Toolbars: The greatest threat to the affiliate marketing industry

In the last 5 years, I have observed a proliferation of toolbars within the affiliate industry.  While some do not understand what they do or why they are harmful, I believe that toolbars are the absolute greatest threat to the future of the industry.

Let’s start with…

What are they?

Toolbars come in many forms.  The most common are browser extensions.  They operate as a way to over-write cookie attribution under the guise of creating a valuable experience for a customer.

Why is it bad?  

Toolbars – by definition – offer no incremental traffic for an Advertiser.  Think about it.  It’s common sense.  That person was going to come to your site anyway.  Difference is – you are paying someone for it.  It’s like a guy who stands by a stop sign and collects a toll everytime you come down a street – when you had always travelled down that street toll-free in the past.

And, why are you paying him?  A toolbar publisher would argue that they offer some incredible value add.  Let’s say they are a “deals toolbar publisher”.  That publisher might populate the toolbar with deals from a feed of your company’s deals.   But, is that creating additional value?  Isn’t that what your site is supposed to do?  I fail to see the value in any toolbar I have ever observed.

It’s worse than you may think

That’s right.  It is worse.  Think about it.  Not only are you paying the toolbar publisher, you might also be paying for other channels that brought that visitor to the site to begin with.  So, it’s possible that you are paying for a PPC click or another channel and then you are paying the publisher – the publisher who didn’t even bring the visitor to your site to begin with.

And, again, keep in mind – toolbars NEVER create traffic.  NEVER.  They only dilute revenue and suck spend.

Now, networks like Linkshare and Commission Junction have agreements in place with these types of publishers that prevent the publishers from over-writing affiliate attribution.  Sounds nice.  But, it’s actually self-serving.  (And, surprisingly, when you talk with these toolbar publisher guys, this is always a major selling point…. “we don’t over-write other affiliates.”  Well, that’s just dandy.)

What about your other channels?  How about SEO?  Think they care about your branded SEO?  Visitors that you were going to get and convert at a high rate anyway?  Think they care about that?  Some have rules that they will not over-write SEM.  Some don’t.  But, what about display partners?  Think they care about that?  How about price comparison sites?  Care?  Doubtful.

But, this is not all they do.

Toolbars don’t just over-write attribution on the naturally occurring clicks that were going to come to your site anyway.  They also go into Google and dilute your SEO efforts.  I have seen examples where the toolbars place a highlighted area over a search result where they can draw the eye of the visitor to the page to get the click.  So, now they are manipulating Google!

As you can see, this is becoming a major problem in the industry.  What’s the impact?

If toolbars are not kept in check, eventually C-level execs in major Advertisers will not just slap down specific toolbar pubs.  They will throw the kitchen sink at affiliates in general.  Good and bad will get lumped in together because it will be hard to discern who is good and who is bad.  I have personally worked with Commission Junction in helping to draft new rules to control this problem.  But, more must be done.  It is hard for Affiliate Managers with limited time constraints to commit the know-how and time necessary to police programs.  Networks must step in to even the playing field and make it safe for advertisers and publishers, alike.

And, once companies get sucked in to the “toolbar crack”, it becomes hard to put it down.  Why?  You will have to deal with the sizable comps in future years.  And, no matter what, someone will have to do “some explainin'”, but the sooner you own the problem and deal with it, the better off – as an Advertiser – you will be.

When it comes to toolbars, there is definitely a long-term and a short-term play.  The short-term potential for profits is significant.  But, the long-term threat to not only the publishers – but the entire industry – is immense.

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