Navigating the Murky Waters of Affiliate Links on YouTube

/ Dec 5, 2013


For years, affiliate links have been a contentious subject for YouTube and its creators. According to YouTube, the use of affiliate links breaks its Terms of Service, which state that the video platform cannot be used for commercial uses, including “advertising, sponsorships, or promotions placed on or within the Service or Content…”

Based on those guidelines, the ban on affiliate links within YouTube seems fairly cut and dry. However, Tim Schmoyer, host of ReelSEO’s Creator Tip videos, decided to dig into the semi-vague language surrounding affiliate links and found that things were less black and white then we’ve previously believed.

But before we dive into Schmoyer’s findings, let’s take a look at the practice of embedding affiliate links in a video first. For a solid reference, check out the below video from John Chow.

In the video, Chow explains how to turn a workspace into a totally paperless office. The information is all there and at the bottom of the video, in its description, Chow has placed an Amazon affiliate link to the ScanSnap scanner, which he mentions in the video. In a related blog post, Chow explains that the video averages around five to ten sales of the $249 scanner a month, which nets him around $150 a month in Amazon commissions.

“The affiliate link is embedded both in the description and in the video itself. When a user clicks the link and buys the product from, I get a commission,” explains Chow. Of course, based on YouTube’s Terms of Service statutes, this would be a blatant violation due to the commercial mileage Chow is getting out of the hosted video and its affiliate links.

More so, YouTube has been actively terminating accounts that host affiliate links within the past two years. At the Google Product forums, one user writes:

“I posted affiliate links into my YouTube video descriptions without knowing that this it was a violation of the Community Guidelines… I did some quick investigation work on the internet and didn’t see where affliate [sic] links were not allowed… so I posted the links. Soooo I was shocked to see that my account was terminated without warning.”

While this user’s case was not explicitly detailed, he/she may have a case for an appeal based on Schmoyer’s research. Schmoyer writes: “I consulted with a lawyer who specializes in working with online creators. His opinion is that, ‘The sale of promotions, ‘is vague as to whether an affiliate link is considered a sale.’”

To this point, YouTube clearly stated in its Partner Program Policy that paid product promotion is allowed. In fact, as Schmoyer points out, it’s how many MCNs make money on YouTube. The only caveat is that partners must notify YouTube first of paid promotions, which can be done by checking a box after uploading a video. Working within those parameters, an affiliate link could be considered a paid promotion. For example, a brand could pay you to create a piece of UGC with an affiliate link in the description. This, on face value, would be considered a paid product promotion.

Schmoyer explains that YouTube had purposely kept the language on affiliate links vague because those sales do not hurt the video site’s bottom line in a significant way. However, in the event that affiliate links do begin to cause YouTube financial problems, murky Terms of Service can easily be adjusted to be more concrete.

Of course, Schmoyer signs off by saying that he is not an authority on this matter. “If you use affiliate links,” writes Schmoyer, “you do so at your own risk.”

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  • MTurkish Delight

    It’s an interesting area and as you point out, very much a grey one – some marketers seem to be okay, but most get banned for spamming.


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