Affiliate links, or can you trust anyone online?


A little while back, I wrote a post where I mentioned AwardWallet, a service that keeps tracks of all your different loyalty accounts (airline miles, hotel points, etc.) I’m a huge fan of AwardWallet, and have used them for years to keep track of my various accounts.

AwardWallet has a referral program, wherein if you get enough people to sign up using your particular link, you get free upgraded service. So when I was linking to them, I considered pointing to my auto-generated affiliate link.

But then I realized that if I did that, there’s a chance that you might not believe anything I say anymore.

Affiliate links

For those of you who don’t know, affiliate links work like this: you agree to promote a particular product or service on your site, and you are given a special link to “track back” to you. Should a visitor to your site click on this link and later purchase said product or service, you are given some form of compensation, either with actual money or some other benefit.

On the surface, this seems like a nice quid pro quo. The product or service gets extra traffic from you, and you are compensated for this. You promote something, and people use it. All good.

Except maybe not.

What’s wrong with it?

The basic question of affiliate links comes down to the basic question of trust and authority. When I put a link to something that I receive compensation on, as an astute reader, the interaction becomes more complex. It’s not just me saying “hey, this thing is cool,” which you can feel free to agree or disagree as you wish; it’s now “hey, this thing is cool, and I will make money if you agree.”

This realization acts as a internal speed bump. It makes me have to think a bit harder, because the trust is tested. Do you believe that I really think this is cool, or is it just about making money?

What’s right about it?

I have always wanted to run this site as a non-commercial site. If I have things for sale (for example, I offer integrative financial coaching) it’s always offered on another site and clearly delineated as such.

See any ads here? Exactly.

However, this blog (and related sites) aren’t my primary source of income right now. So I’m not in a position where I need this site in order to eat. And this greatly changes the dynamic for reader and author alike.

As working for myself is something that I’m interested in, I’ve researched many sites who teach you strategies for making money online. Often, the quickest win seems to be affiliate links! It makes sense; you don’t need to build your own product, so you can just put someone else’s on your site. And then you can let the money roll in as your traffic allows.

I don’t have any objection to making money, offline or online. And so, arguably, there’s nothing necessarily problematic about affiliate links when they align with one’s values and message. For example, if I were to have an affiliate link on this site, it would make more sense for it to be for AwardWallet (a service I use and pay for) or, say, a credit card.

The problem is that it requires extra work to see the difference. And that can alienate certain people.

But, on yet another hand, is that really a problem? If haters are really gonna hate, then do I need to cater to people who don’t understand?

I don’t know. It’s always seemed simpler to just not have any commercials or ads here, so you can know that when I suggest something, there are no ulterior financial motives.

The Ghost of Bill Hicks

For years, I’ve been a fan of Bill Hicks, the comedian and social critic. And one of the strongest messages I remember from his performances was this:


And if that weren’t enough, his great quote about what a commercial sell would sound like coming from him:

“‘You know, when I’m done ranting about elite power that rules the planet under a totalitarian government that uses the media in order to keep people stupid, my throat gets parched!'”

Now, I’m less of a conspiracy theorist (I believe more in incompetence), but I still think he has a point. Even though I disagree that he wasn’t selling anything, at least on some level.

We’re all trying to make our way

Because living in a money-less barter economy is not feasible for most people, money is what allows to continue, whether we like it or not. It allows us to keep eating, to keep working, to keep living. Finding a way make a living in a way that doesn’t compromise our beliefs and ethics is difficult, and this is especially true when you break out from under the umbrella of a “day job” (where it seems more acceptable to work in a place that doesn’t necessarily align with your beliefs).

It is possible to make money online. I just think affiliate links aren’t the way to do it. Maybe.

But enough about me. Do you care about affiliate links on blogs? Does your opinion of the content change when you know how the author is compensated? If you’re a blogger, do you use affiliate links? How do you feel about them?


  1. saulofhearts

    As a blog reader, I’m generally a fan of affiliate links (when used ethically). I get to support a blogger that I like, by buying something I’m interested in anyway, without paying any additional money myself? Great! I recently ordered a Karma wi-fi device (something I wanted to buy anyway) using an affiliate link from one of the bloggers who first told me about it. I got a discount and they got a credit to their account. Win-win.

    At the same time, some bloggers definitely take it too far, and there are conflict-of-interest considerations when reviewing products that you stand to make money from. If their entire income stream is based on affiliate links, then yeah, I start to question their credibility.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      That’s a good point. If use of affiliate links is something done “on the side”, then yes, it’s less likely to feel inappropriate than, say, a blog that’s covered in little ad boxes, and where most of the posts concern one of those products or services.

      As always, it’s a matter of degrees. There’s no playbook for being trustworthy, which is of course what we’re all striving for. But we know it when we see it.

  2. Indicium

    this post is really help full for me !!!!!

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