On Affiliate Links, Ethics and Advertising

I’m having a little trouble with affiliate links these days. Or rather with the ethics surrounding them.

In case you’re not familiar: Affiliate links are special codes used to give commissions to people who spread the word about your product or service. If I were to review a book on my blog, and include an affiliate link, I would get a commission if you clicked through to buy the book.

Here’s the thing.

I think affiliate links are fine, as long as they’re for products and services we legitimately recommend, and the affiliate status is disclosed. For the record: I have affiliate accounts at several places, including Aweber and Amazon, but I have not yet used them.

Further, I’ve always thought that FTC regulations in the United States required bloggers to disclose affiliate links. If you’re a Canadian blogger, it seems to make sense to follow these rules, as much of your audience is likely to be in the U.S.

Recently, I heard a speaker at an association meeting here in the Toronto area say that it is ethical to include affiliate links in his blog posts and LinkedIn updates, without disclosing that they are affiliate links that will earn him money.

That just doesn’t sit right with me. And this issue is now swirling around a prominent curator and blogger who is also using affiliate links – quite successfully – to pay the bills.

Maria Popova publishes the wildly popular Brain Pickings. I started following her on Twitter last year and sometimes click through to read her blog. Her content is always interesting and beautifully presented, although sometimes too long for the time I set aside for recreational reading.

Popova refers to her site as “ad free,” even though it is supported by affiliate links. According to this post in On Advertising, Popova rakes in substantial revenue from the links while soliciting donations for her “ad free” site. I was disappointed to read this. (By the way, you can often tell when a link is affiliated; just look at the code, where you’ll often see the referrer’s name. Sometimes it’s just a number, though.)

What do you think? Is an affiliate link an ad? Would you use affiliate links without disclosing them?

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