Surviving an Audit by Amazon Associates

Surviving an Audit by Amazon Associates

I was having a beer on a Sunday night, after a fun weekend of hiking and exploring my new neighborhood in Boulder, CO.

I managed to avoid checking my email all weekend long, which is a feat, but I try to carve out screen free time over the weekends.

I’m glad I checked it when I did.

I saw this subject line:

ACTION REQUIRED – Your Amazon.com Associates Account

Then, the first line said this:

Your Associates account is at risk of closure.

I thought:

Expletive. Expletive. EXPLETIVE.

The email was sent on Thursday morning and I knew that I only had 5 business days to reply to the email.

Here is what the email said:

Hello,

Your Associates account is at risk of closure.

Why?
As part of our ongoing monitoring of the Amazon Associates Program, we’re reviewing your account. To complete our review, we need you to provide more information about how you’re referring customers to the Amazon Site.

What’s next?
Within five business days please provide a detailed description of the methods you are using to refer traffic to the Amazon Site by providing:
• A list of the Sites on which your Special Links or banner ads are posted,
• advertising services you are using,
• links to screenshots of your Site’s analytics tools that show your Site traffic and its sources,
• the keywords you are using to drive referrals,
• any plugins or browser add-ons you use,
• live links to your Sites,
• a sequence of links that allows us to duplicate the clicks the majority of your customers make to get to the Amazon Site via your Special Links, and
• any other information that would be relevant to confirming your compliance with the Operating Agreement, which can be found here.

Please send the requested information to us as soon as possible by using the Contact Us form available here. Please choose the subject “Warning/Information Request Response” from the dropdown menu, and be sure to reference Issue Code 83441-US in the comments field.

If you do not respond with sufficient information within five business days, we will close your Associates account and withhold fees.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Amazon.com

Warmest Regards,

Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com/associates

I finished my beer and got to work. I’ll share:

  • What I learned
  • What I did and how I responded
  • What happened after the Audit (including the Amazon Response)
  • My answers to reader questions
  • What I submitted (including free templates you can have)

Five Figure Niche Site, my premium course, is launching later in May. Look out for fresh success stories & testimonials from 2019.

Lessons Learned From My Audit from Amazon Associates

  1. Set up an alert so when you get an email from Amazon Associates, you don’t miss it or lose time. I lost a few days. You could set up a text message to be sent if you get an email with that subject line so you’ll know right away.
  2. Fix anything you can BEFORE you get an audit notice. If you aren’t sure, then I advise you to choose the most conservative option. I had a number of edge case issues that I had to fix using some ninja database skills, phpMyAdmin, and regular expressions (regex). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you really don’t want to know. You can quickly destroy your site in a few keystokes.
  3. Having a portfolio of sites would make the audit a nightmare. I have a few sites and it was a lot of work to do in a short time. If I didn’t have to fix anything, then it wouldn’t have been too bad.

Want My Audit Templates?

Get all the materials that I submitted to Amazon

See screenshots at the end of this post

  1. Cover Letter: Addresses all 8 items that you need to provide.
  2. Keyword List Template
  3. Plugin Template for Each Site
  4. Links to Duplicate Clicks Template for Each Site

** If you’re already a Niche Site Project email subscriber, then go check your email because I sent you the templates already.


Disclaimer

I’m not associated with the Amazon Associate program from any administrative capacity, just as an affiliate.

So use this information at your own risk.

  • You should consult your own legal counsel if needed — so talk to a lawyer.
  • You can use it as a guide.
  • These are just templates and the real audit is on your sites, not the templates.
  • I’m not making any claims that if you use these templates that you’ll have a successful audit.
  • I’m just sharing my specific experience which you can read here.
    If you’re being audited, good luck! I can’t help you fix issues — I’m sorry. But there’s just not time to help everyone. Go get a large coffee or a full pot of coffee and get to work.
  • In other words, proceed at your own risk.

My Rant Before We Get Started:

Some people think Amazon is too controlling with the Amazon Associates Operating Agreement and their Program Policies.

Maybe some people think the rules are unfair or complicated.

It’s a bad approach.

Life is unfair and complicated. 

I think it’s great that you can start a business from your computer for about $200 with a website. If you don’t like Amazon for some reason, I can respect that opinion.

There are other endless business models that you can execute.

I can guarantee that things are unfair and complicated everywhere. There will be different issues, but they’ll show up.

Feel free to vent below in the comments. Other folks in the audience will be able to relate to you and care about you.

