The Ethics of Affiliate Links in Reviews

Let’s not beat around the bush, online content creation, especially review content and extra especially content creation in the tech space, is a costly venture that leaves many a creator with a large hole in their wallet. What starts as a hobby or passion project quickly becomes financially unsustainable (or leads to vast amounts of debt). Luckily YouTube provides their content creators with a way to earn income in the form of ad revenue. Unfortunately, for most, this revenue is nowhere near enough to fund a successful growing channel. At least not until the channel becomes large enough that it can generate the amount of watch time required to earn a decent income and attract sponsors. It’s no wonder so many YouTubers see themselves beholden to the YouTube algorithm.

Many creators turn to affiliate schemes to provide additional income streams to their channel. A quick glance at most tech focused creators reveals that the use of affiliate links, even in review content is not only common, but seems to be the norm. An observation that really drives home how much many creators rely on this extra income. Not only is this practice the norm, but for the most part the audience is very accepting of this practice.

When I first started YouTube I had a number of comments asking me to provide links to the products I talked about. It is almost a no-brainer, that link may as well be an affiliate link. It costs the clicker nothing extra and it provides a potential kick-back for the creator. If affiliate programs are needed by creators to fund their content and it costs the viewer nothing extra, then what’s the problem? Well, this is where we dive into the murky world of ethics.

The Problem

If I were so inclined, I could be tempted to showcase products only in a good light in order to increase the chances of people using my affiliate links and by extension increase my income. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why this lack of ethics damages the reputation of independent reviewers and taints the practice of using affiliate links.

Even for the honest creators, who probably make up the majority despite how people feel about it, who use affiliate programs to earn income, in the case of review content this can quickly turn into an ethical dilemma. I need to earn an income to support the channel, or it is unsustainable, but if I use affiliate links for the products I review, I risk being seen in the eyes of some, not as a reviewer, but as a salesperson. It’s a sort of a catch-22 situation.

There seems to be a growing swell of voices online that are beginning to grow hostile to the practice of using affiliate links. It’s hard to say if these voices are a vocal minority who are unable to see the nuance or if this is a reaction to a perceived increase in abuse of affiliate schemes by those with a lack of ethics. Regardless, it’s a concern I am not unsympathetic to. Anecdotally, I am seeing more and more creators being attacked for using affiliate schemes or trying to find other ways to monetise their content. In some cases, it goes even further with some more extremist people claiming that creators shouldn’t earn any income from their review content at all, in case it biases them.

Bias

There is of course a very real problem with abuse of affiliate schemes and potential for bias that comes along with using these schemes to support review content. There is absolutely an ethical dilemma that comes with using these schemes and in some areas, it has become a problematic practice. If you can’t determine if a reviewer is providing an honest review or is just looking to farm clicks on their affiliate schemes, then we have a very serious problem. As a creator I am sympathetic to the need to diversify my income. But as a consumer I cannot shake how problematic it is to earn an income that is influenced by the outcome of a review

However, not everyone who uses affiliate links is a “shill” with a lack of ethics who is only looking to farm income streams for their own gain. In fact, I would say that the vast majority of at least small-medium sized channels are just looking to diversify their income so they can continue to create content.

Myself, I have regularly used affiliate links, even in my reviews. When I started my channel, I didn’t think twice about using affiliate links, I saw that everyone else was doing it and I didn’t see a problem with it. I know that I’m not biased by these affiliate schemes, I know that my own content is not motivated by these links. I am always conscious of the potential and I make efforts to ensure it doesn't influence me. I also believe that people are generally pretty good at spotting those who are in it just for the money. There’s clearly nuance to the practice of using affiliate schemes and I think that most people understand this.

Nuance is a strange one to talk about on the internet, especially in a world that seems to be so divided, it seems like nuance is entirely lost in the modern age. Mac vs PC, Xbox vs PlayStation, iPhone vs Android to name but a few of the less controversial or political things. It at times feels as though everyone has made up their mind and they are squarely on one side of any argument and fervently opposed to the other. It’s almost as if nuance does not exist on the internet.

