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AI tools may boost affiliate link revenue for publishers — but also pose a threat.

Written by Brook Schaaf

Large publishers have made headlines for selling their data to AI companies for training purposes, which might supplement or even supplant advertising revenue. Digiday recently opined (paywall) on three pros and three cons for the publishers. Let’s focus on one of each and relate both back to affiliate. 

Pro: “AI technologies can enhance analytics, content optimization and ad targeting capabilities.” Vox Media’s The Strategist will use OpenAI to improve its customized suggestions on The Gift Scout, which are likely to be monetized with affiliate links.

Con: “Publishers are helping to develop AI tools that could eventually replace them.” This threat has already manifested with Google’s AI Overviews (an advance over snippets). Quality issues aside, this may make for a zero-click search, meaning no traffic or other compensation to the publishers, who otherwise may, of course, monetize with affiliate links. 

While it may be counterintuitive, my take is that both of these will help and not harm affiliate, at least after some time has passed. Here is my case:

Some searches have clear commercial relevance, whether or not the human user has particular intent. For example, any query with “best” or “coupon” appended is, among many others, a likely candidate; not coincidentally, related content is often monetized with affiliate links.

If intent to purchase or research (presumably a prelude to the former) is present, the user experience will probably not be complete without links to relevant content, such as a page with coupons, reviews, or the product availability and price. 

For example, my search experience for “best kitchen blender” is better on perplexity.ai than on ChatGPT because the former provides citations. (Interestingly, both name the Vitamix 5200.)

If the Affiliate Hypothesis I wrote about last week is correct, then, depending on the user’s exact expectations, the highest yielding pages will likely use affiliate links because they can best match to the content sought, be it a merchant, product category, review page, coupon page, or places to buy a specific product.

Everyone involved, including the user, should recognize that a commercial link is probably compensated in one way or another. So whether the AI software is the display interface or background tool, it can learn to parse such links and, perhaps, rotate through each of, say, five content sources’ links or tag them for compensation with its own links. If the affiliate site is not compensated it may block or sue the AI company, which would then risk a loss of contributing content. (Keep in mind that for coupons and reviews it needs to be fresh for utility and credibility.) If the affiliate site is compensated, it could make for a beautiful friendship. 

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