Last week, the blogging world was on fire. People were up in arms.
Hidden inside what seemed like a routine terms of service update, Amazon announced they were dramatically dropping payouts to affiliates.
This left a lot of bloggers completely stunned.
You see, many blogs and websites (including mine) have an affiliate partnership with Amazon, letting us recommend products through special links and earn commissions. Some sites rely heavily on this program, which has existed basically since the Internet’s primordial soup days, back when Amazon was just a scrappy little startup.
(Some big review sites, like The Wirecutter, basically exist at all because of these affiliate partnerships.)
But then, last week, Amazon decided to radically alter its partnership program. They’re entitled to do this, of course, but the severity of the changes and the timing of it made many bloggers and website publishers feel justifiably betrayed.
Amazon weren’t just dropping rates a bit, as they’ve done a few times in the past. They were dropping affiliate commissions by up to 80%.
Not only that, they did this at the peak of the one of the worst global crises, when many online businesses are struggling.
They did this while Amazon itself is absolutely raking it in right now. Their warehouses can barely keep up with demand. Their stock is booming. They’re not having to batten down the hatches at all, which could have at least explained a move like this — they’re doing literally better than ever.
And then there was the tone-deaf way they announced it:
“We hope you are staying well during this time. We are writing to inform you of upcoming changes to the Amazon Associates Program Operating Agreement.”
Translation: “Hey, hope you’re okay! Actually, we don’t care and we’re totally slashing your much-needed income at the worst possible time.”
No wonder everyone was angry. It just seemed very much in bad faith. Under the cover of the covid-19 crisis, Amazon decimates their partnership rates for the sites that helped make it what it is today.
I’m lucky that Amazon makes for only a smaller portion of my online income these days. Some of my blogger friends who rely on Amazon more heavily have reason to be a lot more upset. But I think many of us reached the same conclusion: it’s time to stop promoting Amazon. Because of this sudden rate cut, but also for many other reasons.
This post is kind of my way of publically saying goodbye to Amazon, as an affiliate partner and as a customer.
Why I used to love Amazon
I guess I have a bit of history with Amazon. I was actually an Amazon partner for years before I even first shopped there. I think I made my first Amazon affiliate account around the year 2000. (Whoa… 20 years ago already!)
I wasn’t a travel blogger back then but had a site with reviews of computer games. I realized that if we could put a buy-this-on-Amazon link next to every review, we could earn some commissions, which helped cover the costs associated with the site.
I really liked using affiliate links, because it was a very gentle form of advertising. We didn’t have to push anything and we could say whatever we wanted about these games. Did a game really suck? Then we just gave it a bad rating. Few people would then probably click that Amazon link, but it didn’t matter. Readers would trust us to tell them which games were really great. In the end, some of those game reviews would generate commissions — and that in turn helped us pay all our website server bills.
As I began to earn more, it let me pay for other things as well. Using Amazon affiliate credit I bought several shipments of interesting books that turned out to be a huge part of my self-education. I was later able to use Amazon affiliate funds to pay for my first trips to the UK and the USA (they were to visit some video game trade shows, though they gave me a taste of adventures abroad and sparked my much broader interest in traveling).
I remember when I started working as an intern at an Amsterdam media agency in 2003, my boss was just flabbergasted that this snotty 18-year old was getting US dollar cheques from an American company for some websites he owned. Those cheques were only ever like $200 at most, but I guess having a mini online business made me look like some genius internet whizz kid, and my boss offered me a job right out of college.
The early days of Amazon Associates were great. You could earn a percentage commission on any product that people might buy through the links. I think the default rate was about 6%. But if you hit certain volumes that share would go up, even all the way to 10%.
When I got into travel blogging in 2013, I already knew that affiliate links could be a great way to monetize it from the previous sites I’d had. They were part of the mix from the beginning.
So if you’ve seen certain backpacks or travel items recommended on this site, you’ve probably noticed they’re often linked to their product pages on Amazon. At its peak, about 25% of my blog revenues came from just this channel, though that was a couple of years ago. (It was around 10% in the last few years.)
It was good. But over the past years, I kinda felt bad about sending traffic to Amazon.
Why Amazon sucks
You see, the problem with Amazon goes well beyond them paying less for some clicks from websites, which I’m sure only website owners really care about. As Amazon has taken more market share, it’s become increasingly aggressive and unethical in many ways.
Sure, the affiliate program eroded over the years. First, they took away the performance tiers, then some product categories already dropped as low as 1%. But what irked me was their overall attitude as a company.
If you follow the news a bit, you’ll probably know that Amazon is not exactly known for playing fair or having good policies.
They use loopholes to avoid taxes, more than any other major retailer. (In 2018, it made $11.2 billion in profit and paid zero income tax.)
They treat their employees like shit.
The working conditions in their warehouses are reportedly awful.
They suppress criticism and crack down hard on unionization.
And they ruthlessly grab market share… only to then abuse their monopolistic position.