It should be noted that financial gain is hardly the only point of bias for a reviewer. There are many people out there prepared to tell you that their choice is the best choice because it’s the choice they made, because they have been provided undisclosed incentives, because they have an investment in the product or a competitor, because they are a fan of the brand (or because they hate the other brand) and even ignorance and naivety itself can be considered a bias. There are many ways in which a reviewer can be biased beyond financial reasons. There are even things beyond the human element that have the potential to create bias in any content such as the much more widespread than understood prevalence of unit variances thanks to manufacturing tolerances and stealth product revisions. It seems rather naïve to focus on just the publishers potential financial bias.

If you want to remove as much bias as possible from a review, you must remove the human from the review. Every single person, no matter how objective they try to be, holds some bias of some kind. In the case of headphones for example, some are biased purely towards the sound quality, forgiving all manner of build and comfort issues. It hurts like hell, and it falls apart in 6 months, but my god it’s a 10/10 on sound so it must be good, right?

If you follow my content at all closely, you probably know that kind of attitude is a pet peeve of mine. As far as I’m concerned, a headphone must be comfortable, it must be built to last, hell, I'd also be really happy if it looked great too. The sound quality is incredibly important, but it is just one aspect of a headphone as a whole, the sound, the build, the comfort, the cost all has to be in service of each other. Perhaps that is a bias on my part as well, it is one I try to make clear in my content. I’m not an “audiophile”, I’m someone who likes headphones. I care about a lot more than just the sound.

What’s more, I focus on low-mid tier priced products because that’s what I am comfortable with paying. I do not see the value-for-money in high end gear. I am always looking for the best bang for your buck. That could also be a bias and I'm open about it. Is there a point to more expensive headphones? I'm sure there is, but that’s not my focus at all. That's why my channel does not cover higher end products. At least at the moment with my current financial means and experience level, I would not be able to make content on high end gear without being biased in some way, therefore I avoid doing so.

All this goes to say that if you are looking for information, advice, and opinions on a product, you should seek to find a range of opinions from different people.

Ultimately, when you swipe your card and make a purchase, that’s your call. If you find you disagree with someone else’s opinion, that’s not only ok, but it’s to be expected. We don’t all agree, we don’t all value the same things and that’s fine. If you buy something you don’t like that someone else says they did like, that’s not their fault, that’s just life!

All this is to say that there are so many aspects to bias, that focusing on one small point, affiliate schemes, seems a bit naïve. If a creator uses affiliate links, what does that tell you about their biases? Nothing. It is but one data point of potential bias, but that’s about it.

What are the alternatives?

I see people complaining about affiliate schemes, but very few solutions. If the creator needs to earn an income to survive but cannot use affiliate links, what are the other options?

Well, the creator could rely on donations from their viewers. However, whilst many tens or hundreds of thousands of people are happy to consume their content, a very tiny fraction are prepared to actually donate to the creator. There are of course membership options like Patreon but these suffer from the same low uptake as with donations and come with significant added administration complexity. For this reason, schemes like Patreon are only really worth it for larger channels.

Another option is sponsorships or brand deals and collaborations. Many creators earn an income from companies by doing ad-reads in their videos. The issue with this is that the ad needs to be relevant to the audience but not bring in any further ethical complexity. I don’t need to explain why advertising for, or working with a headphone company on a headphone review channel might be considered a potential bias. But of course, the biggest issue with sponsorships are that, much like donations and membership schemes, they are really only available or viable for larger channels.

Merchandise is another option, although this also brings in another layer of administrative complexity. And it also suffers with the same issue of low uptake as with subscription or donation schemes. The effort reward ratio for smaller channels makes it simply not worth doing.

A creator could only review content that was sent to them by the manufacturer, thus not having to pay for the product themselves. This obviously has its own set of ethical dilemmas to contend with, and a tricky balance of trying to keep the relationship active that can lead to bias. There is even a potential financial incentive when you consider products being sent for free for the purposes of review. Although this is a far smaller issue than people assume it to be. The product isn't really free, its an obligation to do some work. Every time I accept a product to review, I am accepting an obligation to review it. What's more, selling it on afterwards, for whatever the used price is, is not worth it from a "business" perspective. It is worth far more for future content to have it around as a reference point which makes future content far more valuable for the viewer/reader. More often than not it'll end up sat in a drawer, never used again, until one day it might be brought out to include in a future content piece. This may be something that has a bigger influence on larger channels but from my perspective running a smaller channel, there is little to no actual financial incentive to receiving a "freebie" to review. There is of course the potential to earn some ad revenue from the content. But consider the topic of this piece, the whole point is that ad revenue isn't enough to run a successful growing channel. A free pair of earphones isn't going to buy a new camera, pay for my Creative Cloud subscription or buy that next new pair of headphones the community keeps asking me to review. There have been several times I have received some headphones on loan, shipped in from China, on which I had to pay import duties to get them through customs. In some cases this cost me more than the total ad revenue I earned on those review videos. No joke, content creation on YouTube is hard! Regardless, I don't think people should be up in arms about reviewers receiving samples from manufacturers. It gets products in front of critical eyes for the purposes of scrutiny and review and that benefits us all.

