program is by doing exactly this!
Think about it from Amazon’s perspective, why should they give up a portion of their revenue to reward you for something that was already going to happen? Amazon has done a great thing for the affiliate industry over the last twenty years by offering a robust affiliate program but they want something in return. You need to add value to the buying process in exchange for Amazon to reward you. Asking someone to click your link before shopping on Amazon isn’t adding value and doing it won’t last long before they catch you.
Amazon quickly mentions asking for a bookmark in section 3 (b) of the Policies page (emphasis is our own):
3 (b) General Requirements Applicable to All Special LinksSpecial Links may be created by you or made available to you by us. If we inform you that your Site does not qualify to use certain types of links, you must cease displaying those types of links on your Site. You are solely responsible for the content, style, and placement of each link that you place on your Site and for ensuring that Special Links (whether created by you or made available to you by us) include the appropriate formatting necessary for us to properly track referrals of our customers from your Site. You must not encourage customers to bookmark your Special Links. All Special Links must be accessed directly from your site. For example, you must include your Associates ID or “tag” (appearing as XXXXX-20, or such other format as we may designate) as a parameter in the URL of each link you place on your Site to the Amazon Site.
Asking people to click your affiliate link to support your website is considered a form of “incentivizing” shoppers and is banned in section 8 (g) of the Policies page (emphasis is ours):
(g) You will not offer any person or entity any consideration, reward, or incentive (including any money, rebate, discount, points, a donation to a charity or other organization, or another benefit) for using Special Links. For example, you cannot implement any “rewards” or loyalty program that incentivizes persons or entities to visit the Amazon Site via your Special Links.
People that watch your YouTube videos, read your blogs and share your posts like you and (likely) want to support you so it may feel natural to give them an easy option to do just that. Please don’t!
7) Not Linking To Products
Everyone writes and recommends products, but what if you used affiliate links when linking to help articles on Amazon (eg. How to request a refund?)? Bad idea! You risk getting kicked out of the Amazon affiliate program by affiliating links to anything besides products on Amazon.
Similar to the note above, Amazon, through their affiliate program, is rewarding you with a commission for adding value to the customer buying cycle. As a result they reward you with a commission for focusing on products. However you want to add value is up to you but Amazon knows that you aren’t adding to that buying experience when you link to help pages. They describe this in depth in section 3 (b) of the of the Policies page and briefly in section eight (a). It reads (emphasis our own):
3 (b) You may add or delete Products (and related Special Links) from your Site at any time without our approval. However, you may not use Special Links to link to the Amazon Site from references to products on your Site that are not “Products” as defined in the Agreement. For example, you cannot link to the Amazon Site with a link for “shoes”, however, you can link to the Amazon Site with a Special Link to a specific shoe Product detail page.
It is important to note that affiliating links to a specific product’s search results page appears to be okay. You’ll notice that this is a common practice for not only ourselves, but also EasyAzon and Amazon’s OneLink, and is still adding value to the shopping experience.
8) Too Many Free eBooks
With the way the Amazon affiliate program is structured, you can earn a commission on anything that is added to a shoppers cart (after they click your affiliate link) for a full 24 hours (or they click a new affiliate link, whichever is shorter). With Amazon being the “everything” store that means that you could be promoting a free ebook (which nets you a $0 commission) but then also earn commissions on a $1,000 TV. Because of this, many affiliates saw that promoting free ebooks was actually quite lucrative (very little friction to click to buy a free book!) from all the other stuff that was organically bought during that affiliate cookie window. However, Amazon is onto this game and affiliate publishers that promote mostly free ebooks are at risk of losing their commissions!
Section 6 (b) of the Policies page reads:
Free Book PromotionsYou will not be eligible to receive any Standard Program Fees or Special Program Fees for any month if we determine that your Site is primarily promoting free Kindle eBooks and during that month (i) 20,000 or more free Kindle eBooks are ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links, and (ii) at least 80% of all Kindle eBooks ordered and downloaded during Sessions attributed to your Special Links are free Kindle eBooks.
While periodically breaking this rule alone won’t get you kicked out of the affiliate program it’s a major bummer to lose out on a month’s worth of commissions! Amazon now makes it fairly easy to see where you stand in the Notes section of the Reports page in the Associates dashboard.
