Three Big Reality Checks

Two weeks ago, I evaluated the state of the affiliate marketing industry by determining overall penetration of affiliate programs among the top 100 Web sites. This week, I’ll evaluate the overall health of affiliate network providers through three specific measures: inbound links, as calculated from AltaVista; network reach, as measured by PC Data; and member usage frequency, as measured by Alexa. The result is a nice picture of what’s really happening at each network.

Inbound Links — Number of Affiliates

If you ever want to know who’s linking to whom, here’s a little trick: Visit AltaVista, and do a search for “link:sitenamehere.com.” The result is listings of all the sites in AltaVista’s index that link to sitenamehere.com. Pretty cool, huh?

Consider LinkShare (LS). First, like all the other network providers, LinkShare serves banners from a dedicated domain name, so you’ll need to search for linksynergy.com, not linkshare.com. In this case, a search for “link:linksynergy.com” results in more than 1.2 million links in the Alexa index.

If anything, this method understates the number of inbound links to Be Free (BF) and LinkShare relative to Commission Junction (CJ) and Performics (formerly Dynamic Trade). That’s because while CJ and Performics host and serve all of their merchants’ links, Be Free and LinkShare both charge merchants extra for banner serving. As a result, some of their merchants choose to serve their own links, potentially resulting in artificially lower inbound-link counts.

Company URL Links
BF bfast.com 2,434,870
LS linksynergy.com 1,242,818
CJ commission-junction.com 575,587
Performics cc-dt.com 13,568
Source: AltaVista, AffiliateHandbook.com

Note: CJ recently began serving links from qksrv.net. At the time of measurement, in February 2001, this domain represented another 4,095 links to CJ that are not included in the above totals.

Network Reach — Affiliate Size

There’s always a debate about the importance of size. Sometimes more telling than the absolute reach of a particular network is the trend over the previous months or years. Who’s growing? Who’s flat? Who’s shrinking?

Over the past year, LinkShare has seen the least aggregate growth in reach. It moved from position 208 to position 115. Be Free had the second largest increase in reach, moving from 267 to 94. CJ grew the most and is now the largest affiliate network provider when measured by network reach.

PC Data Web Rankings
CJ
LS
BF
Mar-00
362
208
267
Apr-00
332
186
204
May-00
283
227
259
Jun-00
295
196
302
Jul-00
207
174
251
Aug-00
174
153
176
Sep-00
156
126
209
Oct-00
116
131
138
Nov-00
110
142
147
Dec-00
100
152
170
Jan-01
87
90
122
Feb-01
85
115
94
Source: PC Data, AffiliateHandbook.com

Account Usage — Affiliate Activity

Alexa has been around for a while now. And, over the years, it’s become much more useful. These days, it integrates nicely into Microsoft Internet Explorer, providing interesting data while you browse. Two of Alexa’s benchmarks are its own site rankings, which generally differ significantly from those of PC Data and Media Metrix, and its own number-of-visits rankings.

What’s especially neat about Alexa is that it tracks visits to different areas of a site. This becomes useful in measuring actual site usage. This next set of data is based on two different Alexa snapshots.

First, we visited the home page of each network and recorded its Alexa rankings. Second, we logged into the member area of each network and took down the same info. Consider the case of Performics. Its absolutely gorgeous redesign (performics.com) has logged 3,930 Alexa visits, ranking it 50,432. However, its member area (cc-dt.com) has more than 10 times as much activity, seeing more than 46,000 Alexa visits.

Home Page Only
Members Area
Total
URLs
Rank
Visits
Rank
Visits
Visits
cj.com / members.cj.com
1,221
176,776
234
754,759
931,535
befree.com / reporting.net
10,580
22,495
525
367,988
390,483
linkshare.com / linksynergy.com
3,049
68,527
1,501
148,068
216,595

performics.com /
cc-dt.com

50,432
3,930
5,131
46,403
50,333
Source: Alexa, AffiliateHandbook.com

One, Two, Three… Magic

How’s this for a riddle? Be Free has 2.4 million inbound links. CJ has about one-quarter of that amount — 575K. Yet, in February, Be Free had a Web reach of 6.0 percent. CJ had a Web reach of 6.3 percent. They’re basically even. This data seems to suggest that CJ generates more traffic on 575K links than Be Free generates on 2.4 million links.

More interesting are the Alexa numbers. CJ received about 931K Alexa visits to its home page and member area — presumably from the same base of affiliates that represent the 575K AltaVista links. Meanwhile, Be Free received about 390K Alexa visits, or less than half as many as CJ, from four times as many affiliate links. This seems to suggest that CJ also has more engaged affiliates.

On the other hand, LinkShare and Be Free have pretty similar ratios: 1.2 million LinkShare links resulted in about 216K visits; Be Free had roughly double the number of links and visits. It seems reasonable to suggest the affiliates at Be Free and LinkShare are similarly active.

Company
Visits/M Links
Reach/M Links
CJ
1,618
10,912
BF
160
2,457
LS
174
4,171
Performics
3,710
n/a
Source: AffiliateHandbook.com

If you put the whole mess of numbers together, you get some interesting outputs. “Visits/M Links” means Alexa visits per thousand AltaVista links. It says that Performics has the most active affiliates of the four major networks. “Reach/M Links” means a unique number of Web users reached per thousand AltaVisita links. It says almost 11,000 visitors view every 1,000 CJ links. Or, stated another way: On average, every CJ link is seen by 11 people.

Overall, there’s a lot to be learned from looking at inbound links, Web reach, and affiliate activity. Enjoy.

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