Prevalence of Forced Clicks on Coupon Sites
We decided to conduct a small study to determine the incidence of forced clicks occurring on coupon sites. There is has been increased discussion regarding coupon sites engaging in forced clicks and we wanted to see if the increase in discussion correlated with an increase in affiliates engaging in the practice.
We randomly selected twenty-five (25) merchants from InternetRetailers Top 500 List. All merchants selected have affiliate programs. All four major networks were represented in our merchant sampling: CJ, Performics, LinkShare and ShareASale.
We then searched Google for "MerchantX Coupons" for each merchant. The first ten (10) natural search listings were tested for the occurrence of a forced click when we clicked through from the SERP. We discarded five (5) search returns which were not affiliate sites, for a total of two hundred forty-five (245) test results.
We clicked only on the listing in Google and did not click anything once on the affiliate's site. We documented all browser activity with network logs or "sniffer" files. We considered any presence of an affiliate tracking link through a Network with subsequent redirection to the Merchant web site a positive test for a forced click.
Next we clicked through on all the affiliate AdWords ads displayed on the first page of Google SERPs when searching "MerchantX Coupons." The number of affiliate ads differed between merchants. We did not test any direct-to-merchant ads as the issue of domain-based forced clicks does not apply in these situations. A total of one hundred eighty (180) affiliate ads were clicked. The purpose for testing AdWord listings was to determine if there was any difference in the prevalence of forced clicks when traffic originated from organic search and paid search listings. We used the same method as above to determine the presence of a forced click or not on the affiliate's landing page.
Finally, we went to every affiliate site from the first two sets of tests by directly typing their domain into the browser. We then navigated to several of their merchant specific pages listing coupons for the merchant. This was anywhere from three to seven merchant specific pages per affiliate site. Again, we randomly selected merchants on the affiliate's site and attempted to include different Network platforms from each affiliate site. We tested a total of ninety (91) affiliate sites. We counted a test as "postive" if a forced click was documented on at least one page of the affiliate's site.
Data was collected from Oct 24-29, 2007.
The following rates of incidents of forced clicks were documented in our testing.
On click-throughs from Google's top ten SERP listings, we documented an overall incidence of forced clicks of two (2) positives out of two hundred forty-five tests or 0.8%.
On click-throughs from Google AdWord listings, we documented a total an overall incidence of forced clicks of three (3) positives out of one hundred eighty tests or 1.7%.
With direct type-ins to the affiliates site and navigating to their merchant specific pages for coupon codes, we documented four (4) incidents of forced clicks out of ninety-one (91) tests or 4.4%. We also documented six (6) incidents of what we would classify as deceptive/misleading links or 6.6%. Deceptive links involved an actual physical click by us to invoke affiliate tracking however it was not clear cut linking to the merchant. In most cases, the click was tied to actually being able to view the coupon codes. That is one click to be able to just see what coupon codes were available also invoked their affiliate link to the merchant's site. In one case a very small pop-up of an ad for the merchant was generated. The bottom of the pop-up contained text "Click here to close". The ad and the text was linked to their affiliate link.
We found the incident of forced clicks to range from 0.8% - 4.4% on coupon sites. We found the incident of what could be considered a deceptive link on the merchant specific page listing the coupons to be slightly higher at 6.6%.
Overall, the prevalence of forced clicks and deceptive links on coupon sites seems to be much lower than in the past. Historically, the incident of forced clicks on coupons sites was upward to 60% of affiliate sites listed in Google's Top 20 SERPs when searching "MerchantX coupons". We should also note that some coupons sites known to us for frequently engaging in forced clicks in the past showed negative during our current testing or had moved from outright forced clicks to deceptive links.
We are not particularly surprised to see some affiliates move from forced clicks to deceptive links, an area that tends to be more "gray" with regards to compliance. While most network and merchant's TOS have some type of verbiage precluding "deceptive advertising", this part of TOS tend to be somewhat open-ended and becomes somewhat subjective to what constitutes deceptive by whomever is enforcing the TOS. Networks and Merchants should be aware of the different deceptive linking being used and set policy as to what types of behaviors will and will not be acceptable.
Finally we should note that several of the sites in our testing, while not engaging in forced clicks or deceptive links, had some type of browser plugin and/or extension for download. This is probably reflective of a decrease of the cost barrier of having your own BHO/plugin/etc. It is possible that in some cases the practice of forced clicks has moved from the web site to software applications.