Mr. Bill Gates, I hereby place you under citizen's arrest for the crime of possession of an affiliate parasite with intent to distribute.
According to the Microsoft site, "Smart Tags are a feature of Internet Explorer that add smart links to pages you view. Smart Tags enable real-time, dynamic recognition of content on Web pages and offer you relevant options as you work. By hovering [over] and clicking on these smart links, you can get access to additional information or perform convenient Web tasks."
If you read between the lines here, you can see that Smart Tags present a major threat to affiliate marketing. Essentially, this "feature" will enable Microsoft to edit affiliate sites without permission. These edits will lure users to leave the affiliate site (and links to your site) and go to a site that is chosen by Microsoft.
Attack of the 800-Pound Gorilla
The current iteration would drive traffic from an affiliate site to one of the Microsoft Web sites or others that it favors, including those that charge fees (without a revenue share to the site that originated the link). That alone is a real downer, but how long before Microsoft blows up this concept by adopting the GoTo.com model?
Imagine all of the sites lining up to pay Microsoft to advertise to the targeted traffic of your affiliates. They could sell each and every conceivable keyword on affiliate sites, which would make your contextual affiliate links impotent.
In addition to the commercialization of content on all sites, Smart Tags might also offer biased and offensive links. Welcome to another piece of the world taken victim by the hegemony of Bill Gates.
The following is a dramatization of what might happen if Smart Tags were applied to a passage from the Cat Haters Homepage:
On June 28, Microsoft did something of an about-face. In response to severe criticism and a potential public relations hailstorm, Microsoft announced that it is pulling the Smart Tags feature from the October 25 release of Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6.
"As a result of Smart Tags in beta versions of Windows XP and IE, we received lots of feedback, and have realized that there is a need to better balance the user experience with the legitimate concerns of content providers and web sites," Microsoft said in its June 28 statement.
However, Microsoft also said it hasn't given up on Smart Tags and plans to re-introduce the technology. "Microsoft remains committed to this type of technology, and will work closely with content providers and partners in the industry in the coming months to further refine how it can be used."
The sudden decision by Microsoft was largely attributed to ProComp, a lobbying group funded by a coalition of Microsoft competitors, including Netscape (part of AOL Time Warner), Oracle, and Sun Microsystems. The lobbying group issued a scathing and wide-ranging report denouncing the integration of Windows XP with Microsoft's .NET services.
A section of the report, "Passport to Monopoly: Windows XP, Passport, and the Emerging World of Distributed Applications," was devoted to the threat of the Smart Tags feature as "a means of biasing the [browser] display in favor of [Microsoft's] own distributed applications and other online services."
Although Microsoft left the door open for Smart Tags to be included in future versions of Windows XP and IE, it's also important to note that the Smart Tags still live in Office XP and Windows XP beta, and that could be a bad thing for many.
"Removing Smart Tags from Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6 could give Microsoft some collateral benefit. The technology will remain in Office XP, where, in some ways, its competitive impact could be greater than its inclusion in Internet Explorer 6. Microsoft long ago closely tied its operating system to the Web by including Internet Explorer in Windows," according to a report on CNET.
Even with the current pullback on the release of Smart Tags, affiliate managers have little trust in Microsoft. A recent poll of United States Affiliate Manager Coalition members revealed that 9 out of 10 affiliate managers think Smart Tags will have a negative impact on affiliate marketing.
Tell Them About It
Since the future implementation of Smart Tags is open, taking necessary steps to prevent being Smart Tagged is advisable. Microsoft was gracious enough to provide a meta tag to opt out of serving Smart Tags on your site. Share this meta tag with your tech crew as well as with all of your affiliates. Your affiliate program could depend on it.
And tell Bill Gates and Microsoft what you think of Smart Tags by signing the No More Smart Tags online petition. This time around, the revolution will not be televised... on WebTV.
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Shawn Collins is a Co-Founder of the Affiliate Summit conference, Co-Editor-in-Chief of FeedFront Magazine, and has been an affiliate marketer since 1997.
March 19, 2014