I removed all affiliate links from my blog: numbers

I added the first affiliate link to this blog in May 2020, a bit over two years ago. I've now removed all affiliates from both this blog, and my YouTube channel in-line with my ethics statement which includes no ads, no affiliates, no sponsorships.

Affiliate links were on track to make $15,000/year before I pulled the plug on them. In total, the affiliates earned a bit over to $24,000 over these two years - which is far more impressive than the $3,500 in ad revenue over a three-year period. This post is breakdown of the numbers, and closes with what I learned using affiliates. I hope it will be useful for anyone considering using affiliate links on their blog or website.

Summary

The blog had three types of affiliates:

  • Amazon affiliates. Typically offers around 4.5% on book purchases and a varying amount on other purchases. On this site, I only linked Amazon for books on their site.
  • Gumroad affiliates. For digital books which had a Gumroad version, some authors offered an affiliate percentage of their choosing: usually around 30%. Starting 2021 I started to ask authors to reduce this to the lowest option - 1% - so I could still get a sense if people were buying, but not make any money off of sales for fellow authors (Gumroad does not have a 0% option).
  • Grammarly Pro. Offering $0.20 per a signup for the Grammarly service and $20 for a customer converting to a pro user.
  • Manning affiliates. Used with Manning titles. Offers an 8% payment from the revenue customers spend.

Here's how earnings from the various channels ended up:

Affiliate earnings 2020-2022 on The Pragmatic Engineer Blog
Affiliate earnings 2020-2022 on The Pragmatic Engineer Blog

Why remove affiliates?

Affiliates were on a run rate of $15,000 per year, and I did not recommend anything with an affiliate that I would have not recommended without an affiliate. As a testament to this, all book recommendations on this site are exactly the same now, with affiliate links removed, as they were before. So why remove affiliates?

There were several reasons.

1. Affiliates create a financial pull to recommend things that people will buy. Affiliates were starting to make a considerable amount of money, and one where anyone could rightfully question if I'm making truly independent recommendations. Would I recommend something that does not have an affiliate program? While my answer would be "yes", there's always a financial pull, to at least prioritize affiliates.

For me, people trusting that I recommend things without financial incentive is more important than getting additional revenue as a form of kickbacks.

2. Disclosing affiliates is cumbersome, but not disclosing them is not ethical. When a link is an affiliate one - meaning you get a kickback from it - it's only fair to mention this fact. My site had small text on the side informing people that links can be affiliates, and some of the articles with more affiliate links had this text on the bottom as well.

Still, both my site and most sites which put affiliates in place try to avoid showcasing the fact that the links come with a kickback. The affiliate text was not as clear as it should have been, and the disclaimer at the side and on the bottom were easy enough to miss.

In my case, I'd like to not have to disclose that links are affiliates: because none of them are as of now, or going forward.

3. The newsletter never had any affiliates. In The Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter, I never placed affiliate links. It would have not been ethical to do so for paying subscribers. And if I didn't place it for paying subscribers, would have it been ethical to do this for free subscribers? It didn't feel like that for me.

4. Because I'm lucky enough to be able to say to no to affiliates and advertising. When I was writing this blog on the side, the additional income from ads and affiliates covered things like my hosting-related costs, and the rest was a nice bonus. Now that I'm writing The Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter full-time, I'm lucky enough to be able to cut out these revenue streams from my business model.

Affiliates are a great additional income stream for many people - and one I also list in the article Becoming a full-time creator as a software engineer: controversial advice. However, similar to advertising or sponsorships, if you rely on affiliates as a source of income, your goal will be to generate large amounts of traffic for these properties. I'd like to cut out anything that pulls me to write things for the sake of popularity, as opposed to because it's an interesting and nuanced topic.

5. Link directly to publishers, not always to Amazon. I debated keeping Amazon affiliates because those fees do not come out of the pocket of authors. Unlike affiliate earnings from the likes of Gumroad where that earning comes out from the revenue cut for the author, this is not the case for Amazon.

Amazon pays a fixed percentage of the net price of the book to the author. The 4.5% affiliate fee for books comes out of Amazon's profits, and the author's earnings are the same whether an affiliate link is in place, or not. In the end, I removed Amazon's affiliate links both to not have to keep putting out disclaimers to them.

In the process of removing these links, I started to directly link to the publishers or to landing pages for books, instead of to Amazon directly. Many of these publishers have their own Amazon affiliate links set up for customers wanting to buy off Amazon, so they'll make an additional 4.5% of revenue from customers buying Amazon books off of their sites. It's a win for the publishers, and - indirectly - for the authors as well.

Amazon affiliates

Amazon brought in well over 80% of affiliates earnings. At the same time, this program was the trickiest one to sign up to, and to manage

Each Amazon region has a separate affiliate program. This means you need to register to each one of these. In my case, I registered to 12 different affiliate programs: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, UK and US. Every month, I'd then receive payouts from up to twelve different places.

Here's how the summary of these payouts looked like:

Amazon affiliate payouts over two years

Redirecting links to the right Amazon store is tricky. When a user browses your site from Australia, you'll want to redirect them to Amazon.com.au, and not the Amazon.com site.

