Affiliate Program Policy & Rules Violations: How to Avoid

Learn how to avoid policy and rules violations in affiliate programs. Follow these instructions to stay in compliance and maximize your earnings.
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By Nick Cotter
Updated Jan 10, 2024

Affiliate Program Policy & Rules Violations: How to Avoid
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Navigating the world of affiliate marketing can feel like a tightrope walk sometimes.

One misstep, intentional or not, and you're looking at potential pitfalls and penalties.

Think of affiliate program rules like the unsaid etiquette of a dinner party; you might not know all the rules, but breaching them can lead to some awkward glances.

Lucky for you, you've stumbled upon your guide to understanding—and crucially, avoiding—these common violations. So, let's pull back the curtain together on affiliate program faux pas and ensure your marketing journey is both successful and hiccup-free.

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What is an Affiliate Program Violation?

When we talk about affiliate marketing, we're referring to a system where businesses reward partners (known as affiliates) for directing customers their way.

This could be through clicks, purchases, or certain actions taken on a website. It's a popular form of internet marketing that's been around since the dawn of ecommerce.

It sounds straightforward enough so far, doesn't it?

But here comes the tricky part: complying with all terms and conditions laid out by each individual program.

Affiliate program violations happen when an affiliate fails to adhere to these rules — whether knowingly or not — they've committed a violation. This can lead to penalties ranging from reduced commissions right up to account suspension or termination.

Affiliate program violation illustration

A few examples might include:

  • Cookie stuffing: This is when an affiliate tricks a visitor’s browser into creating a tracking cookie without them clicking on an affiliated link.
  • False advertising: Promising more than what’s actually offered is misleading and often results in unhappy customers.
  • Unapproved methods of promotion: Some programs forbid techniques like email spamming, incentivized clicks, or even using specific phrases in promotional content.

Bear in mind that each program has its own unique set of rules which means there isn't a 'one size fits all' approach here – you'll need to thoroughly read the fine print of each program you join.

Common Types of Violations:

Based on my experience managing various different affiliate programs, these are some of the most common types of affiliate violations I’ve run into.

1. Trademark Bidding:

It's a common misconception that trademark bidding is a fair game in affiliate marketing.

But, it's not all black and white when it comes to this practice.

Trademark bidding happens when an affiliate uses the brand’s name or trademark as keywords in paid search campaigns. This tactic can lead to inflated costs for the brand and confusion for consumers who might think they're clicking on an official site instead of an affiliate link.

For example, if I'm an affiliate marketer promoting popular software products and I use Microsoft’s brand name as one of my PPC keywords.

Example of affiliate partner bidding on “non-branded” search terms.
Example of affiliate partner bidding on “non-branded” search terms.
Example of affiliate partner bidding on “branded” search terms.
Example of affiliate partner bidding on “branded” search terms.

I'm essentially stepping into hot water if I don’t have approval from the brand. It's important for affiliates to respect trademarks and steer clear of keyword hijacking.

2. Adware and Spyware:

Adware and spyware are serious violations in the realm of online marketing.

These software programs often work behind scenes, tracking user behavior without consent or bombarding users with unsolicited ads.

Imagine you download what appears to be a harmless app but unbeknownst to you, it starts tracking your browsing habits or perhaps even personal information!

That's exactly how spyware operates. Adware, on the other hand, will inundate you with pop-up ads whether you're interested or not - making your online experience more frustrating than enjoyable.

3. False Advertising:

False advertising is another big no-no in affiliate marketing.

If promises made about a product or service aren't delivered upon purchase, trust erodes fast between consumers and brands alike.

Scenario: The Deceptive "Mega Sale" Event

Background: Julia's Boutique is an online store that sells high-end women's fashion. To boost her sales, Julia decided to collaborate with an affiliate marketer named Darren. Darren is known for aggressive marketing techniques and promises to increase traffic and sales significantly.

The Deceptive Strategy:

  1. Darren sends out emails and social media advertisements promising an exclusive "80% off Mega Sale" at Julia's Boutique to those who click on his affiliate link.
  2. When users click on the link expecting to see the promised sale, they're directed to the main page of Julia's Boutique. No such sale exists.
  3. Simultaneously, Darren's system performs 'coupon stuffing'. As soon as the user lands on the website via his affiliate link, multiple coupon codes get added to the user's session without their knowledge.
  4. When users add products to their cart and proceed to checkout, they find that one of these "stuffed" coupons gets automatically applied, giving them a minor 5% discount. Although pleased with the unexpected discount, it's nowhere near the promised 80%.

