I originally posted this in April 2020, which was an emotional time. Not only did the pandemic slash my travel blog’s income by 90%, but Amazon rubbed salt in an open wound by slashing their affiliate rates at the exact same time. I still use Amazon Associates in a few places, but with an average commission of only 3%, my focus is on other more profitable affiliate programs.
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.
Many sites obviously 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.
But out of the blue, Amazon decided to radically alter its partnership program. They’re entitled to do this, 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. Depending on the category, 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.
Due to the pandemic stimulating online shopping, their warehouses can barely keep up with demand. Their stock price 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. Under the cover of the covid-19 crisis, Amazon decimates their partnership rates for the sites that (in some cases for decades) helped make it what it is today.
I’m lucky that Amazon makes up only a smaller portion of my online income these days. But I think many bloggers reached the same conclusion: it’s time to stop promoting Amazon. Because of this sudden rate cut — and for many other reasons.
Why I used to love Amazon
I guess I have a bit of history with Amazon. 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 liked using affiliate links, because they were 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 (most of them to conferences).
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. I think the default commission 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 Amazon would be part of my monetization strategy. At its peak, about 25% of my blog revenues came from just this channel.
Things were good. But over the past years, I kinda felt bad about sending traffic to Amazon.
Why Amazon sucks
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 as well 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 terribly.
The working conditions in their warehouses are reportedly awful.
And 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 is what happened to third-party sellers on Amazon. The company invited third parties 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, if they went about it fairly. But 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.
Amazon doesn’t seem like the kind of company that cares.
So should we still care about Amazon?
What bloggers can do
So I kinda knew Amazon was not a terribly good 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 on my travel blog? Link it to Amazon. A travel pillow? Link it to Amazon. It’s just so easy to link everything to the everything store.
The recent rate changes made me reevaluate. I concluded 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 companies.
There are many alternatives to Amazon Associates and they’re often better. For example, I’ve written many reviews 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, and it doesn’t have the crappy reputation that Amazon has.
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.
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.
I think one of the lessons here for bloggers is never to be overly reliant on one partner program. One day even your most favorite affiliate program may change for the worse. Platforms may ultimately decide they’ve grown so big they don’t (think) they need affiliates. A great example of this is Airbnb, which launched an affiliate program with much fanfare, then deleted it merely a year later when it decided it didn’t want to cut its margins by paying affiliates. Those who invested heavily in Airbnb related content were left out in the cold.
Apparently, Amazon decided to ‘reevaluate’ its affiliate program and concluded it didn’t really need it. In return, I’m glad to have reevaluated them — and I reached the same conclusion.