Amazon has a service called Amazon OneLink which does this redirection. However, this service only supports seven of the top Amazon markets. Also, in my experience, it worked unreliably. On the flip side, this service is free, and should be a good enough solution for those making less than $20/month off affiliates.

Geniuslink is a paid service which does the same redirection, except it supports all Amazon marketplaces, and it does it for a fee: $5/month for up to 2,000 clicks, then $2/month for every 1,000 clicks in that month. This service is the one I settled on, and I'm happy that I did. The service comes with rich analytics, and smart features like alerting when a frequently clicked link points to an Amazon item that is out of stock.

So how much traffic generated that $20,000 worth of Amazon referrals? Quite a lot of clicks, it turns out 205,000 clicks:

Statistics on the clicks that resulted in $20,000 worth of Amazon affiliates revenue. The average revenue per click was around $0.10.

The most purchased books

Amazon affiliates offers a neat dashboard to see what books people ended up clicking on, and buying, presenting this data in an aggregated form. Below are the most purchased books on this blog:

Other affiliate programs

Gumroad. Gumroad - together with Podia - has become a popular destination for self-publishing books. This is because both platforms offer authors to keep up to 95% of the purchase price for authors. These platforms also offer an affiliate program that's easy to set up.

Most authors offered a 30% affiliate rate. This meant that I would make ~$8 when someone bought at $24 book via a Gumroad affiliate link. In comparison, Amazon would credit me $1.08 for the same purchase through its affiliate program.

What I didn't like about Gumroad affiliates is how the revenue did come out of the pockets of fellow authors. A few months into having these links in place, I asked all authors to lower the commission to the lowest, 1% tier. One author refused to do so - despite me asking them multiple times - and the bulk of the revenue comes from that book.

Grammarly. Grammarly's affiliate program pays per signup. I love using Grammarly, and mentioned this tool on articles about writing, when I listed tools I would recommend.

Grammarly earned a total of $1,400 through 2,400 clicks and 450 "conversions" - which likely means signups. The bulk of these earnings came sometime in March of 2022, and I don't know what caused a spike in the earnings. Otherwise this channel did not bring much revenue.

Grammarly earnings through The Pragmatic Engineer

Manning. I'm a fan of linking directly to the publisher, especially after a Manning author shared how Amazon is shipping counterfeit Manning books for several titles. A Manning representative reached out with details of their affiliate program - which pays double that of Amazon at 8% - and so I added these links next to the Amazon ones.

Unfortunately, people rarely buy directly from the publisher, given the choice of Amazon. Over a year, this channel generated 48 Manning book sales in what accounts for $91 in total. Most of these purchases were for Grokking Algorithms:

Still, after removed the Amazon affiliate links, I'm now linking directly to the publisher - Manning - for Manning books.

Learnings

One piece of context that's important to add for all of the above earnings: the traffic which resulted in the 205,000 Amazon affiliates clicks, plus the other clicks. That was 2.5M unique visitors with 3.9M pageviews during the same period of time:

Traffic for The Pragmatic Engineer Blog from August 2020 to Aug 

Considering that a similar amount of traffic resulted in ~$3,500 in ad revenue on this blog, affiliates coming mostly from book recommendations fared surprisingly well. Still, if the goal is to monetize web traffic more efficiently, sponsorships would have likely been a path to generate more revenue. As I wrote in Three years of advertising on my blog:

"Today, SwiftLee - an iOS blog - charges $2,000 per week or $7,000 per month for a sponsor slot with traffic of ~100,000 visitors per month and 400,000 pageviews per month."

However, unlike with generic ads, where you typically need to choose between sponsorship and an ad, it's acceptable to have sponsorships and affiliates. So for most publications, it's not an "or", but an "and".

A few learnings from using the various affiliate programs:

  • Amazon affiliates: a lot of work to set up for each country. Later, setting up payouts is additional work. In some countries, you won't be able to be paid out. For example, in Brazil or Japan, I would have needed to have a local bank account that I did not have.
  • Bookkeeping challenges. The bookkeeping of Amazon affiliate revenue is challenging when you are also publishing books on the site. Amazon makes bank transfers for everything - book sales and affiliates - at the end of the month, and it's a lot of work to separate what came from where.
  • Geniuslink was a great investment to maximise revenue from Amazon affiliates. Frankly, I'm surprised that Amazon does not invest more in their own OneLink service, which feels like an afterthought in comparison.
  • Whitelabel providers. Most other affiliate programs run on a whitelabel solution. Building an own affiliate program makes little sense, so companies don't do it. The good part is that most of these providers have roughly the same functionality: overview, reports, payouts. The bad part is that the publishers sometimes move between these providers, and then you might need to take additional action to keep earning. Manning used Post Affiliate Pro and Grammarly used HasOffers.com.
  • A traffic game. Unless you have lots of traffic - like I've had - expect affiliate revenue to be negligible. Even with decent traffic, most of the affiliate channels brought in relatively small amounts.

This post closes a chapter of affiliates on this blog. Going forward, no links on this blog bring any kickback - and I intend to keep it this way.


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