Why the Washington Post’s Affiliate Links Are a Good Thing

August 19, 2014

10:47 am

PandoDaily’s Paul Carr is fired up about links. Not just any links, but Amazon affiliate links that are now being included in journalistic content from the Washington Post – another company that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns. Some believe the sky is falling, as this is the end of “editorial independence.”

I’m fired up, too. I think this is an absolutely brilliant move by the Post, but, I must admit, I’m biased because I’ve spent the last six years eating and breathing affiliate links. Why do I think the inclusion of affiliate links is a good move by the Post? Glad you asked! I believe the links were well implemented, good for the consumer, and good for the Post. Here’s why:

First, this implementation is beneficial for the reader, as it’s both relevant and convenient, and much less jarring than the graphical banner ads that can be interwoven into the content. Generally when you’re reading about a product, whether it’s a review, or otherwise, if you’re interested enough in finding out more, a link gives you a quick and easy way to go directly to that product. If you’re not interested, then you don’t have to click.

I like that they included a noticeable “Buy it now” button along with the link. This one-ups the common practice of simply including the link inline and not calling extra attention to it. The Washington Post’s process also significantly trumps those double-underlined words that rarely take you to a relevant destination when clicked.

Including a single affiliate link to the specific product being reviewed, at the introduction of the name, is much more graceful than including a large display ad or linking to every possible derivation of the product. It’s also super relevant within the context of the review. Because you're reading a book review, they aren’t trying to sell you insurance or razor blades, but rather give you a direct route to the product/service they’re discussing. Again – if you’re interested enough to read the article, chances are your next destination is likely to purchase it. The Post makes this process much easier; why shouldn’t they be rewarded for that?

I also find the link and button to be significantly easier to read around than the banner ads, which often break up the flow of an article.

With regards to the financial aspect of using affiliate links, I think the Post made a smart decision.  The difference between clicking on an affiliate link versus a raw purchase link is negligible (sometimes an extra redirect, but often just a slightly longer URL) yet has substantial upside for the Post.

By using very relevant links, such as the one in discussion, I can only assume that they are seeing great click-through and conversion rates (affiliate links can often hit 8-10% while banner ads are often below 1%). While always getting better, I still find it rare that a banner ad is directly relevant to me or directly related to the content I’m reading right at that moment. If these affiliated “buy” links can help eliminate annoying banner ads, and help these sites still earn enough to produce the content their readers have come to know and love, then I’m all for it.

Let’s look at reality for a moment. It’s impossible for journalists and news organizations to keep their lights on without some form of revenue. The subscription model is quickly becoming outdated because, thanks to the Internet, readers can easily find the same information elsewhere. If the addition of affiliate links can keep good journalists creating good, compelling content and the greater organizations alive, that’s a good thing in my mind. Again, none of these sites force you to click, but when you do purchase a product after clicking, why shouldn’t they get rewarded for making the readers’ lives easier?

While I don’t wish to discount anyone’s journalistic excellence, including affiliate links in the proximity of, or even within, editorial content is something that has been embraced for some time now, even by some very well-known periodicals like Business Insider, Huffington Post, New York Times, The Telegraph, Slate, The Independent, and many others. It’s also become the norm for tech-related publications and bloggers.

While I do feel the Post is going in the right direction, there are a few things that they could improve upon.

The FTC publishes guidelines that state “a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement…must be fully disclosed.” This is one area where I would fault the Post. With a quick search, I don’t see mentions of a disclosure in the footer, Terms of Service, or Privacy Policy on the Post’s site.

I’m also unimpressed with how the Post dealt with the recent uproar about their affiliate links (resulting around Carr’s articles). The PR statement from the Post to Mashable was a bit weak, especially as the “Buy” links continue to be found across the Post’s website.

I’d also suggest they include the same buy link at the bottom of the article. This would allow someone to finish the article before making a decision about following a link to buy the product.

In my opinion, as long as the Post continues to only add relevant affiliate links to stories where they make sense, pays attention to the readers' “experience” on the page, and adds an obvious disclosure about the links, they are not breaking any rules of journalistic integrity. In fact, I’d argue they’re creating a better experience for the reader, and creating another revenue stream that helps both sides of the table. But, hey, that’s just like my opinion, man.

Guest author Jesse Lakes is the CEO and cofounder of GeoRiot. GeoRiot was founded on the basic principle that affiliate marketing should be profitable and accessible on a global scale. In 2009, he and lifelong friend and GeoRiot cofounder Jesse Pasichnyk launched a series of extreme sports soundtrack websites that utilized the iTunes and Amazon affiliate programs. The project was a success, and it became clear that they had built a tool that other Internet marketers would benefit from using, and later that year he went on to author the first book on the iTunes Affiliate Program, “Mastering the iTunes Affiliate Program.” The publication caught the eye of the team at One Infinite Loop and shortly thereafter Lakes packed up his gear to take up residence in the Valley as global manager of the iTunes / App Store Affiliate Program.

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