A broken system has led to a massive credibility problem
Photo: scanrail/Getty Images
The worst, most outlandish nightmares concocted by the loudest online skeptics of tech journalism are no longer just hate-filled rhetoric. Now they’re true.
Many of the smaller, more “independent” online reviewers aren’t just trying to give you their honest opinions about the latest gadget or video game. They’re also increasingly acting as frontline salespeople for the very product they’re covering. They earn commissions from direct sales referrals thanks to affiliate links.
It’s a broken system.
As a long-time reviewer myself, I’ve watched as the last barrier between marketing and online reviews falls apart in front of me.
Have you ever seen an article about a gadget that offered to “find you the best price on this product” just by clicking on a link?
This is usually an affiliate link, and it’s supposed to be accompanied by text saying that the poster may get a commission, both according to Federal Trade Commission rules (in the United States), and specific program terms. In the case of Amazon, a specific single-line of boilerplate is the only public disclosure members are allowed (See Section Five). Affiliate links aren’t simply links to the product’s website. Instead, they take you right to a retail outlet, like Amazon.
If you’ve got a device and an internet connection, you can publish a review.
Many online retail outlets have affiliate or associate programs, but Amazon’s is the most prominent. Users sign up, go through a simple approval process, and can then create links for their content directly to any product pages. This allows online creators to market specific products they use or enjoy, and Amazon doesn’t even have to hire them.
I’ve never been a member myself and I never will be, though I am internet acquaintances with some others who are. I made that decision long ago and recently re-affirmed it publicly so that there’d be no question over the links I post in my own stories.
If you buy a product through one of these links, the shopping site sends a small fee back to the site you came from. Affiliate programs were designed to spread the general reach of online retail. It’s an automated machine that places ads all over the internet for Amazon and other stores without their sales departments lifting a finger.
Their rampant use by both enthusiast tech journalists and larger web sites has permanently entrenched the practice as “common” in the space, with very little consideration of the underlying issues.
When a critic posts an affiliate link for a product they’re reviewing, they’re now earning money directly from the sales of the thing you’re supposed to trust them to evaluate.
That’s a big, obvious ethical issue. And it’s created a snowball effect that has fed the rage, elitism, and skepticism already rampant in dedicated online fan communities.
The most recent controversy hit popular up-and-coming YouTube tech reviewer Joshua Valour. He reviews headphones and audio gear, and I’m a personal fan of his. I like his professional visual production and laid back, straightforward critical style.
However, Reddit’s headphone community discovered that he ran a questionable promoted post on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. It turned out to be a badly disclosed marketing cooperation with Drop, the group buying site formerly known as Massdrop, and it caused great skepticism and ire.
The sponsored post in question contained an embedded older video review Valour had produced of a Drop-exclusive headphone, in which he stated that Drop didn’t ask him or pay him to review the headphone. So far, so good. But the video was also accompanied by an extensive list of Drop affiliate links, all with direct kickbacks to Valour attached.
It emerged in that thread that, although Valour ran the ad on his own personal Facebook page, Drop had paid him to do so and helped him construct the post. Instead of just running the ad post through their own business page, Drop specifically asked Valour to run the sponsored content on his page, making it seem more friendly and less like an official piece of Drop marketing. Valour was paid twice by Drop, both on the front end for running the ad, and the back end for any sales generated by the links.
Drop made some damage control statements to the Reddit community, saying that Valour shouldn’t bear the responsibility for the ad and that everyone should be mad at Drop instead, since they paid for it. However, by asking Valour to run it on his personal page instead of promoting the content through their own channels, they effectively put the internet rage target right on Valour’s back.
Valour appears to have avoided commenting on the matter entirely. His twitter account has been quiet since the last day of October, and he didn’t step into the Reddit thread.
How can lone reviewers maintain their trust collectively in a system where this kind of thing is a common practice? Is it fair to expect individuals to operate with the same level of critical integrity allegedly practiced by large outlets?
I say “allegedly,” because it’s easy to find affiliate links on the larger sites, too.
In the “old days,” most tech reviewers were salaried employees of journalistic outlets owned by companies. Those large outlets still exist today, and they ostensibly make money through advertising departments, which are supposed to be completely separate from the content creators and editorial division in a practice known colloquially as “separation of church and state.”
Many of them also post affiliate links regularly, though they go about it in different ways. Eurogamer uses recurring “Deals” articles, to keep their affiliate links separate from their critical content. IGN posts a small “SEE DEAL” link right at the top of every game and product review, immediately accompanied by a small disclosure in a boxout that also tells you that the ad department placed this link, not the reviewer, who I’m sure was thrilled about it.
