Why Amazon.com associates can’t make money even when Amazon does

Amazon gets well-deserved praise for their customer support. Most of the time. Like any giant, it sometimes gets things wrong, but it tries really hard to create the right buying experience. I have been buying books and other stuff from them since 1999 and I have never had a problem as an ordinary customer.

However, things are not so rosy if you are an affiliate, an author, a developer, or a publisher. But, as you will see, it is not necessarily Amazon’s fault.

This article is also available on Amazon Kindle. You may consider buying it, if you would like to keep it for your reference.

Let’s discuss the affiliate program first. When it launched it was one of the first large scale affiliate programs on the internet that actually let people make money off their websites.

When all Amazon sold were books, the earning were nothing to write home about, but when they added more products (electronics, clothing, photographic equipment, etc.) some enterprising bloggers started making good money with it thanks to the rapidly growing number of broadband users.

But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t (and still can’t) capture commissions on all sales they help Amazon make, because the Associates program is compartmentalized in ways that make it impossible for affiliates to make money even when Amazon does.

When some clicks on an affiliate link like this one, they are sent to the Amazon.com website operated by Amazon in the US and that click is registered by the Amazon.com Associates US program. The affiliate makes money when the product the visitor wants to buy is available on the Amazon.com site and can be sold and shipped to the buyer. When those conditions are not met, the following things can happen:

  • The visitor leaves and Amazon.com makes no sale. The affiliate gets nothing.
  • The visitor decides to browse for other products and buys them. Amazon.com makes the sale, the affiliate get a cut.
  • The visitor goes to another Amazon site (Amazon.co.uk, for example) where the linked product is available for sale to the visitor and buys the linked product. Amazon makes money, the affiliate doesn’t.

The last case shows how much the virtual world can still be controlled by geography, politics, and local laws. Amazon operates in a number of countries locally, which means that Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com are separate entities and they run their own separate accounting departments as well as their own affiliate programs.

Although you can register with those separate Amazon affiliate programs quite easily, it is up to you to create the right links that point to the local sites. This is not such a big deal. Amazon has the tools to help you do that. What is problematic is serving the right links to the right visitor.

As I learned recently, even though I own the rights to my Vim book and I enabled it for sale worldwide, you have to order it from the right Amazon site even when I run a free promotion and give it away for free.

This seems to be an easy problem to solve, just point the visitors to a redirection script that will look at their IP address and redirect them to the Amazon site that they ought to be using, right?

Not quite.

While it might help some visitors, it will make things more confusing for others. You see, when Amazon.com does not have a local subsidiary, they sell some products via their Amazon.com US site (e.g. Kindle books sold to the customers in Eastern Europe are sold via the Amazon.com US site) and other via their local sites (e.g. if you want to buy electronics in Easter Europe you will most likely use the Amazon.co.uk UK site, as Amazon.com will not ship outside the US).

While you can write a redirection script that is smart enough to handle affiliate links for Kindle books using the IP address of the visitor it will point them to the wrong site when they travel. For example, Amazon.co.uk customers visiting Poland would be redirected to the Amazon.com site while they are in Poland and would either get confused or they would need to type “amazon.co.uk” into the URL field and search for the right book. In either case, the affiliate is going to loose the commission. But also think how inconvenient that is for the visitor who wants to buy a Kindle guide to Cracow, for example.

You could publish a choice of links or you could do what John Gruber does and let your visitors choose which Amazon site they want to use. Still, it only solves some of the problems. As someone living in Poland, I shop for Kindle books on Amazon.com US site, but I buy my electronics on Amazon.co.uk site. (And I have a good laugh when the products shipped to me appear to be boxed for the Italian market, but that’s globalization at work.)

The moral here is that you must accept the fact that you are not going to get commission on all sales that you help Amazon make, and you have to think where the visitors to your site come from. If you publish content that is very local, e.g. a fashion blog in Italian, it make sense to join the Italian Amazon Associates program and publish links to the Amazon.it site using your Italian associate IDs.

Things get tricky when you are located in the UK and publish content in English for a worldwide audience. In that case, you should use Google Analytics to watch where your visitors are located and link wisely. For example, if you blog about the new iPhone 5 and your audience is mostly EU-based, it is a waste of time to link to iPhone 5 on the Amazon.com site. A much better solution is to link to iPhone 5 on Amazon.co.uk as they can be shipped to the EU and elsewhere. In such case you should link to Amazon.co.uk site using your UK associate IDs.

Choosing the right affiliate program and linking to the right Amazon site is only one part of the problem. Another is getting paid. Even though it is easy to join separate Amazon.com Associates programs for Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States, each account is separate. The affiliate links, IDs, cookies and other information necessary to track affiliate traffic and income are not shared, which means you might have made a thousand dollars in one month, but you will get nothing if that money is spread over a number of separate accounts and none of them have crossed the payout threshold. This is not going to be a problem if you have a popular site, but it will be a problem when you are starting out and experimenting, so be patient.

PS. If you want to buy a domain and use it as a permanent link that others will use but you can control what it points to, get it from Hover. They have the simplest and fastest way to buy, manage, and redirect domains.