VigLink is in the news today primarily because the company has announced that it has closed a round of seed investment, for $800,000 in total. From the press release, funding sources include:
Google Ventures, and individual investors including LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman, longtime Google executive and current LinkedIn VP of Product Deep Nishar, and noted technology entrepreneurs Niel Robertson, Hadi Partovi, Ali Partovi, Carlos Cashman, and Micah Adler. The financing, which was co-led by First Round Capital and Google Ventures, will be used to accelerate VigLink’s market expansion.
At Search Engine Land, we don’t tend to focus on affiliate programs. But I felt VigLink was worth a closer look because of the Google involvement and because of questions the company’s program raises in terms of Google’s guidelines about paid links.
Google’s involvement is straight-forward. Google has a venture capital arm, Google Ventures. The company likes VigLink’s prospects enough that it has decided to back it with funding (how much isn’t disclosed).
On the paid links front, my understanding is that VigLink passes Google’s paid links requirements. I’ll get into that more, but first, how it works.
Install Code & Get Affiliated
VigLink provides code to those who are in its program. Similar to code used for something like Google Analytics, you insert this so that it’s present on every page.
The code reports to VigLink all the outbound links on your site — or specifically, all the outbound links that people are actually clicking on. If notes these links and checks to see if the companies the links lead to offer affiliate programs. If they do, then VigLink turns those links into affiliate links that earn you money.
VigLink’s demo page gives a real example of how this works. On that page, there’s a link to a book at Amazon called “Four Steps to the Epiphany.” The link in the page looks like this, if you hover over it:
Click on that link from the demo page, and you’ll see how it looks like this in your browser’s address window:
That part I’ve put in bold? That tells Amazon that this person came from VigLink. If they buy something, then VigLink earns some money off the sale, since VigLink is an Amazon affiliate through the Amazon Associates program.
VigLink has enrolled itself in thousands of affiliate programs similar to those that Amazon offers. Anyone using VigLink code on their web site is effectively becoming part of VigLink. VigLink would look at your site, and if it sees a link to Amazon that doesn’t have an affiliate code on it, then it would add a tag to make it part of VigLink. The same is true for other online retailers such as eBay or TigerDirect.
Visitors to your site see none of this. If they hover over a link, they won’t see the affiliate code. Nor does VigLink operate like some of those programs like Vibrant that automatically try to make any word on your site. Only links that you’ve already created are turned into affiliate links, assuming there’s a relevant program.
The plus side is the time savings. On my personal blog Daggle, for example, I link to things all the time. If I’m really thinking about it, I might add my Amazon affiliate code to a link to relevant information in something I’m writing. If I’m busy, I probably won’t bother. Other companies I link to might have affiliate programs, but it’s not worth my time or effort to sign up for those.
VigLink aims to correct such laziness. For example, I’m in the closed VigLink beta right now. I can see that in the week or so since I put the VigLink code up that I’ve had 53 clicks from my site over to Amazon. Of these, 47 clicks were on links where I had added affiliate codes. The other 6 clicks? I never added the code, but VigLink did it for me, using their code.
Similarly, I had nine clicks from my site to TigerDirect. I’m not a TigerDirect affiliate member. I have no affiliate code on those links. But by adding VigLink, it added its own code to those TigerDirect links, making them earn for me.
Now, I’ll earn more if I do affiliate links direct. VigLink takes a cut of any affiliate sales (how much varies and isn’t specifically disclosed, to my understanding). If you’re really worried about earning as much as possible, you’d want to do your own direct affiliate links. And if you do, VigLink recognizes these and doesn’t replace them, the company says. It only act on links where it sees a failed monetization opportunity.
On the con side, the biggest is probably disclosure to your readers. When I affiliate a link, I usually make a note of this to my readers — and that’s something recent FTC guidelines now say is a requirement. VigLink suddenly makes any link on your site into one that requires disclosure. But since you don’t know which ones — and right now, since you can’t selectively choose which links might be affiliated — to cover yourself, you probably should have a blanket disclosure statement as part of your articles.
Another con is that the program doesn’t automatically find words or products that probably should be affiliated. If you write about a product but don’t link to it at some site, you’re not going to earn. In contrast, a program like Google AdSense tries to automatically look at your content and put ads near your content. And a program like Vibrant will actually turn words in your stories into links. Of course, many people find that type of word-to-link transformation annoying, myself included.
Paid Links & SEO Issues
From a search engine optimization perspective, VigLink seems a minefield. Google wants any paid link on a web site to be blocked from its crawler or flagged with a nofollow attribute, lest the site owner face a paid links penalty. VigLink potentially makes any existing link into a paid one, and site owners don’t know which, nor can they control the implementation.
Google Gives All Clear
VigLink said it has talked closely with Google and been assured that its program will not cause site owners to violate paid link guidelines. I’m also waiting for a longer statement from Google. But Google also reassures me that it has seen the VigLink program, and it doesn’t pose any problems.
Another search marketing concern is the lack of control you have over where your site’s reputation can flow. Some sites want to ensure external sites receive get PageRank or reputation credit that’s typicaly passed through links. A program like VigLink, if done to Google’s paid link requirements, means that this credit is blocked. This isn’t the case within domains, by the way. VigLink says it never changes a link within the same domain or subdomain of a hosted site.
Long-term, if VigLink is successful and attracts imitators, the links that Google depends upon for much of its relevancy would be lost, since it wants to ignore any that are paid. Of course, affiliate links aren’t a new issue on this front. In the past, Google has suggested that there’s always enough of a sample of non-paid links for it to do good link analysis.
CEO Oliver Roup told me last week these are all things that might happen in the future. But on the nofollow front, right now it’s not so pressing, since Google’s given the program a clean bill of health as things are now. As for granular control, VigLink says that if that comes as needed during the beta, it’ll happen afterward.
Of course, much of this is moot right now. VigLink is in a closed beta. You can’t sign up for it. You can, however, generate what’s called a “pre-sales” report. This is designed to show you links on your site that could be monetized by VigLink when it opens generally in the future.
Postscript: James Morell alerted me to Skimlinks, which seems to operate in the same way as Viglinks. I haven’t looked at Skimlinks in any great detail. In a quick visit, one key difference between it and Viglink is that Viglink says members get paid each month, regardless of how much they earn. Skimlinks says there’s a roughly $160 minimum earning needed in a month (50 UK pounds).