Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 3, 2007

Defining Amazonian Ethics

Many blogs and websites—Gelf included—make money when people buy Amazon products off of our sites. What is our responsibility to our readers—and to the other websites—in terms of disclosure, transparency, and credit-sharing?

David Goldenberg

Rich Lafferty recently wrote an incredibly well-read post on his blog Rich Text about the most expensive items on It was linked from popular blogs and message boards, including The Consumerist, Metafilter, Boing Boing, and Instapundit. And if just one rich reader decides to buy, say, a leather-bound, $40,000 book about Super Bowl XL, or perhaps a $17,500 violin-playing robot, Lafferty himself is in line to collect a four-figure check from Amazon. Or maybe not. Here's why:

Rich Lafferty
"I didn't expect anyone to buy anything through those links, but I'd sure be kicking myself if they had and I didn't have an associate ID on there! Sort of a Pascal's Wager of overpriced consumer goods."

Rich Lafferty

When Lafferty first compiled his list, he used straightforward Amazon URLs pointing to the items he was discussing. (When The Consumerist linked to his list—the first major blog to do so—it didn't even bother to include the hyperlinks in its excerpt.) But when Metafilter linked to his list, the URLs in their blurb about the post were slightly modified. Those links included Metafilter's Amazon Associates ID, which means that any transactions on Amazon begun via one of those links will result in a 4-10% commission from Amazon to Metafilter. (Gelf also uses Amazon Associates—more on that later.)

When Lafferty noticed his list had been modified, he wasn't upset. "The Metafilter community (of which I'm part; I'm user 'mendel' over there) has always figured that was an ok thing to do to bring in a few bucks for the site operators where possible," he tells Gelf over email. But it did make him decide to change his own post. "Seeing the associate ID on Metafilter reminded me that I had been meaning to get my own associate ID anyhow to use when I link to (accessibly-priced) books, CDs, and so on, and so I signed up and edited the URLs in my post. (And no, I didn't expect anyone to buy anything through those links, but I'd sure be kicking myself if they had and I didn't have an associate ID on there! Sort of a Pascal's Wager of overpriced consumer goods, I suppose.)"

Meanwhile, though, his post was being linked to by other blogs, including Instapundit and Boing Boing, who were inserting their own Associates IDs into the snatches of text they were excerpting. Again, Lafferty has no hard feelings. "It doesn't surprise or bother me at all," he writes. "I don't know if I'd go so far to say that it's expected, but it's pretty close to that, at least, and I wouldn't be surprised if both sites automatically added their associate IDs to Amazon links." Neither Instapundit nor Boing Boing responded to emailed requests for comment on this story.

To Gelf, this particular example about the use of Associates IDs raises ethical questions about online reporting and credit- (and commission-) sharing.

1) Are Amazon Associates more likely to write about (and praise) big-ticket items because of the potential payday they involve?

I've certainly had that feeling when I peruse posts on entire publishing libraries for sale or repeated items about expensive digital cameras. It's very difficult to divorce the editorial and business sections of small businesses, and it's certainly not as insidious as the payola for blog posts recently documented in the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps, though, a reminder to readers is in order on pricey goods, especially when the websites discussing them are subtly (or not so subtly) encouraging their readers to buy.

2.) Do we have a responsibility to tell our readers that we have a financial motivation in talking to them about consumer goods?

Gelf, of course, offers merchandise for sale in the form of (really cool) T-shirts that we make ourselves. But we also have our own Associates ID number that we insert into pretty much any Amazon item (including books) that we link to on our site. We also use our merchandise section to point readers towards Amazon items we've liked that they might want to buy. Unless we code incorrectly (or are too lazy to insert our ID into links), we get a commission on all of the Amazon products that are bought through our site. Better yet (for us), if you do any shopping through Amazon after entering it through one of those links, or through the banner in our merchandise section, we get a 4-10% cut of everything you buy. (I keep saying 4-10% because our commission varies depending on how much people buy through our site. The more Amazon-shopping people do through Gelf, the bigger our cut.) Does this create a conflict of interest? We don't think so; we haven't and won't let this commission prevent us from writing negative things, if warranted, about the products we're linking to—or about Amazon itself. We explain our stance in our merchandise section.

3.) Is it cool to take snips from other folks' posts and then try to make money off of their ideas by inserting your own code into the products they found?

Gulbransen Bottle Organ

According to Lafferty, this $33,150 Gulbransen Bottle Organ (with real beer bottles) is the most expensive instrument for sale on Amazon.

Often, it's impossible to ascertain who came up with particular ideas, but in certain cases, as with Lafferty's post, it's obvious. Should Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit feel compelled to share any money he makes off of people who decide to buy an incredibly large playground from his site as opposed to Lafferty's? Should he use Lafferty's code, thus giving Lafferty all the potential profits? Or is a link to the original post the only form of acknowledgment needed? (It's possible that Instapundit came across Lafferty's post before Lafferty had added his own Amazon ID to the links. Lafferty tells Gelf he's sure Boing Boing linked to his piece before he added the relevant code.)

Gelf is still trying to decide what's appropriate. As a symbol of our ambiguity on this point, we're going to provide multiple links to some of the products that Lafferty discusses in his post. You can decide whose website you'd like to support (assuming you have lots of disposable income, and questionable taste) through your purchases of these exquisite products:

$12,463.50 Grandfather Clock
Gelf gets a cut
Lafferty gets a cut

$10,560 Russian Beluga Caviar
Gelf gets a cut
Lafferty gets a cut

Have your own answers to these ethical questions? Please let us know in the comments.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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