Loaning products from friends, family, audience members is an option that I know a lot of smaller reviewers use. It is not without its problems too. Firstly one has to actually have friends and family who share the same interests and have products to lend. As for loaning products from viewers, one first needs to have built up trust within the community, no one is going to send their pride and joy off to some random on the internet. Even assuming that trust has been built, there is still the issue of sending a product via postage to and from the reviewer. The risk involved with shipping, potentially internationally is high. Who takes on the responsibility if the package is lost or damaged in transit? And then there's the issue of reviewing a used headphone that has had potentially years of wear and tear, possibly undergone repairs, and part replacements. I've seen reviewers post horror stories where a lender has gotten mad at them for some part of the loaning process. I've seen reviewers post opinions on used headphones where the earpads have been replaced by aftermarket "upgrades" and they were unaware of the change or oblivious to the huge difference in performance that can come with third party upgrades or worn parts. There are too many variables and risks involved, the whole thing is a minefield that I would not wish to navigate.

Without any other viable options, that brings us back to affiliate schemes and we see why they have become an almost necessary evil for content creators on YouTube.

“YouTube isn't a real job” I hear the toxic minority shout as they consume the content, never donating, never clicking the links, ad blocker turned on. It is also of course, a naïve notion to expect a self-funded creator to provide "free" review content and not earn an income. This shows a complete lack of understanding for how costly this venture is, both in terms of time and money. Many creators do this as a side gig, spending the disposable income from their full-time job and their free time to create their content. This is not a sustainable practice in the long term. Believe me, I have spent way more on the Wheezy Tech channel than I have made in income from the channel and at this point I don't know if I will ever be able to properly fund the channel long term, not without pivoting to content that doesn't involve purchasing items to feature.

Without an effective income stream, this content would be incredibly difficult, and many independent creators would disappear leaving behind only the large publications and potentially only the ones who are biased in other ways. I don't think that would be a better situation.

Also on a personal level, I am not comfortable having my audience send me money directly. It creates a transactional relationship and that's not what I'm about. I'd much rather you just use my affiliate link when you do your online shopping that you were going to do anyway. It costs you nothing extra and it helps out the channel.

How affiliate schemes work

I should probably add an explainer for how many affiliate schemes actually work. Without naming any particular scheme.

Generally, an affiliate scheme works by allowing a creator (the affiliate) to provide a link to a product on an online store. If a user clicks the link and then goes through to purchase that product, a small percentage of that sale is paid to the affiliate.

However, if that product ends up being returned, the affiliate revenue generated is also cancelled. In some cases, this means that if the affiliate income has already been paid out, the affiliate can end up owing money back to the store. It is therefore in the creators best interest to ensure that their content is honest to prevent returns.

Another way these schemes work is that if a user clicks the link but then goes on to buy something completely different, a small percentage of that sale is also paid out. Although this percentage is usually significantly lower than the specific product that was linked, it is still income and every little helps.

This makes those links super versatile and useful as a more general income generator. And a very simple and easy way for users to support a creator. They can simply do all of their usual online shopping after following one of the creators links and allow that creator to earn some income without them having to actually donate to them. Its kind of a win-win situation.

Some other schemes that creators can use are referral schemes that usually provide some form of store credit or cumulative discount for referring people to the store. These are far less effective as the referral credit often expires after some time and cannot be cashed out. This means that to take advantage of this discount, the creator must make a purchase on that store before the credit expires. This can be useful for acquiring items for review, depending on how long it actually takes to bank enough credit to spend before it expires. Often this is not worth doing in the first place, although it could be more useful to larger channels.

