Direct linking is the practice where an affiliate buys paid search advertising using your URL as the display URL in an ad, yet actually linking from the ad to the affiliate’s own landing page. These links will often go through multiple levels of redirects before finally landing on your web site. The redirects may contain cookies for other brand holders (a practice known as “cookie stuffing“—often generating revenue for the person doing the cookie stuffing). As bad as this practice may seem to you, it’s exacerbated when the ads don’t land anywhere—you wind up looking really bad to the consumer because searchers will think that the ad is yours!
Most brand holders discourage affiliates from direct linking. It can be even worse if a direct linking affiliate’s paid search ads point to dead error-producing web pages.
Why does this happen?
There are several causes of dead links being promoted by affiliates:
- Affiliate removal. You have removed the affiliate from your affiliate program and therefore the link is no longer valid. The affiliate’s ad inadvertently continues to run.
- Affiliate error. The affiliate has made a coding error on its redirect URLs causing the error.
- Cookie stuffing. The affiliate doesn’t care because it’s engaged in cookie stuffing and may not even be your affiliate!
How can you protect your brand?
You need to get those ad taken down—they are damaging your brand by providing a very negative consumer experience, and they are competing with your own ads for placement in the paid search results.
Before doing anything else, you need to identify the affiliate to see if it’s one of yours. There are several methods that you can use to discover the affiliate’s identity. First, identify all of the redirect URLs being used from the paid search ad to your landing page. The redirect URLs will contain the affiliate’s network affiliation, and the affiliate ID.
To do this, you will need to determine the destination URL of the ad and either need to click on the ad (not encouraged), or right click and copy the link location and click later. Next, review the results to determine the affiliate’s identity. If you are using Firefox, I recommend a plug-in called HTTPWatch. This plug-in creates a “recording” of the path from the ad itself through to the ultimate landing page. You may find any of the following scenarios as a result:
- If you get lucky, you will find the affiliate’s URL in plain sight in at least one if not multiple redirects. You can determine the affiliate network by looking at the top level domain, as the ID is usually embedded in the URL.
- If the affiliate URL is not in plain site, but you do find URLs owned by the affiliate, several steps are needed:
- So a whois lookup on the domain. Unfortunately, many are likely to be private.
- Visit the web site, try to find your ad, then click using HTTPWatch to sniff out the affiliate URL. Sometimes this won’t work because there is no actual web site.
- Sometimes the affiliates have their URL’s programmed not to resolve unless the referrer is Google, Yahoo, or Bing. In which case, you will not be able to see the affiliate’s URLs unless you click directly from the ad (again not encouraged), or use a tool like the one provided by Rexswain.
- Once you find an affiliate URL, sometimes the affiliate ID will be encrypted. If that is the case, you can either try to decrypt the URL if you have ability to do so, or provide it to the affiliate network and ask for assistance.
At this point, assuming you have uncovered the affiliate’s ID and determined that it is one of yours, your next move is to notify both the affiliate network and the affiliate, requesting the affiliate to take down the ads that contain the dead links. If the affiliate is one of yours, you will get a result using this method.
If that tactic doesn’t work or if the affiliate is not even part of your affiliate program, you need to notify the search engine where the ads are appearing. Ads that point to dead pages violate the editorial policies of Google, Yahoo, and Bing. All three require that ads point to a fully functioning web page. If you report the ad, they will take it down. This process can take a bit of time, and they will require you to provide the following information:
- The keyword where the ad appears
- The ad copy and display URL of the ad
- The link location—which can be obtained by right clicking on the ad and copying the link location.
Finally, just for fun, check the cookies being dropped. If you want to see if the ad is also causing cookie stuffing, just clear out your cookies, and then click to follow the questionable affiliate link(s) that you identified through the first step above. Next open the section of the browser where you can review your cookies and see what was dropped. If there are cookies for other merchants, you have a cookie stuffer using your brand as a pretext to do the stuffing.
Be watchful this holiday season—these tricks are more rampant this time of year, as affiliates are looking to cash in on the big traffic of the season.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.