Practical Ecommerce

Bitly-Viglink Affiliate Deal Raises Concerns

In early February, Bitly, the popular URL-shortening service, partnered with affiliate tool Viglink to auto-monetize every shortlink generated by Bitly’s millions of users. To understand the impact of this partnership, consider that Bitly encodes more than 600 million links per month. Those links generate approximately eight billion clicks monthly. Today, every one of those eight billion clicks potentially sets a Viglink affiliate cookie on the end-user’s machine. And every time Viglink earns commission, it shares it with Bitly.

Bitly’s popular URL shortener.

Bitly’s popular URL shortener.

Bitly-Viglink Arrangement

Here’s how it works. Say that you find a sweater you like on Amazon. You want to see what your friends think about that sweater. So, you post a link to that sweater on your various social networks. However, to stay within the character limit constraints of the social media platforms, you use Bitly to shorten the URL.

Since Bitly has partnered with Viglink, when your friends click on that link, Viglink’s affiliate cookie is dropped onto their computers. This means that Viglink, and subsequently Bitly, could earn a commission on any purchase your friends make on Amazon, provided those purchases were made within the cookie duration window.

Effect on Ecommerce Merchants

The challenge for ecommerce merchants is deciding whether or not this is a commissionable occurrence. The ideal definition of affiliate marketing is paying commission for a sale driven by fully disclosed marketing activities.

So, in the example above, the question for many observers is, “Did Bitly do anything to influence the commissionable sale?” When you posted the Bitly link, you were not intending to get your friends to purchase the sweater. In fact, you were not trying to influence any of their purchases. Yet, if your friends clicked your link and completed a purchase, should Viglink and Bitly earn commission on those sales? This is a decision that will likely need to be made on a merchant-by-merchant basis.

The partnership most certainly interferes with attribution within the affiliate channel. Say a blogger, who is one of your approved affiliates, promotes your brand across her social media channels. To keep her posts short and pithy, the blogger uses Bitly to shorten the affiliate link. Now that Bitly is in partnership with Viglink, if the blogger’s post drives a sale, that sale is attributed to Viglink, not to the blogger. You may be able to see evidence of this in your affiliate reporting. See if Viglink is driving more sales than usual. Then, look to see if you have less sales coming in from your bloggers.

Where Do Sales Come From?

This partnership is also likely interfering with attribution across your own internal marketing efforts. Say that you are having a sale and you want to promote it to your followers on Facebook. You post a link to your sale on your Facebook page, and again, due to character limit constraints, you shorten your URL using Bitly.

This is a post that you created yourself, distributed across your own social media channels, with the intent of driving traffic to your own site. All ad spend and all resulting revenue should be attributed to your own promotional efforts. However, since you used Bitly, the resulting transactions are now being attributed to Viglink and thus to your affiliate channel. Further, you are now paying commission on these sales, which means you have ad spend coming from social media. The transaction is less profitable.

Bitly Deserving of Revenue?

Before you object to Bitly’s new partnership, consider what you are paying Bitly for its URL shortening service. If you, as a retailer, use Bitly to shorten your links for free, and you are benefitting from Bitly’s reporting, then perhaps Bitly is deserving of a payment. However, you still need to decide whether to attribute the sale to your social media channel or to your affiliate channel.

In 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission updated its disclosure guidelines to state that if a blogger or social media user receives any sort of monetary compensation to promote a product, brand, or service, he must disclose that relationship.

But since Bitly is a passive tool, it is not promoting a product, brand, or service. It seems to fall outside of the technical definition provided by these FTC disclosure guidelines. However, the practice of auto-monetizing user-generated content does not seem to follow the spirit of transparency and disclosure.

Carolyn Kmet
Carolyn Kmet
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Comments ( 16 )

  1. Karen March 26, 2015 Reply

    Very informative and important to know! I will be switching to another URL shortening service. I have never cared for Vigilink as an affiliate because sales are cloaked by their linking network!

  2. Ray Crawford March 26, 2015 Reply

    Wow. Genius and appalling, simultaneously… ;)

  3. Evan March 26, 2015 Reply

    Wow!!!

