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Amazon Tweaks Its Affiliate Links Policy: What Does the New Operating Agreement Mean for URL Shorteners?

amazonassociatesAt 2:45AM EST on February 3rd, I, like other Amazon.com Associates affiliates, received an email informing me of “Changes to the Amazon Associates Operating Agreement.” I hardly ever pay attention to these emails, since I’m not fluent in legalese. And in this case, the Amazon Associates Team has saved me the trouble by summarizing the one update worth highlighting, which was something about the user session for MyHabit.com being extended that didn’t matter to me. On a whim, I decided to click through to read the rest of the changes and discovered that Amazon had somewhat buried the lead. Amazon has changed its policy on URL shortening services (e.g. Bit.ly, is.gd, TinyURL, goog.gl). Here’s the juicy bit.

Associates Program Linking Requirements
In the February 2, 2012, version, the following sentence was added to the second paragraph.

“In addition, you must not use a link shortening service in a manner that makes it unclear that you are linking to an Amazon Site.”

What does that mean? I’m not 100% sure yet. I’ve asked Amazon.com Associates customer service to clarify that line a bit and they said that my inquiry would be “forwarded to the appropriate department.” Hmm…

Amazon Affiliate Links + URL Shorteners

For the uninitiated, an Amazon affiliate link has a referral code built-in to it that allows publishers to take a cut of Amazon’s profits for whatever the clicker buys. To the trained eye, an affiliate link is easy to spot.

For example, here’s a normal link to 6 pounds of pistachios on Amazon.com.

Here is an affiliate link:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001EQ5DMY/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=uncbwibl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001EQ5DMY

That bolded bit is my Amazon Associate ID, and the “ref” makes it clear that I have a vested interest in you clicking that and buying something. For savvy readers, it may even make you doubt my impartiality. (Which, when it comes to pistachios, you should most definitely doubt me. I once ate an entire pound of pistachios in one sitting and then had to go to the doctor with an ulcer. And I still love them.)

URL shorteners allow you to obfuscate your use of referral links, to a certain degree. For example, can you tell that this link is an affiliate link?

http://su.pr/3P16O3

There are good and bad reasons to use link shortening services for affiliate links. Some folks use URL shorteners for metrics purposes, or for making those long ugly links more palatable for Twitter. But others use them to hide their ulterior motives for linking a certain product or service. That latter behavior is what Amazon is likely trying to clamp down on.

So, what constitutes “a manner that makes it unclear that you are linking to an Amazon Site?” That’s what I asked Amazon, and I hope they get back to me soon. Amazon does have its own link shortening service, amzn.to (e.g http://amzn.to/wr02fh), which you can use by entering an Amazon link at http://bit.ly. That, it seems, shouldn’t violate the Operating Agreement. Especially since Amazon recommends using it in their social networking FAQ (though it’s unclear whether this has been updated since February 2).

Forced Arbitration


But now’s probably a good time to bring up another slight change to the Operating Agreement. Amazon now forces associates to agree to settle disputes in binding arbitration. Previously, you could sue Amazon in a state or federal court in King County, Washington. But Amazon, like so many other big corporations (credit card companies, notoriously), is asking you to waive your right to bring a civil lawsuit against them regarding your agreement with them. Check out FairArbitrationNow.org to understand why so-called “forced arbitration” is a raw deal.

I’ll update this post once I find out more information. But for now, I would recommend evaluating your use of URL shorteners if you are using them to link to Amazon. You could find your Amazon Associates account in jeopardy and your hands tied with regard to suing for any lost profits. Contact Amazon.com directly to confirm that your practices conform to their rather vague Operating Agreement. And, if possible, use their shortening service instead of something else that may make it unclear that you are linking to Amazon.

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8 Responses to Amazon Tweaks Its Affiliate Links Policy: What Does the New Operating Agreement Mean for URL Shorteners?

  1. Steve Krause February 11, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    I would be curious why Amazon is moving to a ban on Short-URL’s. Is it branding or an attempt to keep ppl from misrepresenting Amazon and sending users to malware sites? Interesting.

  2. Mark Simchock February 12, 2012 at 7:29 am #

    @Steve Krause

    The dark side of URL shorteners is they mask the true endpoint. It sounds like Amazon wants to maintain a level of clarity for the clickers.

    The upside is that the affiliate can use the analytics of a shortener (e.g. bit.ly) to track their clicks. A smart affiliate would probably add URL tagging parms and keep a log of URLs, where they were placed, when, etc. Perhaps that empowerment is also a concern of Amazon? They are known for throwing their weight around, yes?

    One would hope that as long as you use bit.ly and it returns a link using amzn.to that everything would be OK.

    Otherwise, (and pardon me for getting technical) you could have shortened links go to your own site (e.g. mysite.com/amazon?tagging-parms-go-here) and then redirect that request in the .htaccess to the full length URL on Amazon. That would give you shortener analytics but look like a full length request to Amazon.

    *I think* this will work. There may be something passed that tells Amazon the visit is via a redirect. None the less it should at that point show as coming from your site and not for example, bit.ly. Or perhaps this strategy violates the Amazon agreement in some other way?

  3. Mark Simchock February 12, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    p.s. You might also be able to use a grow-your-own URL shortener using something like http://YOURLS.org. But again, don’t hold me to this. I’d have to do some thorough research on what a redirect passes when it redirects.

  4. Jacky mack May 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Hi Any updates on this?

  5. Christina June 10, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    I have tried using bit.ly in the past few weeks, and while the links used to use the amzn.to tag, now they don’t seem to be working at all. I paste in the link and nothing happens. I tried tiny url as well and when I click the shorter link it says “page cannot be found.”

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