Lets talk ‘blackhat PPC’. After I read a article over at SEW sometime back about blackhat pay per click, I thought I would write about a few other sneaky tricks used within PPC. More specifically in the PPC affiliate marketing space. You see some pretty interesting methods used here in particular because there is that much more inter competition. Affiliates in competition with other affiliates, the merchant’s internal marketing department or agency, the affiliate network over merchant terms and of course the paid search system itself. In many ways the merchant, the affiliate and the network have the same goal; to increase visitors or sales to the site, yet each party has their very own self serving objectives which are anything but in unison.

There are a number of tricks I have seen used to bend completely flaunt many affiliate programs terms & policies. One of the most common PPC policies is to disallow affiliates from bidding against merchant brand terms, as the merchant will generally get that sale 99% of the time anyway not having to pay a premium to an affiliate for it. From the other side, obviously it makes sense for an affiliate to bid against brand as it cuts away the hard work of finding a niche as & they know it will convert. It’s a low hanging fruit.

Another popular affiliate network policy is to ban affiliates from sending traffic direct to a merchants site because the merchant or ad agency are already running a paid search campaign, the merchant does not trust affiliates to uphold their ‘brand image’ within adverts or perhaps for a variety of other reasons.

So, how do affiliates bypass these rules, working within the ad platforms own system while keeping under the radar of the merchant, the affiliate network and perhaps an ad agency keeping an eye on the SERPS? The price of getting caught might be a loss of commissions, getting kicked off the affiliate program or even the network all together.

Let’s look at some of the methods used –

1) Bidding At Certain Times – Brand bidding at certain times of the day or week when they know there is less chance of someone in-house, agency or affiliate network seeing the offending adverts. Evenings & weekends are the obvious choices or a couple of minutes here and there will often go unnoticed. Advertisers don’t even have to be at their computer to do this with Google kindly providing ad scheduling.

2) Geo-targeting – Geo-targeting of smaller individual locations or those where the merchant, their agency or affiliate network are not based. Advertisers can custom geo-target away from those areas, again thanks to Googles ever increasing Adwords tools inventory.

3) IP Exclusion – As Google explains “refine your targeting by preventing specific Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from seeing your ads”. Find out the IP of those you don’t want to see your ad and ban them so they can’t see your advert. Now that is naughty.

4) Advert Tricks – This is pretty sneaky & I have seen this more than you might think. This only happens if the merchant is running their own adverts against their own branded terms. The affiliate simply copies the merchants advert EXACTLY and bids higher to gain a higher ad rank that will replace the merchants own advert. At a glance the merchant will believe their advert is still running, although obviously it’s that of the affiliates. If the merchant digs a little deeper and views the destination url the affiliate might get spotted, but this method is generally used intermittently. If the merchant/ad agency notices they are no longer receiving clicks for there core keywords it will raise suspicion – so this is often used with 1, 2 & 5.

5) Masking Affiliate Urls – I have heard of software from some of the affiliate networks that claim to detect brand bidders by scraping the search engines and monitoring ad urls. (Although this is of course, depending on whether this detection system is not blocked by either 2 or 3 above in the first place). How do naughty affiliates attempt to protect themselves so their affiliate url is not spotted in adverts immediately? Well, by masking the url & affiliate ID within a url redirect. The likes of Tinyurl make this very easy for anyone. In fact, the affiliate might be using multiple redirects to make it a little harder again to be identified without proper investigation that might confuse the average merchant or online marketer.

6) Sending Traffic To A Different Domain – This is not rocket science. This can even be accomplished without setting up redirects, just a little understanding and knowledge of how the automatic and manual ad approvals work at the search engines. Advertisers can take advantage of the time between automatic approval and a manual review, but it’s actually even simpler for affiliates to trick the system after the manual review period.

As an example, lets say an affiliate wants the advert display url to be affiliatename.com, but they want to send traffic direct to a different domain, merchantssite.com. By playing nice at first, affiliates can simply set up their advert with the same display url and destination url to affiliatename.com. The affiliate can allow their advert to go through manual approval. It takes roughly 48hrs (in the week) for the advert to pass through manual approval in Adwords (ads can even be paused during this period) before the affiliate can whip in a keyword level url for the real destination they want to send traffic to. Keyword level urls take precedence over ad level urls and they do not go through manual approval like adverts do.

Another method that is frequently used to get past the one display url per SERP policy from the search engines is to simply send traffic to affiliatename.com and after the manual approval throw in a server side redirect over to the site of choice. That way the advert has not been amended and will not get manually reviewed again.

7) Using Broad Match To Bypass Trademarks – Here in the UK, businesses can protect their trademark brand names in both adverts and keywords on Google by submitting an application. While this method can be very effective for some brands, it can also sometimes be bypassed by the use of broad match. Take the well known car company ‘Land Rover’ as an example. For sometime they protected their band online on Google and hence the keyword ‘Land Rover’ was a trademarked term and would not display ads when used as a keyword. An easy way to get around this was simply having the keyword ‘Rover Land’ on broad match and sure enough it would trigger the advert against a search for ‘Land Rover’. It can be as simple as that. So while trademarking can work great for some businesses, it can easily be bypassed for others.

These are just some examples of blackhat PPC in the affiliate marketing space. All of the above tricks can be spotted if you know what you are doing. The ad preview tool goes a long way to help, but is by no means full proof.

So if you’re a merchant, how sure are you that your PPC affiliates are playing nice?