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. 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. However, 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 not as a reviewer, but as a salesperson. It’s a sort of a catch-22 situation.

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. But not only is this practice the norm, but for the most part the audience is very accepting of this practice.

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 and morals or rather the potential for those with a lack of morals to abuse this system. 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 morals damages the reputation of independent reviewers and taints the practice of using affiliate links.

But not everyone who uses affiliate links is a “shill” with a lack of morals who is only looking to farm income streams for their own gain. I myself 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 believed that I’m not biased by these affiliate schemes, I know that my own content is not motivated by these links. I also believe that people are generally pretty good at spotting those who are and are not 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. Left vs right, Mac vs PC, Xbox vs PlayStation, iPhone vs Android to name but a few of the less controversial 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. Its almost as if nuance does not exist on the internet.

However, there seems to be a growing swell of voices online that are beginning to grow hostile to the practice of using affiliate links. Its hard to say if these voices are a vocal minority who are unable to see the nuance or if this is a reaction to an increasing abuse of affiliate schemes by those with a lack of morals or at least the perception of this being the case. Regardless, its 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 people claiming that creators shouldn’t earn any income from their review content as it biases them.

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 incentives, 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. It seems rather superficial to focus on just the financial aspect.

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. YouTube isn't a real job, I hear the toxic minority shout. Well, 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. Without an income stream, this content would be incredibly difficult, and many independent creators would disappear leaving behind only the large publications or only the ones who are biased in other ways.

This is, of course, not to diminish the very real problem with abuse and potential for bias that comes along with using affiliate schemes to support review content. There is absolutely a moral dilemma that comes with using these schemes and in some areas, it has become a significantly 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.

So, what is to be done? I see many people complaining about this, 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. 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 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.

Without any other viable option, that brings us back to affiliate schemes and we see why they have become an almost necessary evil for content creators on YouTube. So how do we deal with the ethical dilemma? And as I cannot answer this for all creators, I wonder, specifically, what am I to do about this problem?

I could of course accept that affiliate links are a necessary evil just like thousands of other creators do daily. I could continue to use an affiliate link wherever I provide a link, and I can ignore the naysayers who would use this as ammo to challenge my integrity. Or I could accept the financial hit and not use affiliate links at all.

But there could be a third option, a compromise. And it is this third option that I am most favourable to. I 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(s) which is(are) the subject(s) of that review. Instead, I can provide a generic affiliate link or referral link that does not link to the product.

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. By not linking directly to the product which I am currently reviewing this removes the ethical dilemma and helps to minimise bias. This, undoubtedly, will still affect my income, but I can still provide other options for people who want to support the channel.

I should also note that certain affiliate schemes will still provide a kickback to the creator no matter what product you end up purchasing on the site. So, for example, if I link my favourite headphone for gaming and you click that link and buy AA batteries, I can still earn something back from that click.

That’s a nice little tip for you there, find your favourite creators affiliate link and use it whenever you shop online, it won’t cost you anything extra and it will allow you to support your creator.

I think this compromise is more than fair. 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 I think it is time, as creators, that we re-evaluate how we use affiliate schemes within our review content. Hold ourselves accountable, shore up our integrity and minimise bias wherever we can. Unfortunately, affiliate schemes are getting in the way of our integrity and without changing the way we use them, it will inevitably hurt us all.

Going forwards I will be making changes to the way I use affiliate schemes. I will also be writing up a disclaimer to explain how, where and when I use these monetisation schemes in my content. I don't have it all figured out just yet but I'll get there. It’s a small step, but it is one that I think is necessary.

My affiliate Disclaimer can be found here: Affiliate Disclaimer