The Aftermath:

  1. Users feel deceived. While some might complete their purchase due to the 5% discount, many feel misled and leave the website.
  2. Julia's Boutique faces backlash from customers accusing them of false advertising.
  3. Upon investigation, Julia discovers Darren's coupon stuffing method and realizes that he had a double motive: to earn affiliate commissions and to falsely inflate the effectiveness of his marketing by showing that users used a coupon, even if it was not the one advertised.

4. Cookie Stuffing:

Cookie stuffing (also known as cookie dropping) involves placing an affiliate tracking cookie onto a website visitor’s device without their knowledge or consent.

This deceptive practice can lead to affiliates earning commission for sales they did not genuinely refer.

Scenario: The "Ultimate Tech Review" Deception

Background: TechVista is an online store specializing in the latest gadgets and tech products. Eager to boost online sales, TechVista partners with an affiliate marketer named Max, who runs a tech review website.

The Deceptive Strategy:

  1. Max creates a post titled "Top 10 Must-Have Gadgets of 2023" on his website.
  2. Readers, eager to see the latest trends, flock to Max's article. While the post does provide reviews, Max has incorporated a hidden strategy.
  3. As readers open the post, even without clicking on any products or affiliate links, Max's system injects a tracking cookie from TechVista into their browsers. This cookie indicates Max as the referral source.
  4. Over the next few days, if any of these readers decide to shop at TechVista (whether or not they were influenced by Max's article), the cookie ensures Max gets a commission for the sale.

The Aftermath:

  1. TechVista sees a sudden rise in affiliate commissions paid to Max, seemingly indicating his effectiveness as an affiliate.
  2. However, many of these customers never interacted with Max's affiliate links. They were unaware that their purchase was tagged as coming through Max's referral.
  3. Another affiliate marketer, who genuinely influences his audience to buy from TechVista but doesn't employ deceptive techniques, notices a significant dip in his commissions. He grows suspicious and informs TechVista.
  4. TechVista conducts an investigation and discovers the cookie stuffing malpractice by Max.

5. Misuse of Assets:

Misusing assets provided by an affiliate program includes actions such as altering brand logos or using proprietary images and content without permission.

This kind of behavior tarnishes the brand’s image and can confuse potential customers about what is officially endorsed by the company.

For instance, let's say I take a professional photo from a clothing brand's website and edit it to fit my own aesthetic before posting it on my blog with an affiliate link.

While my intentions might not be malicious, this action constitutes misuse of assets because I altered the brand’s original image without obtaining explicit permission first.

Consequences of Violations:

Navigating the world of affiliate marketing can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope. Stray too far from the path, and you'll find yourself facing some pretty serious consequences.

Affiliate violation illustration in jail

1. Financial Repercussions:

First off, let's talk money.

When you violate the terms of an affiliate program, it hits your wallet hard.

You could lose out on pending commissions, face fines or be forced to return previously earned revenue. For instance, suppose you've been promoting a product heavily and have amassed a significant amount in unpaid commissions.

If you've violated any terms, those earnings are likely gone with the wind.

2. Reputation Damage:

Next up is your reputation.

It's not just about losing current partnerships; violations can significantly impact future opportunities as well.

Once word gets around that you're not playing by the rules, other companies might think twice before partnering with you. And in this industry where relationships matter most, that's a blow you don't want to take.

3. Account Termination:

Another potential fallout? Complete account termination. That profitable relationship you had cultivated over time? It's all over in an instant if your account gets terminated due to violations.

Case in point - Amazon Associates Program has been known to terminate accounts without warning for policy infractions such as cloaking links or including prices in promotional content.

4. Legal Action:

Lastly, we need to address legal action - yes it can get that serious!

Depending on how severe the violation is and who the injured party may be (think big corporations), they might decide to take things more seriously than just terminating your account or withholding payments.