  4. Wade Tonkin March 26, 2015 Reply

    We ran a quick test and it appears that at this time, VigLink leaves network affiliate links alone, so it doesn’t appear to be a concern for affiliates using Bitly. Merchants with affiliate programs should definitely be sure they either are using a different shortener service or script to handle their link shortening for social sharing to prevent attribution confusion and unnecessary expense.

  5. Carolyn Kmet March 26, 2015 Reply

    Excellent observation, Wade. Thank you for sharing the results of your test. So at least within the affiliate channel, affiliates will be safe.

  6. Antony March 27, 2015 Reply

    This is more ratched than the Skimlinks-Pinterest deal couple years ago. Just sayin.

  7. Max March 27, 2015 Reply

    Wow, this is such a great move because now every site working with viglink that is gonna be famous for fraud will be associated with fraud :)

  8. Jordan Judd March 27, 2015 Reply

    What happens in the scenario that an affiliate is using a bitly, but VigLink isn’t in the merchant’s affiliate program?

  9. Carolyn Kmet March 27, 2015 Reply

    I’ve heard from a lot of you about this article, and I want to emphasize…Viglink does NOT intend to overwrite existing affiliate cookies, which means that this partnership should not impact attribution within your affiliate channel. Viglink founder and CEO Oliver Roup reached out to me today via email and said this: “We do a ton of work to make sure this doesn’t happen. Certainly any of the network formats are well understood by us and never overwritten. It’s possible that obscure in-house formats we might not know about but as soon as they are brought to our attention we will make sure we recognize them and never overwrite an existing affiliate link.”

    As you can also see from the comments, another affiliate manager, Wade, did a quick test using an affiliate network link, and was able to show that the affiliate link was not overwritten by Viglink. As the ecommerce industry continues to grow, there will always be new issues to be considered. This is a positive indication of growth and should not be looked upon as a negative development.

    Further, and I’ve said this privately as well, Viglink does add value as an affiliate. They bring SheKnows, About.com and many other quality content sites to the affiliate marketing table. Commerce links exist where they otherwise wouldn’t be. We as retailers do receive incremental traffic from Viglink’s tool. Bitly also has done many of us a service, and I absolutely believe they should be able to monetize their service in some way. My point is that the retailer needs to be aware of this partnership and must take the time to decide on how they will properly attribute transactions driven by the Bitly/VigLink partnership.

    • courtney May 2, 2015 Reply

      Carolyn, while it is reassuring to hear that viglink is not overwriting existing affiliate cookies that comes with a BIG OL BUT. As in but what about content that we as a retailer created, shortlinked, and then shared with our fans, followers, and customers? Example:
      – we create a blog post
      – we shortlink it
      – we share it with our fane
      – they click the shortlink
      – it redirects through our affiliate program, giving credit to viglink.

      When viglink inserts themselves into that click stream, how could anyone possibly claim that viglink is deserving of the commission. They played absolutely no part in generating the traffic or sale. B/c this is exactly what they are doing…just this past week…more than 3 months after the launch and negative feedback pointing out the issues with this. So they knowingly stole traffic and commissions from merchants and are still doing it

  10. max March 28, 2015 Reply

    About.com does not even use VigLink, it actually uses a similar service called digidip (private network).

  11. Martin Mollerup March 29, 2015 Reply

    There is various opinions about this collaboration between BitLy and VigLink.

    Could be cool if you would help others to know about your experiences with each of them by sharing it on AdMonial.com.

    AdMonial is sharing testimonials about the advertising industry, here’s the direct non-shortened link to each company,

    https://admonial.com/businesses/bitly/testimonials

    https://admonial.com/businesses/viglink-com/testimonials

  12. Roxanne April 1, 2015 Reply

    Viglink is signed up as a HeadBlade affiliate through ShareASale, and I just now see that they must be doing something shady. Somehow they managed to make a commission on a test purchase I made, using my own personal information, on our website. I’m not sure what the heck’s going on, but now I don’t trust them at all!

  13. Andy Meadows April 2, 2015 Reply

    We have long discussed the merits of paying for services with cash vs data. The real cost of this is yet to be determined. We penned our own article on the true costs of “free” here: http://budurl.me/FeeOverFree

  14. Mike Peters April 14, 2015 Reply

    So long VigLink – you’re out of my affiliate network!

  15. Rick ramos May 9, 2015 Reply

    wow, great info and article!
    Time to switch to something else

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