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Affiliate Marketers: Blocking Software Is Killing Us
By Wayne Kawamoto

Anything that detects and deletes viruses, stops obnoxious ads and halts nosy spyware and invasive cookies is a welcome thing to most PC users. However, to affiliate marketers — those e-commerce sites that display ads for vendors and collect commissions for leads — products such as Norton Security and McAfee Internet Security Suite are effectively reducing their sales.

Anyone who has surfed the Web has seen pop-up ads, and many users say that these are simply the price you pay for viewing Web content. Cookies, on the other hand, work behind the scenes. These small software files are created by Web sites and stored on a user's PC. Cookies then send information to the Web site when users visit it. In use, cookies are a convenience that can maintain a user's preferences on a site and retain shopping cart information and log-in information so users don't have to re-enter data. Cookies are also often the means by which retailers track affiliate sales from Web sites.

“The only thing I would ask is that Symantec be honest with the Internet users that don't understand the situation. Norton and its peers are making banner ads and ad-tracking cookies out to be some sort of bogey man.”

—Shawn Collins, CEO
Shawn Collins Consulting

Besides searching and destroying viruses and erecting protective firewalls, Symantec's Norton Security 2005, McAfee Internet Security Suite 2005 and other PC security products block ads and cookies, which cause affiliate marketers to lose sales.

"It has had a negative impact on the affiliate programs that I run, because as more folks get new computers with ad blocking as the default, the volume of people that never see advertising grows exponentially," said Shawn Collins, CEO, Shawn Collins Consulting.

The Good, the Ad and the Ugly
"The only thing I would ask is that Symantec be honest with the Internet users that don't understand the situation," Collins said. "Norton and their peers are making banner ads and ad-tracking cookies out to be some sort of bogey man."

Collins says that when users scan their PC with security software and see these programs identifying thousands of "suspect" files, they believe that the software is saving their systems. "These products are cleaning out a handful of dangerous programs and the majority of the "cleaned" items are harmless ad-tracking cookies," says Collins. "It would be a lot more useful if the software companies would focus on the bad guys, and leave innocuous ads and cookies alone."

"If Norton and the other companies selling similar products were to be honest with customers, they would explain that most ads and cookies are of no harm, but it's not in their best interest," Collins said. "They make sales based on fear — the fear that ads and cookies are going to devastate a user's PC. Educate the consumer, rather than freaking them out."

"Norton is not just blocking pop-up ads, it is also blocking banners, text links, navigation and even occasional site logos," said Linda Buquet, an affiliate management consultant. "Also it is not just blocking — it actually strips the source code out of the page."

"Ad blocking has gone too far and destroys content on some sites that is not even ad related," Buquet said. "If they want to strip all this content then let them sell an 'ad blocker' that comes with a clear warning that blank spots will appear on Web pages and navigation will be affected on some sites. My strong guess is many unsavvy surfers do not even realize ad blocking is on and think the blank spots on some sites are just mistakes."

Buquet said that ad blocking is not even mentioned as a prominent feature in many security programs, but is active by default. "Users should be offered the option to turn on ad blocking," she said.

"I realize that consumers hate pop-ups and adware, and I think Norton had good intentions to wipe out these sorts of ad delivery mechanisms for the consumer," Collins said. "But the wholesale elimination of ads will have ramifications on the consumer."

Collins said that when programs prevent all ads from appearing and ultimately remove the financial support that a site receives, the industry will have to move to a subscription model that consumers will pay for.

Just Protecting PCs
"Our software is not doing something evil, it's providing a service," said Kraig Lane, group product manager, Consumer Internet Security Products at Symantec. Lane compares Web-based advertising with that on television. "On a TV, I can filter the advertising that I don't want to see," Lane said. "But with an Internet connection, I'm paying for an ad that I don't want to see — it's much like a telemarketer calling you collect."

"Consumers block cookies because they perceive them to be a threat," said Brent Lymer, senior director product and partner management, McAfee Consumer Division. "That perception exists because some marketing companies use them inappropriately." According to Lymer, the online marketing industry needs to set its own guidelines and industry standards and abide by them. "Use them appropriately, and the perception changes, and our product is no longer required," Lymer said.

“Consumers block cookies because they perceive them to be a threat. That perception exists because some marketing companies use them inappropriately. Use them appropriately, and the perception changes, and our product is no longer required.”

—Brent Lymer, senior director product and partner management
McAfee Consumer Division.

Symantec's Lane points out that consumers often have different opinions about advertising, depending on their shopping mode. If a consumer is shopping for a particular item, he or she welcomes ads about these products. But the same ads that are welcome one day are an annoyance the next. For example, he said, a bride welcomes wedding deals until the day that she marries. "We want to determine the mode that you're in and let you open up and let the ads in and snap those back down," Lane said.

"Currently, users have the ability to accept or white list cookies from specific sites," said McAfee's Lymer. "However, this requires end-users to understand what the cookies are being used for." Lymer says that without that information, users won't want to accept cookies.

"This is an affiliate industry issue and they need to be an active participant in proposing the appropriate solution that ensures privacy and security," Lymer said. The industry needs to detail why it needs to be an exception to the rule."

According to Lymer, a white-list of accepted companies that follow specific privacy and security guidelines could be pre-approved within McAfee applications. But this would be the responsibility of the affiliate industry to propose a certifying standard to security vendors. Lymer said that McAfee would assist with such an effort for its products.

What Can Affiliate Marketers Do Now?
Until there is some agreement with internet security vendors, Lane says, affiliate marketers sites can make adjustments to their Web sites so Norton is less likely to block their ads and images. He suggests using nonstandard ad image sizes — many sites require banner ads to be of a certain standard size — and ensuring that images are stored in directories that dont contain the word "ad" in their names. Another red flag is third-party cookies — cookies that are assigned to a site not in the current domain.

Collins points out that KowaBunga! Technologies offers alternate methods for tracking affiliates with its "Refer Detect" service, which allows retailers to link affiliates to the homepage of the retailer, so tracking is invisible. The company also offers private domains that the brand affiliate links to the company, rather than one of the affiliate network links, which are normally targeted by security software.

Beyond cookies, Lymer says that Web sites can support states that are maintained by passing querystring names and value pairs to better track sales. And affiliate sites can also check to see if cookies are being set for users and explain the need for cookies on the site, provide suggestions on accepting cookies and clearly address privacy concerns.

Next Aisle's PC Security Shield, a competitor to Norton and McAfee, relies on affiliate sales and emphasizes the fact that its ad-blocking default is set to "off." As far as affiliates are concerned, this is a small step in the right direction.

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