How Affiliate Networks and Programs Detect Violations:

Let's dive into the intricacies of how affiliate networks and programs detect violations.

It's important to know that this isn't a random process; companies have developed sophisticated methods to ensure everyone plays by the rules.

Affiliate monitoring illustration

1. Monitoring Tools:

First up, we've got affiliate monitoring tools.

These digital sleuths tirelessly trawl through mountains of data, looking for any signs of foul play.

They're programmed to sniff out everything from click fraud (where a person or bot repeatedly clicks on an ad without genuine interest) to cookie stuffing (when affiliates forcibly place tracking cookies onto a user's computer). And that's just the tip of the iceberg!

Fraud detection software

Here are some of the tools available today:

  1. Fraud Blocker
  2. Adjust
  3. AppsFlyer
  4. CHEQ
  5. ClickGUARD
  6. Lunio

2. Regular Audits:

Next in line: regular audits. Affiliate networks undertake these thorough inspections like clockwork, combing through each affiliate's activities with a fine-toothed comb.

They check for compliance with their terms and conditions, looking at things like promotional methods used by the affiliate, website content quality, plus any undisclosed incentives offered to customers.

If anything smells fishy during an audit - you guessed it - they'll be on top of it faster than you can say "affiliate violation".

3. Competitor and Customer Reports:

Last but not least is competitor and customer reports. This may surprise you but oftentimes it's competitors or customers who blow the whistle on unethical practices.

Competitors keep an eagle eye out for others in their niche who might be bending or breaking rules to gain an unfair advantage. On the other hand, savvy customers often spot when something doesn't add up - such as being lured by false promises or deceptive marketing tactics - and they won’t hesitate to report these violations either.

Best Practices to Avoid Affiliate Program Violations:

Read the Fine Print:

I can't stress enough how important it is to thoroughly understand the terms and conditions of any affiliate program you're considering.

It's not just about signing up and hoping for the best, it's about knowing what you're getting into. I've seen many affiliates get their accounts suspended or terminated because they didn't comply with certain rules that were clearly stated in the fine print. For instance, some programs prohibit promoting through paid advertisements or specific types of content like adult or violent material.

Stay Updated:

The online world is ever-evolving which means affiliate marketing programs are subject to change as well. Regularly check your email for updates from your affiliate manager and make sure to visit your program’s website frequently. This way, you'll stay abreast of any changes to commission structures, promotional methods allowed, or even new products available for promotion.

Transparency is Key:

Honesty isn’t just a virtue in life; it's also a necessity in affiliate marketing. Always disclose your affiliate relationships to your audience. Not only does this build trust with them but it also ensures compliance with FTC guidelines which require disclosure of these relationships.

Invest in Education:

The more knowledgeable you are about affiliate marketing, the less likely you'll be to commit violations unknowingly. There are plenty of resources out there – blogs, eBooks, webinars – that offer comprehensive guides on everything from choosing profitable niches to understanding SEO optimization techniques.

Seek Clarifications:

Lastly but certainly not least - if something seems unclear regarding program regulations, don’t hesitate to reach out for clarification! The last thing anyone wants is an unexpected violation due to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of rules.

Conclusion

After this deep dive, I'm confident that you're better equipped to successfully navigate the world of affiliate programs without stumbling into common violations. It's crucial to remember these key points:

  • Always fully disclose your affiliate links. Transparency isn't just a good business practice; it's a requirement by the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Avoid making false or misleading claims about products. Stick to honest reviews and authentic endorsements.
  • Don't try to trick search engines with cloaked links or keyword stuffing.

I also want to stress how vital it is to stay updated on the guidelines of your specific affiliate program as well as any changes in industry standards and regulations. The rules can vary between different programs and might evolve over time.

Nick Cotter

Nick Cotter

Founder & CEO
Growann

With over 7 years navigating the intricate realms of marketing, and specifically B2B partner marketing, Nick has forged collaborations with top-tier tech brands, prominent agencies, and some of the industry's foremost B2B publishers and content creators. His deep immersion in both marketing landscapes showcases a trajectory of expertise and innovation. Identifying a significant void in specialized resources, he founded Growann.The aspiration? Deliver unparalleled insights and guidance, carving out a dedicated space where the broader marketing and B2B partner marketing communities can flourish.