Being compliant with Amazon’s Operating Agreement for their affiliate program (Amazon Associates) is really important to us here at Geniuslink (and we write about it a fair amount!).
Avoiding being the subject of an audit by the Amazon Associates compliance team is your best bet, but if you unfortunately get the fabled email letting you know your account is in jeopardy, then you’ve got your work cut out for you. However, before you dive in, we’d encourage you to give the entertaining and highly educational post that Doug Cunnington, of Niche Site Project, wrote about his experience below (lightly edited).
As we’ve seen a number of these audits over the years I’ve interjected some commentary to Doug’s adventure in the post below (with this formatting).
Good luck and enjoy!
-Jesse (CEO / Co-Founder of Geniuslink)
Surviving an Audit by Amazon Associates
By Doug Cunnington, PMP Published: May 13, 2019
I was having a beer on a Sunday night, after a fun weekend of hiking and exploring my new neighborhood in Boulder, CO.
I managed to avoid checking my email all weekend long, which is a feat, but I try to carve out screen free time over the weekends.
I’m glad I checked it when I did.
I saw this subject line:
ACTION REQUIRED – Your Amazon.com Associates Account
Then, the first line said this:
Your Associates account is at risk of closure.
Expletive. Expletive. EXPLETIVE.
The email was sent on Thursday morning and I knew that I only had 5 business days to reply to the email.
Here is what the email said:
Your Associates account is at risk of closure.
As part of our ongoing monitoring of the Amazon Associates Program, we’re reviewing your account. To complete our review, we need you to provide more information about how you’re referring customers to the Amazon Site.
Within five business days please provide a detailed description of the methods you are using to refer traffic to the Amazon Site by providing:
- A list of the Sites on which your Special Links or banner ads are posted,
- advertising services you are using,
- links to screenshots of your Site’s analytics tools that show your Site traffic and its sources,
- the keywords you are using to drive referrals,
- any plugins or browser add-ons you use,
- live links to your Sites,
- a sequence of links that allows us to duplicate the clicks the majority of your customers make to get to the Amazon Site via your Special Links, and
- any other information that would be relevant to confirming your compliance with the Operating Agreement, which can be found here.
Please send the requested information to us as soon as possible by using the Contact Us form available here. Please choose the subject “Warning/Information Request Response” from the dropdown menu, and be sure to reference Issue Code 83441-US in the comments field.
If you do not respond with sufficient information within five business days, we will close your Associates account and withhold fees.
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
I finished my beer and got to work…
Lessons Learned From My Audit from Amazon Associates
- Set up an alert so when you get an email from Amazon Associates, you don’t miss it or lose time. I lost a few days. You could set up a text message to be sent if you get an email with that subject line so you’ll know right away.
As Doug mentions catching an email early is important as making changes to your site(s) can take some time so every day counts. At a minimum get in the habit of scanning every email from Amazon that you get and training your inbox, or setting a rule, to ensure that Amazon-related emails aren’t automatically sent to the junk folder or trash. -JL
- Fix anything you can BEFORE you get an audit notice. If you aren’t sure, then I advise you to choose the most conservative option. I had a number of edge case issues that I had to fix using some ninja database skills, phpMyAdmin, and regular expressions (regex). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you really don’t want to know. You can quickly destroy your site in a few keystrokes.
If you haven’t already checked out our blog post, Amazon Associates – The Ultimate Guide To Getting Your Account Banned I’d encourage you to add it to your reading list to make sure you aren’t making one of the ten most common mistakes. -JL
- Having a portfolio of sites would make the audit a nightmare. I have a few sites and it was a lot of work to do in a short time. If I didn’t have to fix anything, then it wouldn’t have been too bad.
I’m not associated with the Amazon Associate program from any administrative capacity, just as an affiliate.
So use this information at your own risk.
- You should consult your own legal counsel if needed — so talk to a lawyer.
- You can use it as a guide.
- These are just templates and the real audit is on your sites, not the templates.
- I’m not making any claims that if you use these templates that you’ll have a successful audit.
- I’m just sharing my specific experience which you can read here.
- If you’re being audited, good luck! I can’t help you fix issues — I’m sorry. But there’s just not time to help everyone. Go get a large coffee or a full pot of coffee and get to work.
- In other words, proceed at your own risk.
I couldn’t agree more. You play Amazon’s affiliate “game” at your own risk. As much as we want to help you are ultimately on your own. It’s also important to note that Amazon’s Operating Agreement is a living document that is updated regularly so make sure you stay up on the changes. -JL
My Rant Before We Get Started:
Some people think Amazon is too controlling with the Amazon Associates Operating Agreement and their Program Policies.