So if you don’t like the Associates program or think the commissions are too low, then you should definitely seek a different business model.

Pick your poison…


What I Did To Fix Issues

I had a few things to fix, but not too many. The violations were generally edge cases that potentially didn’t follow the Operating Agreement not flat out violations.

However, across all my sites I have over a thousand posts so that’s really too much to review on my own by looking at individual pages.

Here are the three simple issues that I had, and they are some of the most common mistakes people make with Amazon Associate program.

  1. Image Usage
  2. Price References
  3. Amazon Brand Usage and Call-To-Actions

1. Downloading Images From Amazon

You can’t download images from Amazon and upload to your site. You need to use the Site Stripe or use the Advertising API.

I know this…so why did I have this issue?

I had one site that used an old plugin called Easy Azon. It’s old and hasn’t been updated in a long while. It pulls an image from the Amazon Advertising API, but it saves it on your site and serves it from your WordPress install.

I’ll share a little more on image usage in the question section since it’s such a hot topic.

What I did to fix the problem with images

I ripped out every single usage of Easy Azon on every post. Easy Azon uses shortcodes so that’s what I needed to remove.

The site in question had hundreds of posts so I couldn’t have done this manually. I used phpMyAdmin and regex and it took about 0.25 second to remove the Easy Azon shortcodes.

So that means that there aren’t product images — Yes. But I use primarily text-based affiliate links and don’t really care if there are product images.

2. Listing Prices or Price Ranges

You cannot list the prices unless you pull the data from the Advertising API. That ensures the data is accurate so the customer has a consistent and positive experience.

A customer might get upset if the pricing on a site doesn’t match the current price.

Again, I know listing prices is against the rules so I didn’t have any prices listed. But I was in a gray area.

I have some content that targets keywords like this:

Best [product-type] under [price]

Example: Best Guitar Pick under $10

I’m never mentioning a specific price for an item, but it’s unclear if this is against the rules.

I’ve called the support team three times in the past and never got a clear answer. So I have no idea if you can do it.

I make a lot from the Amazon Associate program so it’s important to not violate any of the Operating Agreement guidelines. I prefer the conservative, low-risk approach. If you like to gamble, I respect that, but it’s not my thing.

What I did to fix the problem with price ranges

I ripped out all the references to price ranges.

Again, I used my trusty, powerful friends: phpMyAdmin and regex.

I didn’t have all that many posts with “under $xxx” — maybe a few dozen. However, there are a lot of internal links that might reference the price range. It’s not a direct price reference, but I cannot afford to mess up on a small, possible issue, especially if I know how to fix the problem.

There were thousands of references to “under $xxx” across all my sites. The only way to make the fixes in a reasonable amount of time was by editing the database (DB). Again, you can edit thousands of data points in the DB in microseconds.

The WordPress Editor is ridiculously slow for editing en masse.

3. Usage of the Amazon name, branding, Call-to-Action (CTAs) including button usage

Amazon has specific rules about using the brand name. They outline it all and give specific examples in the Amazon brand usage guidelines.

  • They give examples for the Call to Actions (CTAs) for text links that you can use. These are explicitly allowed:
    • Shop now at Amazon.com
    • Shop now
    • Pre-order now
    • Learn more
    • See details
    • Watch now
  • The font, styling, color, and more are all noted as well. For example, it’s preferred to use “Amazon” over “Amazon.com.” However,  “Amazon.com” is allowed.

What About Using Buttons For Amazon Affiliate Links?

They have a whole section called Amazon Branded Button CTAs with specific examples of buttons and text that you can and cannot use.

For example, you can’t use buttons that mimic the branding, look, and style of an Amazon Button.

They give examples of “Approved” and “Not Approved” usage and explain exactly why there is an issue.

While some people might find the guidelines too strict, I’m not here to argue the validity or merit. I don’t care — I’m working in the Amazon Associate ecosystem and I’m happy to play by the rules. However, feel free to vent in the comments at the end! Your voice can be heard here — by your peers, not Amazon. 🙂 I’m pretty sure they don’t care.

My issue with branding was this little tiny word:

“on”

CTAs should say:

“Get Product X at Amazon” not “Get Product X on Amazon”

I mostly use text CTAs and have some buttons on sites. Sometimes the CTAs say, “on Amazon” others say, “at Amazon.”

It’s a small issue in my opinion, and I have a feeling that I could have left it as “on Amazon.”

But it was easy enough to fix, so I did.

