How to Catch an Affiliate Red-Handed in PPC

By Eric Couch | @ecouch11 | Account Manager at Bing Ads

It’s important to understand that in PPC, you’re often part of a bigger picture than you realize. Whether in-house or agency, there are many moving parts– external non-Google display buys, social networking, old media advertising, SEO, webinars… the list is virtually endless. It can be easy to slip into an egocentric viewpoint and say to yourself: “Surely, I’m the only person getting paid to do PPC for this company. Right?”


Well, that may not be the case. To my detriment, I found this out just recently when working with one of my clients. So, to set the stage:

Over the course of a few months, performance in this AdWords account steadily declined. Upon review, the main culprit for the downturn was a steady drop in brand conversions. Here were the steps I pursued in troubleshooting this problem:


1. A Display Network audit to examine assisted conversion metrics.

My initial guess led me to explore some of our recent display optimizations– perhaps an excluded placement was contributing far more view-through conversions than previously suspected? Or did our decrease in display spend harm our overall brand performance?

This was a big dead end. I’m usually pretty good at accounting for assisted conversions, but there were no major errors found on that front. So I examined our Search campaigns via step number two:


2. A Search Network audit using the Search Funnels tool.

To troubleshoot the Search Network, I focused my efforts on the Search Funnels tool added to the AdWords interface. The thought here was to holistically examine our account and make sure I hadn’t paused any “team player” campaigns that allowed our “superstar” brand campaigns to convert.

A sample Search Funnels report pulled from the AdWords interface, cross-referencing CPA vs. Impression-assisted conversion metrics.
A usage case for the Search Funnels report pulled from the AdWords interface.

The above report comes from a different account, but the analysis remains the same. The most generous campaigns are, unsurprisingly, non-branded and competitor campaigns. Our branded campaign (and certain flavors of non-brand campaigns) are the primary beneficiaries of the work put in by the top campaigns.

Here, my main concern was to be sure that I didn’t kill off any campaigns that were indirectly providing more conversions than I had initially counted. In the above example, several campaigns that are above this account’s $27.50 CPA goal had indirectly contributed an additional 33-50% of their conversion volume elsewhere.

In this case, these campaigns were in no danger of being paused, but it might be tempting to make that same mistake elsewhere– especially if you don’t run this kind of analysis first. Pausing those campaigns would, theoretically, lead to a decline in brand conversions.

Unfortunately, this analysis also led nowhere. In desperation, I turned to an oft-ignored tool found in the “Keywords” tab:


3. A Keyword audit using the “Keyword diagnosis” function to troubleshoot brand keywords.

Fun fact: in addition to aiding with policy, negative keyword, and quality score issues, the Keyword diagnosis function can tell when your ads aren’t showing due to another account using the same destination URL in their ad. This is doubly helpful when that other account happens to be an affiliate marketer advertising at your expense on your own branded terms.

The AdWords Keyword Diagnosis function.
You would find that message over in the “Ad status” field, where it would say “Not showing (other)”. The status bubble will give you the details.

I found that out. And boy, was I surprised.

This led to the following three steps in quick succession:


4. Visited the Search Engine Results Page, saw an ad that wasn’t mine.

To which I then:


5. Used several expletives to voice my displeasure.

Quickly followed by:


6. Clicking on the ad, making note of the unique tracking information to identify the affiliate.

All joking aside, this was the most critical step. The renegade affiliate was kind enough to include unique tracking identifiers in his destination URL (which makes sense– he wouldn’t have gotten paid otherwise). That tracking information allowed us to quickly identify the offending advertiser and inform the client that he had an overeager affiliate stealing branded conversions.

In this case, the resolution was quick and decisive. The affiliate was fired and we got our brand conversions back no worse for wear. The only casualty here was my blood pressure.

In all my time in PPC, this was the first time I’ve ever come across a renegade affiliate. While I’m sure it won’t be the last, I’m confident that I’ll be able to catch them going forward. But next time, I think I’ll check the Search Engine Results Page first.


What about you, PPC Heroes and Heroines? Have you ever come up against an affiliate trying to muscle in on your turf? What’s your preferred method of handling that situation? Let us know in the comments and, as always, thanks for reading!