For companies looking to engineer some extra (perhaps non-organic) traffic, toolbars are a pretty clever strategy. They take much less investment than full-fledged web browsers, but afford options such as setting the user’s default search engine. Those options can help companies work their way into users’ browsing activity.
Ben Edelman has detailed this trend rather extensively. Recently, he presented an interesting analysis of the Ask Toolbar, demonstrating some questionable practices with respect to how Ask is bundled and handles ad clicks.
Toolbars generally monetize themselves by modifying paid search in some way. This ranges from the somewhat innocuous resetting of the default browser to the questionable practice of ad injection.
Going Beyond Search Results
Today’s case is a little different. Instead of modifying search pages or search engine settings, the latest Yahoo toolbar for Firefox has been operating as a coupon affiliate, inserting affiliate links on merchant websites.
More specifically, the toolbar presents a small box that hovers over the normal merchant site, prompting the user to click for coupons. Once the user clicks, a coupon code is revealed and the user is redirected through an affiliate link to another page on the merchant site.
Here’s an example that we found on iStockPhoto’s site:
After clicking, the user does actually receive a legitimate coupon:
Broad Targeting of Merchants
We quickly started testing this on some other major retailers’ sites. After looking up featured deals on some popular coupon affiliate sites, we knew which merchants would make good targets.
The majority of sites that we tested fit the same pattern as iStockPhoto: coupon pop-over with an affiliate link. A few sites did not present any visible changes at all. Overall, we noticed this activity on these merchants’ sites:
Does This Practice Add Value?
Using toolbars and software to display website-specific coupon codes is nothing new—affiliates have been doing this for a long time. We've found Adam Riemer's discussion of affiliate software particularly comprehensive and useful. We would encourage you all to review it in detail.
This case isn't perfectly clear-cut, but we suspect that a good portion of merchants would have some concerns upon learning of it. Here's a troubling sign: the affiliates involved have not disclosed their relationships with the Yahoo Toolbar. So, any merchants working with the affiliates have no idea that these affiliate links are being distributed by Yahoo.
Furthermore, the affiliates are laundering the traffic. The clicks generated by the Yahoo toolbar are being modified to appear as though they originated from one of a collection of coupon sites. We would assume the sites are related, although they operate using different IDs within the same network.
It’s also nearly certain that other affiliates would be frustrated by this. Due to last click attribution, many hard-working affiliates may be losing commissions on account of the practice. And unlike with other coupon affiliates, where users must open a new tab and actively seek out coupons, these are presented right on the page. That means plenty of last-second cookie displacement.
Who’s Behind This?
We checked these affiliates' IDs in our affiliate database. The results: our system showed that a good number of these affiliates were associated with paid search abuse in the past. So if there are confirmed cases of bad behavior by these affiliates, it's very possible that they're not acting in the merchants' interest.
Curious about whether these affiliates are in your program? We’d be happy to discuss and share more information if you send our team a note.