What I did to fix the problem with Amazon Brand Usage

I updated all the “on Amazon” to “at Amazon.”

By now, you should realize that I didn’t do this manually.

phpMyAdmin and regex’s helped me find the thousands and thousands of instances and fix them in seconds.


What Response Does Amazon Provide?

This is the concise response I received. It’s pass-fail — I passed.

Dear Associate,
Thank you for your prompt response to our request for information. We appreciate your cooperation.
If we have any further questions or concerns, we will contact you again by email. Thank you for your continued participation in the Associates Program.
Warmest Regards,
Amazon.com

So as you can see, there isn’t much to it. You basically get no real indication of what they look at or not look at.


How And Why Do You Get Selected For An Audit By Amazon Associates?

It appears to be 100% random. There’s no indication why accounts are reviewed.

It appears to not be triggered by:

  • Earnings
  • Traffic
  • Time in the program
  • Or anything obvious

This is the most common question by far. Unfortunately, I have no idea and it’s impossible to find out unless you have the inside track to someone on the audit team.

What Do You Need To Provide?

There are 8 main pieces and they are noted in the email. You really don’t get much other information or details. I asked — and more on that in the next section.

Here are the 8 things and my interpretation of what the auditor is looking for:

1. A list of the Sites on which your Special Links or banner ads are posted.

Just the list of URLs and this should match up with your sites in the Associate account.

2. Advertising services you are using.

If you’re running ads to your site, what services are you using. Eg. Google Adwords, Facebook, etc…

3. Links to screenshots of your Site’s analytics tools that show your Site traffic and its sources.

Screenshots from whatever analytics tool you use. It’s to verify that actual traffic is going to your site.

4. The keywords you are using to drive referrals.

Keywords that you’re targeting for your content or any ads that you’re running.

5. Any plugins or browser add-ons you use.

A list of all plugins in use (for me, that’s all WordPress plugins). I don’t use any relevant browser extensions.

6. Live links to your Sites.

This one is easy — It should be the same as number 1.

7. A sequence of links that allows us to duplicate the clicks the majority of your customers make to get to the Amazon Site via your Special Links.

Provide a set of links that allow the auditor to recreate clicking a link on your site to get to Amazon. The choice of words is poor. “Sequence of links” isn’t the right phrase. I provided a list of URLs that had my “Special Links,” i.e. my affiliate links to Amazon.

8. Any other information that would be relevant to confirming your compliance with the Operating Agreement.

This is the one item where you can explain more things if you’d like.

My goal was to provide all the information they needed to verify compliance in the shortest way possible.

That means:

  • No fluff.
  • No bullshit.
  • Leave out the story and narrative because the auditor doesn’t care.
  • Just the facts with relevant details.

Who Can I Ask If I Have Questions?

You can contact the Amazon Associates Customer Service. They have great availability: EVERYDAY from 5 AM – 7 PM Pacific Time.

By the way, people often ask me about the Amazon Associates rules. I know some common violations, but there are many nuanced details that I just don’t know. So the best thing you can do is just contact the support team.

The truth is that some of the rules in the Operating Agreement aren’t explicit.

There are gray areas, and in the gray, you may get different answers from different customer support representatives (CSR). That’s frustrating, yes. I’ve heard people get very upset about not getting consistent answers, but I don’t blame the CSRs because they aren’t given the information.

I suggest contacting them by email (or chat if available) so that you have the whole interaction in writing.

I had a few questions so I called in. The CSR was very supportive and nice. She explained:

  • It’s very important to submit the information within 5 business days.
  • She didn’t know what they wanted for the 8 bullet points because the audit team is totally separate from her team.

It would have been great to be able to interact with the actual auditors and find out what they really cared about.

But this isn’t a collaboration with the Amazon Associate Audit team. This is a Request for Information and they tell you:

If you do not respond with sufficient information within five business days, we will close your Associates account and withhold fees.

So the consequence is high.

How Long Does The Audit Take With Amazon Associates?

It took a pretty long time, about 14 business days.

A day after submitting my response, I contacted the Associates Support team to make sure they received my reply.

Nick: Hello, my name is Nick. I’m here to help you today.
Me: Hi Nick, I sent an email via the Associate contact system and I wanted to confirm it was sent.
Me: I didn’t get an email confirming the message and it was for the “Warning/Information Request Response” request
Nick: I do see that it was sent and we have forwarded it to our account specialist team
Me: Perfect – That’s all I need to know. Thank you.

