Honesty in Search Results: Why We Decided Not to Offer an Affiliate Program

[Note: Looking for information about our referral program? Wondering why we waited so long to launch one? Get all the details in this blog post!]

For a lot of businesses, choosing to offer an affiliate marketing program is pretty easy.

You incentivize your most vocal fans to promote your business, and in exchange for any new customers they send your way, they get a one-time cut from those profits. In theory, you get more exposure and more customers, and the people who help you land those customers get rewarded.

Naturally, before launching Edgar in mid-2014, the affiliate marketing question came up.

For us, it was an easy thing to say “no” to.

And since launching, the question has been raised again and again – in emails, on Twitter, in messages stuffed into bottles and hurled into the sea. It’s very clear that we could introduce an affiliate program and probably get more exposure and make more money.

So why not do it?

It’s a matter of authenticity.

When we first built Edgar, we weren’t always 100% sure of how exactly he should work. We brainstormed, built, tested, disagreed, tore down, rebuilt, and experimented for months until we had a version we loved and felt confident about releasing.

Coding Edgar

But when you create something brand new, no matter how much time you spend on it, you’ll never be your own best critic – you need other people for that.

Honest opinions from your users are infinitely more valuable than blanket praise. Maybe not for your ego, but definitely for whatever you’re offering, whether it’s a product, a course, coaching, an ebook, or anything else.

Every review you get – positive or otherwise – is an invaluable opportunity for you to learn what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. Honest reviews and feedback are the best way for you to shape what you’re offering into the best possible version of itself.

That’s just one small reason that we decided not to offer an affiliate marketing program, though. In the end, it was a matter of doing not just what’s best for our program, but what’s best for our users.

Ask yourself: how do you decide whether or not to buy a product?

We learn about the things we buy by researching the opinions of others, not just by reading marketing copy. When you want to choose what movie to see this weekend, you look the reviews on a site like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. When you’re shopping on Amazon, you look at the number of stars on any given product. When you’re trying to find the best restaurant in a new neighborhood, you don’t just look at the menus hanging in the windows – you fire up the Yelp app to get the inside scoop.

Rotten Tomatoes screenshot

As important as it is to write powerful marketing copy, the Internet has reduced it to only part of the equation – what people find when they Google your business is just as important as your homepage.

That’s one of the reasons we encourage people to review Edgar all the time – and why we promote those reviews on social media, even when they’re not 100% positive. Soliciting reviews is important to us, because while we don’t know how any given person will respond to Edgar, we know that their honest opinion will be valuable to anyone considering trying it out. The more of those opinions people have access to, the better. (While we offer free access to Edgar in such cases, this is strictly for the purposes of reviewing, and only for a short trial period.)

One of the biggest problems with affiliate marketing is that it encourages fake endorsement. When someone has a direct incentive to drive traffic toward a product or service, they may be disinclined to share a totally, brutally honest opinion.

Ideally, this is the exception, not the rule. (We participate in affiliate programs at LKR Social Media, for example, but only for products/services that we actually use – the ones we’d recommend no matter what.) But we know how frustrating it can be to try to research a product – especially software – and only find information from affiliates. It’s hard to tell whether praise is legitimate. You always wonder what they’re not telling you.

With Edgar, it’s always been important to us to have honest search results. When somebody is interested in learning more about our product, and especially in reading what real users think of it, we want them to always know that what they’re reading is genuine.

Edgar reviews Google search

Without any affiliates in the mix, our users know that anything they read about Edgar is a real, unbiased opinion – and that improves their overall experience before they ever even sign up. Ultimately, we’d rather know that every recommendation and review is genuine, even if that means we get fewer of them.

But that’s just us.

We always knew that not offering an affiliate program probably wouldn’t be our most popular decision ever. And we know now that we could introduce one and in many ways, it would probably be successful.

Like any other business decision, though, what’s right for someone else – or even a majority – isn’t necessarily right for you. You may find that other businesses have a lot of luck with a certain strategy. You may even hear experts in your field recommending that you give it a try. But even if it means making an unpopular decision, you’ll ultimately be happier with the direction your business takes you if you do what you think is best for yourself – and what’s best for your business isn’t always seizing the opportunity to boost your profits.

So how do you feel about affiliate programs? Do you participate in them? Have you offered one in the past? And do you tend to second-guess a review’s authenticity when you know that its author is an affiliate? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!

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