There's a certain class of affiliate marketer that will go to any lengths to make a quick buck -- short of providing any real value to the companies they are supposed to be supporting. One of the tried and true tactics of this type of affiliate is to run paid search ads on a company's brand terms, trumping the company itself by utilizing their display URL and pocketing the difference in ad costs and affiliate commission. Generally, this behavior is expressly forbidden in the affiliate terms and conditions and monitored by the advertiser and/or its agency, so the black hat affiliate needs to get sneaky.
In the past, we have found that affiliates playing this game were only doing so in the wee hours of the night when their activities were less likely to draw attention. Similarly, some affiliates have geo-targeted their brand campaigns to exclude not only our clients' headquarters, but RKG's own offices. One of the more nefariously clever tactics we've seen was an affiliate spoofing RKG's redirect in their ad destination URL, so at a quick glance it appeared to be our ad, but the affiliate had really inserted their own affiliate code into the link to take the credit and a nice commission.
The latest incarnation of this scam, for lack of a kinder interpretation, is for the affiliate to only run the brand paid search ads on specific devices like the iPad. Again, the idea is that the advertiser, agency or monitoring service is less likely to come across the deception if it is being carried out in a niche segment.
So, how can you catch them? Your first stop should be the good old AdWords Ad Preview Tool where you can specify the type of device you want to mimic and for which geographic location. If the ad showing is not yours, but looks just like yours -- the best practitioners of this tactic use the exact same ad copy as you are running -- it’s likely an affiliate. In fact, affiliate versions of your ad can even show with seller ratings because they live at the domain level, rather than the account level.
Another option is to install a browser add-on that allows you to operate your desktop browser as though it were a different device. We're partial to the User Agent Switcher extension for Firefox. Once you've installed the add-on and turned on iPad user agent spoofing, do a Google search for your trademark, right click the ad, and copy the link location. Paste this into a text editor and see what you’ve got. You can also do the same sort of research on an iPad itself.
In one example we uncovered, the affiliate was using a bit.ly URL that was redirecting to their affiliate site and then to the client's site. How handy! Add a ‘+’ to the end of a tinyurl or bit.ly URL and you can see how much traffic the URL has received -- and for how long -- to get a precise view of how severe the infraction has been.
More automated means of trademark monitoring would employ similar methods of spoofing user agents and geographic locations to make sure that the rogue affiliate has difficulty hiding their activities.
Fortunately, the vast majority of affiliates operate above board. Even if the value some of them contribute is debatable, they adhere to the rules and work within the system as it is. But, there will always be a contingent looking to beat that system by going outside its boundaries and, with each innovation in the ad marketplace, we need to keep an eye out for a new spin on the same old tricks.
Edit 4/27/12: Added clarification to first paragraph specifying that we are referring to cases where the affiliate usurps the display URL of the company.