I expected it would take one week, 5 business days. I asked the Associates Support team what the status was after the week and when they’d be done.

The CSR said he has no visibility about the status, but it could take 7 – 14 days.

What If I Have A LOT To Fix?

You should get some coffee and clear out your schedule. Then, fix it.

A large part of my income is from Amazon so it was extremely important for me to get everything in order. My stance was to be conservative for ANY and ALL of the Operating Agreement guides that weren’t clear.

There are two schools of thought, though. You can gamble and maybe you can get away with it.

But the more money you make, the bigger the gamble.

Luckily, this exercise is just a problem to solve. There’s nothing really all that complicated about fixing the problems.

Remember This

If there is a guideline that is unclear, if you can’t get a definitive answer from the Associates Support, then you should assume the most conservative approach.

You don’t know how the auditor will be approaching the guidelines, so the lowest risk approach is to make everything easily identifiable as within the rules.

Can I Download Images From Amazon and Upload Them on my Site?

No. You can’t download images from Amazon and use them. You need to get the images from Amazon via the Site Stripe or via the Amazon Advertising API.

You can use a tool or plugin that uses the Amazon API.

Further, Amazon says this:

Product Imagery

  • All imagery used must be owned by the advertiser or cleared for use in the ad unit prior to campaign launch. Any Amazon.com product imagery including Amazon products such as the Kindle must be approved by Amazon and non-Amazon vendor products not owned by the advertiser must also be cleared by the company who holds the rights.
  • Product imagery provided should not be downloaded from Google or any other search engine site.
  • All advertisement imagery is subject to approval by Amazon.

The main idea here is about copyright and following those rules, at least, that’s what Amazon is looking to oversee.

So you can use images that you own, that you have rights to use or images from Amazon used in the correct way.

If you use images from Amazon, you have to link to Amazon with your affiliate link.

Why Are Sites Declined For The Amazon Associates Program?

If your site violates any of the points in the Operating Agreement, then your site might get rejected or kicked out of the program.

The Operating Agreement is dense and there are many, many rules.

So here are some common issues…

What are the MOST COMMON violations for Amazon Associates?

The most common violations that I see are:

  1. Downloading images from Amazon, then uploading to your site.
  2. Listing the price of products without pulling the data from the Amazon API.
  3. Listing the rating of a product without pulling the data from the Amazon API.
  4. Listing the number of reviews without pulling the data from the Amazon API.
  5. Quoting or using content from the User Reviews from Amazon.
  6. Not listing the affiliate disclaimer in a clear way. I list the disclaimer near the top of any review posts or just before the links. Check out my Resources Page at the top and bottom.
  7. Having poor quality content. This can take a few forms, including but not limited to:
      • Having all or mostly affiliate review content.
      • Poor grammar and spelling.
      • Short length.
      • Spun or re-used content.
      • Inaccurate information.
  8. Inaccurate or misleading CTAs, such as:
    • Get the best price
    • Save 25% Now
    • Buy now: Only 2 LEFT

Does Amazon Audit All Your Sites or Just One?

Amazon will check all the places you use and share links.

I have some affiliate websites and share some links on YouTube. So I listed all the sites plus my YouTube URL.

This can include social media and other platforms that you share affiliate links on.

Does Amazon Let You Know What They Are Looking For?

No. They ask for a set of 8 pieces of data.

The data is primarily for them to review and audit your sites. The data doesn’t have much substance and the actual sites are what you really need to focus on.

Where Should The Amazon Disclaimer Be Displayed?

It’s not explicitly stated by Amazon where to have the disclaimer. The rule is there to follow the FTC Guideline for affiliation and earnings.

I advise placing the disclaimer at the top so that all visitors (desktop and mobile) can see the disclaimer.

If you have a disclaimer in your sidebar, go check on your phone. Can you click an affiliate link before you see the disclaimer? If so, I’d say you’re in a gray area at best.

Please consult your lawyer… but you can say just about anything in the spirit of:

This is an affiliate link so if you make a purchase, then I make money.

It should be clear and easy to understand so use plain language, not legalese and jargon.

Is Amazon Just Looking For Generic Things Like an Affiliate Disclosure or That Affiliate Links Are Noted As Such?

I can’t comment on exactly what Amazon is looking for during the audit.

I can’t comment on how rigorous the audit is.

I, personally, treated the audit like Amazon was putting on latex gloves and getting down to serious business.

I expected that Amazon was going to look at every single word on every single post on every single site.