Maybe some people think the rules are unfair or complicated.
It’s a bad approach.
Life is unfair and complicated.
I think it’s great that you can start a business from your computer for about $200 with a website. If you don’t like Amazon for some reason, I can respect that opinion.
There are other endless business models that you can execute.
I can guarantee that things are unfair and complicated everywhere. There will be different issues, but they’ll show up.
So if you don’t like the Associates program or think the commissions are too low, then you should definitely seek a different business model.
Pick your poison…
I agree that it’s important to realize you play by Amazon’s rule when you play Amazon’s affiliate game and while complaining can be cathartic you also have to realize that Amazon’s compliance team is doing their job to ensure their affiliate program continues to be a great place to dive into affiliate marketing. -JL
What I Did To Fix Issues
I had a few things to fix, but not too many. The violations were generally edge cases that potentially didn’t follow the Operating Agreement not flat out violations.
However, across all my sites I have over a thousand posts so that’s really too much to review on my own by looking at individual pages.
Here are the three simple issues that I had, and they are some of the most common mistakes people make with Amazon Associate program.
- Image Usage
- Price References
- Amazon Brand Usage and Call-To-Actions
1. Downloading Images From Amazon
You can’t download images from Amazon and upload to your site. You need to use the Site Stripe or use the Advertising API. See all the Image Usage Guidelines from Amazon Associates.
I know this…so why did I have this issue?
I had one site that used an old plugin called EasyAzon. I hadn’t kept it updated properly and it was running an old version on my install.
In the version I had, EasyAzon pulls an image from the Amazon Advertising API, and it saves it on your site and serves it from your WordPress install.
Correction: EasyAzon confirmed that when Amazon introduced language in their terms that said images should not be stored, EasyAzon was updated shortly thereafter to comply with this change. That update was on September 26, 2017. If you have any questions regarding EasyAzon you can reach out to support at easyazon.com.
I’ll share a little more on image usage in the question section since it’s such a hot topic.
What I did to fix the problem with images
I ripped out every single usage of EasyAzon on every post. EasyAzon uses shortcodes so that’s what I needed to remove.
The site in question had hundreds of posts so I couldn’t have done this manually. I used phpMyAdmin and regex and it took about 0.25 second to remove the EasyAzon shortcodes.
So that means that there aren’t product images — Yes. But I use primarily text-based affiliate links and don’t really care if there are product images.
While it’s unfortunate that the older versions of EasyAzon created a local copy of product images, in general, a best practice is to use a high quality and popular plugin to manage product images. We at Geniuslink are big fans of AAWP and AmaLinks Pro. -JL
2. Listing Prices or Price Ranges
You cannot list the prices unless you pull the data from the Advertising API. That ensures the data is accurate so the customer has a consistent and positive experience.
A customer might get upset if the pricing on a site doesn’t match the current price.
Again, I know listing prices is against the rules so I didn’t have any prices listed. But I was in a gray area.
I have some content that targets keywords like this:
Best [product-type] under [price]
Example: Best Guitar Pick under $10
I’m never mentioning a specific price for an item, but it’s unclear if this is against the rules.
I’ve called the support team three times in the past and never got a clear answer. So I have no idea if you can do it.
I don’t have a solid answer to share here either but two quick notes:
1/ While it’s great to ping the Associates Help team to get clarification the answers can, unfortunately, be inconsistent so a best practice is to always ask the same question a second time a bit after you ask the first time to ensure the answers align. Chances are if you ask three times you'll get the correct answer twice.
2/ Just because you see some other site doing something doesn’t mean it’s allowed by the Associates program! That publisher could have gotten prior written approval or they just haven’t been caught yet for the violation. -JL
I make a lot from the Amazon Associate program so it’s important to not violate any of the Operating Agreement guidelines. I prefer the conservative, low-risk approach. If you like to gamble, I respect that, but it’s not my thing.
What I did to fix the problem with price ranges
I ripped out all the references to price ranges.
Again, I used my trusty, powerful friends: phpMyAdmin and regex.
I didn’t have all that many posts with “under $xxx” — maybe a few dozen. However, there are a lot of internal links that might reference the price range. It’s not a direct price reference, but I cannot afford to mess up on a small, possible issue, especially if I know how to fix the problem.
There were thousands of references to “under $xxx” across all my sites. The only way to make the fixes in a reasonable amount of time was by editing the database (DB). Again, you can edit thousands of data points in the DB in microseconds.
The WordPress Editor is ridiculously slow for editing en masse.