A perfect example of this last point is what happened to third-party sellers on Amazon. The company invited third parties (often small companies) onto their platform early on, which helped establish their platform just as the promotion from affiliates did. Third-parties expanded the catalog enormously, truly making it into the ‘everything store’ it is today. (I saw one figure saying more than 50% of all Amazon sales come from third-party sellers).
But then Amazon thought, “hey, why can’t we just take over all that business?”.
Not unreasonable, I suppose — but they didn’t go about it fairly. They began using sales data from third-parties to launch their own copycat products (under the Amazon Basics and dozens of stealth labels). They ranked those products artificially at the top and undercut artificially on price, all the while laughing maniacally like Tex Richman from The Muppets. I think so, anyway.
All these things are just the tip of the iceberg. If you look into Amazon more, you’ll find numerous examples of terrible behavior, policies, and values. (The FTC is investigating their behavior.)
It’s clear that with Amazon no one wins. Not their employees, not partners, not book publishers (who’ve been seriously dicked over by them), not taxpayers, not anyone.
The only ones winning are Jeff Bezos and holders of $AMZN.
Amazon is now such a behemoth that they can just win by default. When Amazon announces it’s considering a move into a new market segment, such as healthcare, all the other stocks crater and theirs goes up like a rocket. Amazon can then raise capital vastly more cheaply than anyone else, thus the battle is won before it’s even fought.
Amazon will probably need to be broken up by antitrust authorities. But, in the meantime, I think we can remind ourselves they’re not the only game in town.
What bloggers (and consumers) can do
So I kinda knew Amazon was a shitty company for some years. I kept linking to them anyway as I believed there was no alternative — and they made for a pretty big chunk of my income.
I guess I was also just a bit lazy. I mean, got a backpack to recommend? Link it to Amazon. A travel pillow? Link it to Amazon. It’s just so easy to link everything to the everything store. No need to manage any extra complexity.
The recent rate changes woke me up.
I began to look at things more closely. And I discovered that it’s a lot easier to move away from Amazon than I thought.
Over the past week, I’ve already redirected about 90% of Amazon clicks to other more deserving companies. Part of why I wrote this article is to encourage other bloggers to do the same.
I believe it’s really the bloggers who made Amazon, but it’s also bloggers that can promote better places to buy from instead. And this can even be in our own self-interest.
There are many alternatives to Amazon Associates and they’re often better. For example, I’ve written many reviews here of backpacks by Osprey, which I always linked to Amazon. I found out they have their own (recently launched) affiliate program on Avantlink.com. Instead of Amazon’s 3%, you can get at least 8% through Osprey, which is a respected company with a good environmental ethos. I now link directly to Osprey. It’s good for me, and good for them — as they won’t be needing to pay Amazon’s slice of the pie.
Now, it’s quite possible that fewer people would purchase directly. The conversion rate for Amazon is unusually high, thanks to their one-click ordering and everyone already having an account there. But even if 2.6 times fewer people buy something via Osprey, you’d still be making the same — and without supporting an abusive monopolistic company.
As I researched, I kept finding better affiliate programs. For example, GoPro. I used to link their products through Amazon which would net just 2.5%. Go straight to GoPro (via CJ.com) and it’s 5%.
Many of these programs actually give you a 30-day window for commissions, whereas Amazon is in-session only. That means people can think it over a bit, make a purchase up to a month later, and you’ll still get credited for making the referral.
One added benefit to changing to other affiliate programs is diversification. I think one of the lessons here for bloggers is not to be overly reliant on one partner program (I know some blogs who get 70%+ of their income from Amazon). I’ve always tried to have a diverse set of income streams for this reason. If any one company changes their terms, or you don’t want to promote them anymore, then other programs can still pick up the slack.
I also recommend using an affiliate link manager. Instead of having to go one by one through hundreds of links, I could quickly change them centrally — just one link switch changes it everywhere. I use the service Geniuslink though there are also WordPress plugins that do this. Using such tools will give you a lot more control and flexibility.
There are still some remaining Amazon links on my blog that are a bit harder for me to get rid of, but I’m happy to have already reduced it this much. One thing I’d still like to do is find an alternate channel for selling my book. If anyone knows a print-on-demand publisher (similar to Amazon KDP) that lets me sell through my own site, please let me know!
I think it’s really time to forget about Amazon as an affiliate. This is a good thing: if more blogs link to non-Amazon sites, I think we’ll end up with a much healthier online ecosystem. And then we can continue to monetize blogs in a non-intrusive way while creating helpful posts and guides.
Those with e-commerce businesses should probably forget about Amazon too. You’ll just get squeezed further and further. Shopify is a fantastic alternative that has really positive company values.
Finally, as a customer, I’m going to be skipping Amazon a lot more often too. I think there are plenty of alternatives for most product categories. There are other companies that do pay fair taxes, treat their employees well, and don’t abuse their market position.
They say times of crisis often lead to innovation and reevaluation of old practices. I’m very happy to have reevaluated Amazon.
Phew! That was a bit of a rant. Do you agree with my views on Amazon? Are you a blogger who was affected by this? You can leave your thoughts in the comments.
Some links may be affiliate links, meaning I may earn commission from products or services I recommend. For more, see site policies.