Even affiliate schemes are not without their drawbacks, often involving complex sign up procedures and get cancelled if you don't earn enough referrals. There are often minimum income thresholds before a payout, and whilst some pay out directly, others require that you manually withdraw the funds and charge a transaction fee on every withdrawal. This means you may be better off letting the funds accumulate for a while before withdrawing it. Still, for a self-funded creator, these downsides are usually worth the effort.

What can be done?

If we accept the notion that affiliate schemes are bad. And I think if you have read this far you should already know my stance on this. But let’s play along for a moment.

For creators where donations, subscriptions, ad revenue, and sponsorships are not viable or not able to provide the required income, they need another income stream. If affiliate schemes are bad, then what can they do? Can we find a compromise?

Its clear that affiliate schemes are absolutely here to stay. Love them or hate them, they provide valuable and oft-times necessary tools for creators to be able to monetise their content. Without a robust monetisation strategy many creators would be unable to afford to continue to provide independent review content. And without financial support many independent reviewers would simply disappear. But how can we use them "ethically"?

I have been experimenting with ways to incorporate affiliate links into my content in a more “ethical” way. I could continue to use affiliate links on most of my content, but whenever I make review content, I choose not to use any affiliate links for the specific product which is the subject of that review. Instead, I can provide a generic affiliate link or referral link that does not link to the product in question.

I could also expand on this to include affiliate links for a selection of my favourite gear that I use regularly, such as my favourite headphones and gear that I use to record my videos such as my camera and microphone. By not linking directly to the product which I am currently reviewing this removes the ethical dilemma and helps to minimise bias whilst still providing links that users can use to support the channel.

But there is a problem.

During some of my experimenting with how I use these links, I have noticed that not linking to the product in question significantly decreases affiliate income. That's because the link doesn't actually link to the product, so people don't even click it. So then we have the problem that the scheme isn't doing what it needs to do, which is provide income.

But interestingly, something else I noticed, this is anecdotal and I don't know how this scales out with larger channels. But it doesn't seem to matter what I say, negative or positive, people still click the links. I have actually noticed a number of purchases of products that I specifically gave rather negative opinions on. People still went ahead and purchased the product anyway. I don't know what that says, but it does show that at least for some people, it doesn't seem to matter what you say, they are going to buy it (or not) anyway. And ultimately that's probably the best choice for them to find out if they actually like it or not. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

So, I find myself thinking this way:

  • Creators need a way to earn enough income to survive

  • Affiliate schemes often provide this income

  • Affiliate schemes can cause bias, but if the creator is conscious of this they are able to not let this affect them

  • Everyone is already biased in some way, consciously or otherwise which is why you should never hang your hopes on a single persons opinion

  • The audience will just buy whatever they want anyway, no matter what you say

  • Ultimately it’s up the audience to do their own research and make their own choices with their money

  • So why not just use affiliate links

I can't say that I know what the answer is. But I do know that for independent creators, reviewers to survive, they need to be able to fund their content. That is of course, assuming you believe that self-funded, independent creators have any right to exist alongside the larger publications. Of course I am biased but I feel like the more independent reviews there are, the better.

For the time being I will continue to employ affiliate schemes as I do not have a better alternative available to me. In time, if that changes I do plan to review this. However if they help me to remain independent and able to publish content that provides value then that can only be a good thing.

Conclusion

This article is not meant to attack those who choose not to use affiliate schemes and are in a position where they have the ability to turn down the extra revenue. Whether or not you choose to employ such methods of income in your content is entirely up to you. I do really understand the pitfalls, however I do feel like the issue gets blown way out of proportion in online discussions. Are affiliate schemes open to abuse? Yes! But what isn’t? What’s to stop someone posting an endless stream of misleading content regardless of their usage of affiliate schemes? There are plenty of publications out there who do just that. How do you know any creator, any opinion you read online is trustworthy or unbiased?

The simple truth is you don’t. At least not at first. But stay a while, get to know the publication and things should become clearer.

So I have to finish with the following statement. Every single opinion you watch or read or hear online or offline has the potential to have been influenced by bias, conscious or otherwise. That is the nature of human opinions. Before putting your hard earned money down on anything, you should do your own research and try and obtain as many opinions as possible to help you build a picture of what is right for you.

After this, there’s only one thing left that you can do. And that’s try the product for yourself. A hundred people could say positive or negative things about a product for you to try it and disagree and that’s just human nature. Collating data from opinions only gets you so far, but the last mile is a journey you have to make on your own.