3. Usage of the Amazon name, branding, Call-to-Action (CTAs) including button usage
Amazon has specific rules about using the brand name. They outline it all and give specific examples in the Amazon brand usage guidelines.
- They give examples for the Call to Actions (CTAs) for text links that you can use. These are explicitly allowed:
- Shop now at Amazon.com
- Shop now
- Pre-order now
- Learn more
- See details
- Watch now
- The font, styling, color, and more are all noted as well. For example, it’s preferred to use “Amazon” over “Amazon.com.” However, “Amazon.com” is allowed.
What About Using Buttons For Amazon Affiliate Links?
They have a whole section called Amazon Branded Button CTAs with specific examples of buttons and text that you can and cannot use.
For example, you can’t use buttons that mimic the branding, look, and style of an Amazon Button.
They give examples of “Approved” and “Not Approved” usage and explain exactly why there is an issue.
While some people might find the guidelines too strict, I’m not here to argue the validity or merit. I don’t care — I’m working in the Amazon Associate ecosystem and I’m happy to play by the rules. However, feel free to vent in the comments at the end! Your voice can be heard here — by your peers, not Amazon. ? I’m pretty sure they don’t care.
My issue with branding was this little tiny word:
CTAs should say:
“Get Product X at Amazon” not “Get Product X on Amazon”
I mostly use text CTAs and have some buttons on sites. Sometimes the CTAs say, “on Amazon” others say, “at Amazon.”
It’s a small issue in my opinion, and I have a feeling that I could have left it as “on Amazon.”
But it was easy enough to fix, so I did.
What I did to fix the problem with Amazon Brand Usage
I updated all the “on Amazon” to “at Amazon.”
By now, you should realize that I didn’t do this manually.
phpMyAdmin and regex’s helped me find the thousands and thousands of instances and fix them in seconds.
I really respect Doug’s choice here to hunt down Amazon’s preferred verbiage for his CTAs. If you look closely, the guidelines that Doug references are actually part of a different Amazon program (Amazon Advertising vs. Amazon Associates). Further, “call to action” nor “CTA” show up anywhere in the Associates Operating Agreement or Program Policies, while searches for “on Amazon” and “at Amazon” in the same documents don’t provide meaningful results. Going the extra mile may not be initially noticed but I know that I personally respect the attention to detail and going the extra mile. -JL
What Response Does Amazon Provide?
This is the concise response I received. It’s pass-fail — I passed.
Thank you for your prompt response to our request for information. We appreciate your cooperation.
If we have any further questions or concerns, we will contact you again by email. Thank you for your continued participation in the Associates Program.
So as you can see, there isn’t much to it. You basically get no real indication of what they look at or not look at.
How And Why Do You Get Selected For An Audit By Amazon Associates?
It appears to be 100% random. There’s no indication why accounts are reviewed.
It appears to not be triggered by:
- Time in the program
- Or anything obvious
This is the most common question by far. Unfortunately, I have no idea and it’s impossible to find out unless you have the inside track to someone on the audit team.
From our experience, the audit process isn’t 100% random, but rather triggered by a violation in one of the reasons Doug mentions above (Non-API based image usage, non-programmatic price references) as well as low conversion rates, cloaking links or using third-party tools/plugins in a non compliant way, and/or not including the domains of your sites in the Associates Central account details. We honestly don’t know either but tend to see some patterns slowly developing. -JL
What Do You Need To Provide?
There are 8 main pieces and they are noted in the email. You really don’t get much other information or details. I asked — and more on that in the next section.
Here are the 8 things and my interpretation of what the auditor is looking for:
- A list of the Sites on which your Special Links or banner ads are posted.
Just the list of URLs and this should match up with your sites in the Associate account.
This is often overlooked part of the Associates Central dashboard as you are only prompted for the domain of your site when you initially sign up for your account. It’s important that when you start using your Associates tracking ID on other sites or social media that you update the “Edit Your Website And Mobile App List” page periodically. -JL
- Advertising services you are using.
If you’re running ads to your site, what services are you using. Eg. Google Adwords, Facebook, etc…
Note that Amazon isn’t a fan of paying for ads that contain your affiliate links, especially on social media! Additional details can be found in this blog: How to Share Amazon Affiliate Links on Social Media. -JL
- Links to screenshots of your Site’s analytics tools that show your Site traffic and its sources.
Screenshots from whatever analytics tool you use. It’s to verify that actual traffic is going to your site.
- The keywords you are using to drive referrals.
Keywords that you’re targeting for your content or any ads that you’re running.
- Any plugins or browser add-ons you use.
