Let's talk referrals

PlayfulPhoenix

Founder of SFF.N
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Feb 22, 2015
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Hey everyone,

A while ago I wrote an announcement post that covered a slew of things, but among them was the topic of referrals. More specifically, we announced that we were instituting a policy whereby referral links would not be permitted on the forum, pending some community discussion.

To be honest, we've had most of our attention taken over by some behind-the-scenes work (which we will hopefully share soon ;)), so this topic hasn't been on the forefront of our mind since I last brought it up. But I saw a few posts made over the past few days that mentioned the subject, and was reminded by them that now is as good a time as any to create this thread. So here we are!

I'll go ahead and quote myself from the aforementioned post back in February for context:

4. We are introducing a new policy regarding referral links on the forum. It's been called to our attention on multiple occasions that some users have been using referral links when discussing products or services on the forum. In general, these take the form of links to online marketplaces that have an associate or referral ID appended to the URL, such that the person who is associated with that ID is compensated whenever a user purchases items though that link. Although we don't feel that there have been any brazen examples of unethical conduct as a result of the use of these referral links, we have ultimately decided that the best course of action is to ban use of these links moving forward. Simply put, this is meant to be a straightforward policy enhancement that we think is the right choice to make for the community, with respect to ensuring that financial incentives don't induce biased discourse.

We'll have a bit more to share and to discuss with respect to referral links more generally, but for now we ask that everyone recognize this new rule and refrain from posting referral links moving forward.

Although that announcement was one of many, I want to make it clear that it wasn't a decision that was taken lightly. There was considerable conversation on our part with respect to what was the right course of action for this, and we arrived at the aforementioned decision based on the following reasoning:

  1. Allowing community members to use affiliate links incentivizes people to promote and/or advocate for products they could profit from (through the use of affiliate codes), rather than to promote products that are germane or in the best interests of others.
  2. While not all uses of referral links are abusive, we don't currently know of a reasonable method available to us to moderate all affiliate links, such that we can distinguish (and delete) the abusive ones. (There would also be a considerable cost associated with simply attempting to do so, even if the solution was ultimately imperfect.)
  3. The gains by individuals who are using affiliate links in a non-abusive way are outweighed by the costs Minutiae takes on by moderating all links, as well as the costs the community incurs by having to co-habitate with abusers of referral links.

At this point in time, our thoughts are unchanged since we banned referral links... but that doesn't mean that we're forever against referral links being used on SFF Forum. To the contrary, we're actually quite open to many different approaches and considerations surrounding the use of referral links - we just made the decision in the short-term to forbid such links as a matter of caution, in order to buy time until we were convinced that a particular approach was the best for us, and for the community. As I've said before, we really want to get this right.

In the meantime, i's been interesting (and helpful!) for us to get community feedback in this regard, and watch discussion on the subject when it's come up. Since we enacted the ban, perspectives and proposals have been fairly diverse. The ones I can recall that I've seen discussed would include:
  • Support for a permanent ban.
  • Support for a limited ban (only allowing certain users or types of links to be used).
  • Support for moderating links based on whether or not a particular link is abusive or non-abusive.
  • Support for moderating links on a case-by-case basis (taking into account the history of the user).
  • Support for using automation to convert all affiliate links to ones that support SFF Forum/Minutiae.
  • Support for little-to-no restriction on the use of links (and affiliate links within those), so long as they follow existing rules.
I'm sure that there are others, but these are the most vocalized.

---

With that, then, we want to turn the microphone to you all. What do you think? What would you prefer personally, and why? And - most important to us - what's the best approach that we can take for the community, SFF Forum, and Minutiae (in that order)?
 

PlayfulPhoenix

Founder of SFF.N
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SFFLAB
Chimera Industries
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Feb 22, 2015
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Might need to be clarified by the mods, but that's not an affiliate link, that's just linking to your own store. Neither is basic linking to a specific product elsewhere. An affiliate link is specifically when you are paid-per-click (or sometimes paid-per-sale) by a third party store (e.g. Amazon) when you direct others to that store via a specific URL, for any product that store carries.