And Wirecutter, proudly a “New York Times Company,” has a large piece of text on the top of their site claiming to be “reader-supported,” then laying out that they’re actually supported by readers buying products through affiliate links.
They might actually be violating the terms of Amazon’s affiliate agreement, which states that, “Our customers are not, by virtue of your participation in the Associates Program, your customers” (Section Three). Wirecutter should change this text to read, “Wirecutter is Amazon-supported through referral fees,” if they want to stay true to the letter of the agreement they signed. If you follow the “Learn more” link, you’ll eventually find text that’s closer to the letter of the agreement, and claims that the writers have no say in what affiliate links appear on their pieces. If the larger companies with their legal and ad departments continually fall into this ethical trap in search of commissions, what kind of example are they setting for folks just working out of their homes?
Nowadays, anyone from any background can potentially dip their toe into the world of product reviews thanks to the democratization of online publishing. If you’ve got a device and an internet connection, you can publish a review. That’s great, in theory. But the system was never built for this massive number of reviewers and creators, and instead of adapting, it barreled along like a terrifying overloaded freight train.
I’d rather see a direct marketing campaign with an influencer than an affiliate link.
I first started writing reviews professionally in 2003, working for a computer magazine in Portland, Oregon. Most of the products and video games I reviewed were purchased at their full retail prices either by the company or sometimes out of my own pocket. In the few rare cases where I reviewed something furnished by one of our advertisers, I had zero direct contact with them and they had no say over the content of the final article.
This was always disclosed in the pages of the magazine, but that didn’t stop readers from assuming we’d been paid to give a product a positive or negative review. That skepticism has always been out there, and I understand it. Readers should be a little skeptical and should seek out reviewers who are sharing their honest opinions and insights alongside full disclosure of any arrangements.
I fell away from reviewing for a few years after the magazine closed, in part due to the rise of online enthusiast journalism. But recently, I took it up again.
I personally think it’s acceptable to write about products based on my time with review units, as long as the company lays out clear and ethical terms and I disclose them. The reviewer should also be expected to return the unit after writing the review. Reviewers should not accept review units that are dependent on good reviews, or any review at all. In these cases, the reviewer doesn’t gain any direct monetary benefit from sales of that product and is free to express their honest opinion.
I know that even this level of relationship is too much for some readers, and I don’t know what to say to them. I think it’s unreasonable to expect professional reviewers to cover a wide range of products with timely coverage without accepting review units.
Online tech reviewing is now my side gig. I work at a small market radio station for my “day job,” doing live audio production and providing IT support for the automation systems. Technology, music, and gaming are my hobbies first again, and my job second, but I thought it would be fun to express my opinions about them in a public forum and stretch my old review muscles.
I knew that when I started writing reviews in public spaces like Medium, I needed to maintain the critical separation that is so vital to the ethical core of reviewing. So I took the firm stance to fund everything I reviewed from my own personal income, and only accept review units if the deal was 100% clean and I had full editorial control over the final piece, just like when I was at the magazine.
This is considered the gold standard for ethical enthusiast reviews. I’ve even seen some other writers who get review units to go so far as spending their own cash on a second copy of the product to give away to a random user.
The three headphones I’ve been sent for review in the last five years are permanent fixtures in my reference library that I’ll never sell or otherwise directly profit from. Photo: courtesy of the author.
I’ve reviewed almost 200 pairs of headphones, games, and tech products over the last four years on Medium, and I’ve paid out of my own pocket for all but three of them. In the three cases where I was sent a review unit, I clearly disclosed the entirety of the agreement in bold text at the top of the article page, and didn’t monetize those specific review articles in any way.
All three units came from the same company, HyperX, and I accepted their offer of review samples precisely because they were on board with giving me full control and requesting no editorial input. Two of the products had embargoes timed to launch dates, but outside of that, I had zero input from the company.
I earn money on my work through the Medium Partner Program, but I’ve never used an affiliate link or entered any sort of direct paid marketing deal with any company. Two years ago, I added a donate button to my personal webpage and started posting articles behind the Medium paywall. Through some informal polls and emails I received from readers, and by watching relative numbers of donations versus the rise of followers on my Medium page, I discovered my readers overwhelmingly preferred the value proposition of buying Medium memberships. So at the start of 2019, I turned off my donate button.
None of this diligence has stopped me from receiving regular questions about whether or not I’ve been paid off by companies…