April 25, 2024

Is Bing intentionally monetizing organic map listings in search?

When affiliate links appear as organic search results, brands are at risk.

As we delve deeper into the era of informed consumerism, the call for clarity and honesty in digital marketing becomes louder. Recently, the PartnerCentric team uncovered interesting search engine behavior that can threaten brand budgets and the transparency and trust that form the cornerstone of any successful brand-consumer relationship.

What do consumers and brands expect from our search engine partners?

When a customer searches for a brand, they are served organic and paid results, along with an organic search engine-generated map pointing to physical locations near the search query. A consumer or brand manager would expect that links in a SERP (Search Engine Results Page) will yield a direct, unsponsored link to their brand property, a specific map location or brand URL unless it is specifically stated that it is a sponsored ad. 

But what happens if the link in a seemingly organic result was an affiliate link, crediting a paid partner with a click, a site visit or a sale? What if a link in a sponsored (paid) placement actually credited an additional third party who was getting paid on a click, a visit, or a sale? Would this circuitous journey to a desired destination matter to a potential customer or the host brand?

The implications of these hidden pathways are multifaceted and significant. For brands, links perceived as organic when they are a monetized result could threaten their financial well-being and disrupt the deep analyses brands use to understand and deliver on consumer needs. Today, when the retail sector is navigating turbulent waters, unforeseen expenditures linked to affiliate marketing could inadvertently affect their margins, raising the specter that brands may unknowingly bear costs beyond their budget expectations. This scenario could lead to an inaccurate assessment of high-value digital strategies and partnerships.

For consumers, there is a broader debate surrounding transparency and privacy in the digital age. The lack of clear indication that a link is an advertisement contravenes the growing demand for openness in online engagements. This could lead to consumer dissatisfaction and erode the trust that brands spend years cultivating.

Are Search Engines Getting Paid to Deliver Organic Results?

While managing a large retail client’s affiliate program, PartnerCentric uncovered an anomaly in Bing’s SERP  (search engine results page) that turned a seemingly benign search for their brick-and-mortar location into an affiliate-sponsored result. Here’s how this discovery unfolded:

A search for this client’s brick-and-mortar location provided the usual map and details and featured a website link positioned prominently under the map. At first glance, this link appears to be either a standard organic result or a disclosed paid advertisement, adhering to the expectations of transparency in digital interactions.

Upon closer inspection, however, the link was far from ordinary. We uncovered a unique identifier in the link and determined that these were Bing affiliate links as evidenced by a URL redirect and an affiliate marketing campaign source. 

Compliance Best Practices 

It is part of our diligent practice to protect our clients around compliance. FTC guidelines have to be considered strongly when we observe irregularities. In this case, we determined that Bing is monetizing organic map listings for physical retail locations using affiliate links through sub-affiliate networks. 

Very simply, the website buttons in these organic map examples are redirecting through sub-affiliate links which is a direct violation of FTC guidelines as there is no promotional disclosure anywhere near the listing. These listings are harmful to the businesses who pay out commissions for customers who were already trying to visit their site – in essence “hijacking” attribution. 

Importantly, as far as we can surmise from our partnership with this retail client, brands are completely unaware that Bing is monetizing website visitors through their sub-affiliate network partners, who are also complicit. To ensure that our clients have been protected from these activities, we audit their programs thoroughly as part of PartnerCentric’s managed services. If you are a brand with similar concerns about your affiliate program, contact us for a similar audit.

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