Just want to mention that this interpretation is correct. Linking your own store is fine so long as it's germane to the thread/conversation, and that's a separate concern from the use of affiliate links as @EdZ has described them. Apologies if this wasn't clear earlier.

This has been very helpful discussion, we're appreciative of everyone who's shared their thoughts so far!

EDIT: Scanning through the responses, I just want to make clear to folks that our institution of policies should not in any way be interpreted as a distrust on our part of the community or of particular users. We discuss these things openly (and moderate as lightly as we can) precisely because we do trust you all! It's just that - as this particular conversation has made clear - the ideal solution or approach isn't always the most pragmatic one, and we have to consider how we operate the forum with an eye towards what the user base will look like in the future.
 

Ceros_X

King of Cable Management
Mar 8, 2016
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@EdZ is correct. @Josh | NFC, you can most certainly link to your own store...that is in no way violating this rule. If you were to set up affiliate accounts and others linked to your store, where you'd give them a kick-back, that is where issues would be had in the current state of the rule.

I'll give an example of where fan recommendations can go bad: if it was determined that the Scythe SY1212SL12H-P PWM fan was the best fan for the job, in unbiased advice that would be recommended along with info to contact scytheus.com directly to acquire it. However, since the PWM fan isn't sold online, someone with an affiliate account may just stick in a link to one of the non-PWM fans listed by the associated retailer in an attempt to profit off of that person and others search for the same advice.

With that same argument, someone may note that the Scythe SY1212SL12H-P PWM was the best fan for the job.. however it wasn't available through Amazon and the runner up was a fan available on Amazon, [affiliate link here]. Some people don't want to e-mail a company and negotiate for a fan over e-mail, they'd rather just pick one off Amazon and add it to their cart along with all the other crap they are ordering for their SFF PC.

I think the community can pretty easily moderate itself on extemporaneous referral links - to my knowledge most of the shoddy referral links (and rules violations for that matter) aren't really caught by mods on the prowl, rather someone reports them and then the mods deal with it. The community is pretty big on self policing, whether if comes to copy cat cases or spammers. I'd suggest implementing some guidelines like "Referral links have been allowed under a trial run - you are free to utilize referral links, but please only use them for products that are both appropriate and relevant. Posters who contribute just to generate referral links are different than a poster who generates content and then adds referral links - make sure you are the right side of poster! Please report any posts that violate this principle."
 
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Fireside

Caliper Novice
Mar 25, 2017
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As a new-comer here (wooo, first post!) I stumbled across this thread after signing up. I personally feel like affiliate links should be allowed without any special requirements beyond what was already in place before hand. I can't speak for people here as I don't know them (yet) but in my experience forum regulars are usually very apt to report someone they see abusing privileges.

With that in mind, a system where people with x number of reports or complaints against them gets their account flagged for moderator review seems plausible. Most of the grunt work is already done by the people reporting and the moderators would have far fewer accounts to review.
This still poses an increased cost, but hopefully much less, and small enough to make it worthwhile.
 
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iFreilicht

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Feb 28, 2015
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I think the community can pretty easily moderate itself on extemporaneous referral links

Right now we can, but I share @EdZ concern that the time to put a system in place that will always work is now, not then. The problem with that argument in general is that we really don't know whether it will become an issue in the future or not.

Maybe we should rephrase the question to say, What harm would a given solution do right now? Personally I would say applying for the right to post affiliate links is a nice solution that allows almost no exploitation, is very scale-able and doesn't do any harm compared to the current situation.
Allowing only members with a supporter subscription to post affiliate links is quite good as well, but probably a little easier to exploit while being even easier to scale.

An additional aspect is comfort: All of us are able to moderate their own e-mail inboxes as well, but we still like having a spam-filter. So a rudimentary method for blocking out affiliate links is useful in its own right, even if it's just for partial spam-protection.
 

Ceros_X

King of Cable Management
Mar 8, 2016
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Right now we can, but I share @EdZ concern that the time to put a system in place that will always work is now, not then. The problem with that argument in general is that we really don't know whether it will become an issue in the future or not.