Other people might not react like me which I can respect.

Does Amazon Associates Give You Any Tips About What Is Allowed or Not Before, During, or After the Audit?

No, not that I experienced. I got no information from the audit team during the audit. I got this:

  1. The notice to send the information within 5 business days.
  2. The notice that stated Amazon appreciates the information and my participation in the program.

I went through the Successful Use Case I passed the audit  so I don’t know what happens when you fail the audit.

I know that you can be re-instated — that’s possible — after being kicked out.

I assume it’s based on the level and severity of the violation. So if you’re doing shady things, then I don’t expect it’s easy to be re-instated.

I think that you could form a company, get a new EIN, and restart things if you really screwed things up.

Can we voluntarily ask Amazon to audit site so that we can make any changes, or unintentionally breaking any rules?

You can contact Amazon Associates on this page. It’s not clear if you can ask for a full audit.

You should ask specific questions on specific URLs. General questions get general answers that aren’t very helpful.

So I would NOT send in a message to ask, “Can you review all the URLs on my site and let me know what to fix?” That’s an unreasonable request.

You care more about your site than the CSR so take the time to review Operating Agreement and your own site.

Then, ask smart, informed questions.

If Your Site is Violating Amazon’s terms, What Are the Consequences?

You can be kicked out of the program. You may also lose commissions that have not yet been paid out.

Do You Get a Report With What Needs To Be Fixed?

I don’t know since I didn’t get any other information after the audit. You can interpret that in two ways.

  1. I didn’t have any issues on any of my sites so I passed with no notes.
  2. Amazon doesn’t give you report.

I don’t think Amazon gives you much information. I suspect they just tell you that there are violations and that you are no longer in the Associates Program.

Please let me know if you’ve been audited and got a report, details, or other information.

Are Some Operating Agreement Violations Worse Than Others?

Possibly. I don’t have any visibility on how Amazon views the set of guidelines.

I assume if you have 1 or 2 mistakes, e.g. Improper Usage of Images, that’s not as bad as making 6 other mistakes, too.

So minimize the mistakes as much as you can.

Is it even worth it to be an Amazon Associate anymore? Is Commission Junction, ClickBank, or Share-a-Sale better?

Amazon Associates works great for me and many other people. For other people, like Ron Stefanski, ad-based sites are great.

So I can’t answer that for you. Other affiliate programs will often pay higher commission rates, but the volume of sales will be lower.

For example, I’m an affiliate for a few software products that I personally use and the commission rates are 10% to 50%. It’s a great percentage, but the sales are few and far between.

However, people buy a LOT of products on Amazon so I appreciate the volume.

My overall answer isn’t all that helpful:

You have to pick some business model and they all have downsides. They all have upsides too.

  • You pick your poison.
  • You have to live with the consequences.
  • You also get the riches of your business model.

I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars with the affiliate business model, so I like it.

You can literally pick any of dozens of online business and they can all work for you. They all have pros and cons. Nothing is perfect.

What If Amazon Ends The Affiliate Program?

I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I have two positive things in place.

  1. If you have a site with traffic, you can usually figure out a way to make money.
  2. I developed a lot of marketing and general business skills like:
    • Keyword Research
    • Copywriting
    • Hiring and Working with Freelancers
    • SEO
    • Email Marketing
    • Content Marketing
    • Building and Selling Businesses

Here are the Materials That I Submitted

You can get your own complete copy here. I show screenshots of the meaty parts of the information to give you an idea of what you can provide.

Here is my cover letter:

Here is the list of sites.

I provided a folder of screenshots showing my analytics. I shared a few years of data, but you can share whatever you think is relevant.

I shared several hundred keywords, but it was just a sample.

I shared every plugin that I actively use, even if they weren’t relevant.

I shared hundreds of links to my sites, again it was just a relevant sample.

Finally, I wanted to make it clear that I want to make things right if any issues arise. I’m here to work with Amazon!


Now, It’s YOUR TURN

Want to have YOUR voice heard?

Feel free to vent here in the comments. Amazon probably doesn’t care what you think, but I know readers will be able to relate to your thoughts and feelings.

  • What questions do you have?
  • Let me know if you’ve been audited and how it turned out.
  • Help others in the comments!

I expect this post to be a work-in-progress, a living document, as people ask more questions. I’ll add to it in the future.

Thanks to the DOZENS of people that sent in questions from the Niche Site Project email list. If you’re not on the email list, you can sign up below.
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