Please note that there are two sections to this. You have to have over 20K free ebooks AND less than 20% of your ebooks are paid. If you have 40K free ebooks and 20K paid ebooks you are fine.
It’s also worth noting that before Amazon.com’s major change in their commission structure (late Feb, 2017) a “best practice” was to promote free or low cost items on Amazon to increase the number of items you sold so you got into the higher payout brackets for most everything you sold (you would earn 4% if you sold only a few items each month but could get up to 8% if you sold thousands of products). Promoting free ebooks was one of the easiest ways to reach those tiers but now you can lose out on a month’s worth of commissions by focusing on promoting free Kindle books. This obviously is no longer a best practice!
9) Not Including An Affiliate Disclaimer
You may make the mental argument that an affiliate disclaimer might scare people away or make your site look cluttered but it’s against the law and Amazon’s Operating Agreement! As mentioned in the Cloaking Your Link section, Amazon is a big fan of transparency and it’s important that their affiliates are on the right side of the law!
Amazon actually has three mentions of this requirement (that’s how important it is!). This includes section five of the main Operating Agreement as well as sections four (b) and section 9 on the Policies page:
4 (b) displaying Special Links and Content on your Site in compliance with the Associates Program Operating Agreement, all applicable laws (including the US FTC Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsement and Testimonials in Advertising), and any agreement between you and any other person or entity (including any restrictions or requirements placed on you by any person or entity that hosts your Site),
5. Identifying Yourself as an AssociateYou must clearly state the following on your Site or any other location where Amazon may authorize your display or other use of Content: “We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.” Except for this disclosure, you will not make any public communication with respect to this Agreement or your participation in the Associates Program. You will not misrepresent or embellish our relationship with you (including by expressing or implying that we support, sponsor, or endorse you), or express or imply any affiliation between us and you or any other person or entity except as expressly permitted by this Agreement.
9. Identifying Yourself as an AssociateYou must clearly state the following on your Site or any other location where Amazon may authorize your display or other use of Content: “We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.” Except for this disclosure, you will not make any public communication with respect to this Agreement or your participation in the Associates Program. You will not misrepresent or embellish our relationship with you (including by expressing or implying that we support, sponsor, or endorse you), or express or imply any affiliation between us and you or any other person or entity except as expressly permitted by this Agreement.
It probably goes without saying this is an important one! Of course, there are some complications, as for example, the affiliate disclaimer provided by Amazon won’t fit inside of a tweet, even with the expanded character count!
For instances like this, you are best to consult with your lawyer to determine a good practice.
10) Old Products
The beauty of creating content on the internet is that you do it once and it lives forever! Just keep creating new content, adding affiliate links to that content and you should an ever growing revenue stream. Right? Unfortunately, no. Amazon isn’t a fan of you promoting outdated content, especially if it was related to a limited time sale, and doing so violates their operating agreement.
Amazon references these situations in section three (b) in the Policies section and again in section eight (c):
3 (b) You must remove from your Site any links and related references to limited time promotions on or before the expiration date of that promotion. For example, if you include links to Products in the apparel category of the Amazon Site and mention that there is 15% off select products in Amazon’s apparel category, you must immediately remove the mention of the 15% discount from your Site on or before the expiration date of that promotion.
8 (c) You will promptly remove from your Site and delete or otherwise destroy any Content that is no longer displayed on the Amazon Site or that we notify you is no longer available for your use.
Besides the possibility of these links getting you in trouble with Amazon, a link to a product that results in a 404 or that is out of stock is hurting your conversion rates! To ensure maximum commissions you should be using a tool like our Amazon Link Health Monitor to keep an eye on product links that are out of stock or no longer recognized.
If promoting items on sale is your thing, but remembering to go back and clean up your links isn’t, you might also find some great value in the Date based rules you can use with Advanced links. Just like you can use our Advanced links to specify unique behaviors for a click from different countries or devices you can do the same with dates. Clicks can be directed to one place between certain dates (like when the product is on sale) and then to another destination after that.
Nice work, you made it! That was a lot to go through but hopefully, you learned something along the way (please do share in the comments below!).
Because the Amazon Operating Agreement is constantly changing we are constantly learning too and may have missed something. Please don’t hesitate to call us out if you think something is missing and thanks for working with us to reduce the number of emails the Amazon Associates Specialist team has to send!