Maybe we should rephrase the question to say, What harm would a given solution do right now? Personally I would say applying for the right to post affiliate links is a nice solution that allows almost no exploitation, is very scale-able and doesn't do any harm compared to the current situation.
Allowing only members with a supporter subscription to post affiliate links is quite good as well, but probably a little easier to exploit while being even easier to scale.

An additional aspect is comfort: All of us are able to moderate their own e-mail inboxes as well, but we still like having a spam-filter. So a rudimentary method for blocking out affiliate links is useful in its own right, even if it's just for partial spam-protection.

Right now we can, but I share @EdZ concern that the time to put a system in place that will always work is now, not then. The problem with that argument in general is that we really don't know whether it will become an issue in the future or not.

Maybe we should rephrase the question to say, What harm would a given solution do right now? Personally I would say applying for the right to post affiliate links is a nice solution that allows almost no exploitation, is very scale-able and doesn't do any harm compared to the current situation.
Allowing only members with a supporter subscription to post affiliate links is quite good as well, but probably a little easier to exploit while being even easier to scale.

An additional aspect is comfort: All of us are able to moderate their own e-mail inboxes as well, but we still like having a spam-filter. So a rudimentary method for blocking out affiliate links is useful in its own right, even if it's just for partial spam-protection.

I agree with you on almost all points, the issue lies in implementation. When I did research on it, I found Xenforo add-ons to strip referral links and replace them with your own, but nothing that implements referral permission systems or the like.

Applying for the right to post referral links is cool, but it still requires manual screening of links by people because there isn't an add on to do it automatically

The problem is lack of an automatic implementation for any of the solutions.

Also the spam filter comparison is nice, but you could use the same type of argument on any reviews posted by persons other than staff - no filter, no vetting process, etc
 
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iFreilicht

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Also the spam filter comparison is nice, but you could use the same type of argument on any reviews posted by persons other than staff - no filter, no vetting process, etc

A review is easier to asses quality about, though. If a review is just "I am using this product, haven't had any issues with it", then that's a shit review and people are not going to like it. But for a simple recommendation (which is where referral links are most often going to be used), that is usually enough. Somebody posting loads of good reviews all over the forum isn't spam, it would actually be pretty great. But someone giving shallow recommendations left and right is much more disruptive.

Not having any good implementations for the proposed solution is a valid point, though.
 

Biowarejak

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It would seem to me that a good idea, poorly executed, is a bad idea.

While I believe my preference is to make sure a member is a supporter before they can post referral links, I'm not sure the ease with which a plugin for the forum software can be written, or if that's even possible.
 
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PlayfulPhoenix

Founder of SFF.N
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Feb 22, 2015
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While I believe my preference is to make sure a member is a supporter before they can post referral links, I'm not sure the ease with which a plugin for the forum software can be written, or if that's even possible.

The only fully automatable solution we're aware of is the one that @Ceros_X has mentioned, which essentially does post-processing whenever a post is made or updated. It would be the lowest effort and highest efficacy solution, but at a cost of rigidity - it only works one way, by replacing all links with referral links of a specific type.

It also isn't perfect in it's own right - it can't audit all referral links for all websites, and it may be defeatable with some redirect or URL-shortening trickery. We're not sure about that, though, because we have yet to test it.

Comparatively, all other solutions would be much more malleable - we could adapt them to what we think is the 'ideal' policy to uphold - but they would provide that at a cost of some degree of manual review and intervention, the workflow for which would look something like this for each instance of a link being reported:
  1. Someone would have to notice that a referral link is a referral. (Can you always tell? Do most users know what that does or doesn't look like? What if a shortened URL or redirect is used? Can we reliably depend on users to police each other, and do we want to? What about posts that are updated long after they were posted?)
  2. A moderator would have to be notified.
  3. A moderator would have to investigate and determine if the use of the referral code follows the established rules. (If relevancy or user history, what concrete guidelines can we provide to users? If supporter status, how do we audit posts given that users can change their supporter status over time?)
  4. Action would have to be taken, recorded, and reported. (What would be the appropriate action? How would we track it? How would we escalate rule-violators that repeat themselves? What about users that submit erroneous reports?)
  5. Particularly if the action was disciplinary, there may be remedial work to do afterwords. (Discussion with the user, explaining the rule violation, etc.; alternatively discussion with the reporter on whether or not the report itself was appropriate.)
The frequency of this workflow would roughly scale with user growth, though bear in mind that we'd have to go through it all for false alarms as well as with legitimate rule violations. I think there is some concern on our end that 10x the user base might lead to greater than 10x the incidence rate, given that as online communities grow they inevitably have a higher frequency of rogue/misbehaving users in real terms.

