Avoiding fraudulent behavior is important to the success of any affiliate program, but navigating the landscape can be challenging. In this blog post, expert Emily Ingram provides common red flags that advertisers should be aware of, and what they should do to if they spot something concerning. 

For advertisers, knowing what your publishers are doing is crucial to any affiliate partnership. From brand representation to customer experiences, you want to make sure you’re working with the best publishers possible. However, sometimes seemingly-great publishers can be conducting fraudulent activity, and actually-great publishers my inadvertantly be causing those same problems. It’s a tricky landscape to navigate, so we consulted Rakuten Affiliate Network Compliance Analyst Emily Ingram to find out about five “red flags” that advertisers can spot when they look through a publisher’s site, if that indicates fraudulent activity, and what to do if something is seen.

5 Red Flags of (Possible) Fraudulent Behavior

1. Too Much Direct Traffic: When you think about all the different ways someone might end up on a website – from email and social media, to search engines and referral links – the idea of going to a browser and typing in the actual address of a website seems like a thing of the past. Chances are, there’re only a couple websites you access by directly typing in the URL – and that’s why you need to pay close attention to the amount of direct traffic a publisher is getting.

“When looking at a site, you’ll want to work backward,” Emily advises, “ask yourself why this is getting so much traffic, and how are they getting it? Typically, in affiliate, people will be searching for [publisher] sites, or deals that will lead them to publisher sites.”

If there’s too much direct traffic going to a publisher, it could be a result of malware or cookie stuffing.

2. Paid Search: Paid search is a tough for advertisers because each advertiser is different – some allow paid searches in their affiliate programs, others do not. However, should you decide that paid search should not be a part of your affiliate partnerships, you’ll want to be vigilant for publishers that are doing this – and therefore violating your T&C’s.

Keep in mind, however, that these paid advertisements aren’t always insidious. “It could also be a mistake,” Emily notes, citing that sometimes an advertiser who pays for the word “shoes” could inadvertently end up hitting a specific luxury brand’s shoes. “That’s why we ask them to do negative matching, and can issue a notice without outright terminating them.”

3. Display Ads: Display ads, AKA popups, are a big concern for one main reason: they ruin the user experience. If a shopper visits a publisher website and gets popup ads they may assume that site is less legitimate and only serve to distract the visitor. Other times, they don’t even serve the product/site being visited. This is something that advertisers should be reporting if they believe it hinders the user’s experience with the publisher – and therefore, the advertiser’s brand.

4. Site Traffic is Less Than Reporting: Everyone looks for honesty in partnerships, and the affiliate relationship is no different – you expect your publishers to report honest numbers about their performances. So, it’s harmful to the relationship when your publisher comes back saying they received 20,000 clicks for the past month when, in reality, it was closer to 200.

“This is especially problematic because it messes up conversion statistics,” Emily points out. If left unnoticed, these skewed numbers can affect how you might think about your affiliate campaigns going forward – including eliminating efforts that would work.

5. Questionable Referral URLs: Referrals are a great way to get more people visiting a site and build an SEO strategy, but bad referral URLs can get you blacklisted from Google and is considered a black hat strategy in the SEO world. However, questionable referral URLs can also raise a flag about the publisher that they’re performing illegitimate practices.

“[Questionable URLs] could be anything, from malware to a toolbar injecting a cookie when someone makes a purchase so that it looks like [the customer] made the purchase through that publisher,” Emily explained. “These are gray areas because the natural assumption might be ‘if it’s driving traffic, how can it be bad?’ but it’s a problem because you can’t tell how traffic is being driven.

“If it’s not how the publisher claims they’re driving traffic, they’re probably trying to hide something.”

What Should You Do if You See These Red Flags?

If you’re looking at one of your publishers’ sites and notice one of these five red flags, don’t panic. It could be something, it could be nothing, but the next step you should be taking should be to get in touch with the Rakuten Affiliate Network and have a Network Quality Compliance Analyst evaluate the publisher to see if they’re behaving fraudulently, are making a mistake they were unaware of, or just simply got tangled up with a violation and were totally unaware that it happened (such as with paid search).

If you’re looking for more strategies and insights on avoiding fraudulent activity, watch a free, on-demand replay of our webinar, 9 Things You Can Do to Protect Your Affiliate Brand, featuring Rakuten Affiliate Network’s own compliance expert, Emily Ingram. Click below to watch!


Special thank you to Emily Ingram, who took the time to provide her expertise to help create the content of this article!