It would seem to me that a good idea, poorly executed, is a bad idea.

I'd like to emphasize this sentiment if only because it's an important one to account for. There's likely a difference between the 'ideal' policy we could use in a perfect world, and the policy that is actually best for SFF Forum given the realities of the community, online communities more generally, and the resources/capabilities we have to enforce the policies we create. That aspect is really what makes this conversation and policy decision so difficult.
 

Ceros_X

King of Cable Management
Mar 8, 2016
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This is all true, but you have most of the same workload right now with your no referral link policy - users detecting, mods notified, actions taken, etc but without the benefit of pleasing the user base who wants to use referral links. I also think it takes longer to type out the process than it does to implement it, when it comes to adjudicating referral link infractions.
 

|||

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I also think it takes longer to type out the process than it does to implement it, when it comes to adjudicating referral link infractions.

We try to be as fair as possible, consistent with others, and not duplicate actions that others have already done. All of that takes lots of communication and coordination. Also, as @PlayfulPhoenix mentioned, it isn't always clear-cut, and we will deliberate what should and shouldn't be done.
 
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Biowarejak

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The reason I suggest supporter status being the main way to post affiliate links is because it deters people doing it for financial reasons. I assumed there was a way to verify it because you have to be a supporter to post in buy/sell/trade, but I'm not sure if that's automated or not.
 

PlayfulPhoenix

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How would you all feel about a policy whereby referral links are allowed, but that the use of them must be disclosed?

We would want to enforce this pretty strictly, and I am still thinking through the mechanics and process on our end to enforce it. But at face value it seems like a middle ground that would be acceptable.
 

Biowarejak

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How would you all feel about a policy whereby referral links are allowed, but that the use of them must be disclosed?

We would want to enforce this pretty strictly, and I am still thinking through the mechanics and process on our end to enforce it. But at face value it seems like a middle ground that would be acceptable.
Honestly I think that sounds fine. Are there any useful references to aid members in identifying referral links if they aren't disclosed?
 

Phuncz

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URL shorteners are often used for hiding referral links, either from moderators or an automatic system. Normal links with referrals are often harder to spot since sites like Amazon or eBay already add a lot of tracking info into the URL.
 
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Aibohphobia

aka James
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Feb 22, 2015
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After some discussion, while some of the other ideas floated are perhaps better from a fairness standpoint, the reality is that it would require lots of moderation to actually enforce.

As mentioned, the only solution that could be easily automated is simply overwriting all Amazon/Newegg/etc links with a SFF Network one. A bit heavy-handed, but it would ensure no one is posting links to inferior products simply to get the kickback (though to be clear we're not accusing anyone here of that) and it would help defray hosting costs at the same time.

Though we would be sure to do simple URL tagging, there would be absolutely no redirecting to marketing middleman sites.

Relatedly, we would also block URL shorteners. Partly to ensure malicious parties aren't trying to circumvent the tag overwriting, but also I'd like it for security and clarity.

Thoughts?
 
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iFreilicht

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Relatedly, we would also block URL shorteners. Partly to ensure malicious parties aren't trying to circumvent the tag overwriting, but also I'd like it for security and clarity.

I'm all for that. This ain't twitter, URLs can be as long as they need. Though I would advise not blocking stuff like youtu.be or 1drv.ms as they don't hide anything and are often the standard output from the "share" button on those sites.
 
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