A list of all plugins in use (for me, that’s all WordPress plugins). I don’t use any relevant browser extensions.
- Live links to your Sites.
This one is easy — It should be the same as number 1.
- A sequence of links that allows us to duplicate the clicks the majority of your customers make to get to the Amazon Site via your Special Links.
Provide a set of links that allow the auditor to recreate clicking a link on your site to get to Amazon. The choice of words is poor. “Sequence of links” isn’t the right phrase. I provided a list of URLs that had my “Special Links,” i.e. my affiliate links to Amazon.
- Any other information that would be relevant to confirming your compliance with the Operating Agreement.
This is the one item where you can explain more things if you’d like.
My goal was to provide all the information they needed to verify compliance in the shortest way possible.
- No fluff.
- No bullshit.
- Leave out the story and narrative because the auditor doesn’t care.
- Just the facts with relevant details.
Who Can I Ask If I Have Questions?
You can contact the Amazon Associates Customer Service. They have great availability: EVERYDAY from 5 AM – 7 PM Pacific Time.
By the way, people often ask me about the Amazon Associates rules. I know some common violations, but there are many nuanced details that I just don’t know. So the best thing you can do is just contact the support team.
I completely agree with this approach but I’d also encourage you to reach out to your peers as well. While I wouldn’t take the feedback I get from Facebook Groups or forums it may help you see the full picture especially when someone has gone through something similar (which is why I love that Doug has shared his story). -JL
The truth is that some of the rules in the Operating Agreement aren’t explicit.
There are gray areas, and in the gray, you may get different answers from different customer support representatives (CSR). That’s frustrating, yes. I’ve heard people get very upset about not getting consistent answers, but I don’t blame the CSRs because they aren’t given the information.
I suggest contacting them by email (or chat if available) so that you have the whole interaction in writing.
I had a few questions so I called in. The CSR was very supportive and nice. She explained:
- It’s very important to submit the information within 5 business days.
- She didn’t know what they wanted for the 8 bullet points because the audit team is totally separate from her team.
It would have been great to be able to interact with the actual auditors and find out what they really cared about.
But this isn’t a collaboration with the Amazon Associate Audit team. This is a Request for Information and they tell you:
If you do not respond with sufficient information within five business days, we will close your Associates account and withhold fees.
So the consequence is high.
One thing I would warn you about is trying to find loopholes and wasting your time trying to put up a fight. I strongly encourage you to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of coming into compliance. Your acceptance and use of Amazon’s affiliate program is at their will. You may win a small battle with this approach but you’ll ultimately lose the war. HOWEVER, Amazon does periodically make mistakes or change their stance. We’ve seen some pretty odd things come through and the polite and timely response pointing out all of the details helps get these resolved (though it’s often a very slow process, unfortunately). -JL
How Long Does The Audit Take With Amazon Associates?
It took a pretty long time, about 14 business days.
A day after submitting my response, I contacted the Associates Support team to make sure they received my reply.
Nick: Hello, my name is Nick. I’m here to help you today.
Me: Hi Nick, I sent an email via the Associate contact system and I wanted to confirm it was sent.
Me: I didn’t get an email confirming the message and it was for the “Warning/Information Request Response” request
Nick: I do see that it was sent and we have forwarded it to our account specialist team
Me: Perfect – That’s all I need to know. Thank you.
I expected it would take one week, 5 business days. I asked the Associates Support team what the status was after the week and when they’d be done.
The CSR said he has no visibility about the status, but it could take 7 – 14 days.
What If I Have A LOT To Fix?
You should get some coffee and clear out your schedule. Then, fix it.
A large part of my income is from Amazon so it was extremely important for me to get everything in order. My stance was to be conservative for ANY and ALL of the Operating Agreement guides that weren’t clear.
There are two schools of thought, though. You can gamble and maybe you can get away with it.
But the more money you make, the bigger the gamble.
Luckily, this exercise is just a problem to solve. There’s nothing really all that complicated about fixing the problems.
If there is a guideline that is unclear, if you can’t get a definitive answer from the Associates Support, then you should assume the most conservative approach.
YES! I think this a great attitude to take. -JL
You don’t know how the auditor will be approaching the guidelines, so the lowest risk approach is to make everything easily identifiable as within the rules.
Can I Download Images From Amazon and Upload Them on my Site?
No. You can’t download images from Amazon and use them. You need to get the images from Amazon via the Site Stripe or via the Amazon Advertising API.
You can use a tool or plugin that uses the Amazon API.
Further, Amazon says this:
- All imagery used must be owned by the advertiser or cleared for use in the ad unit prior to campaign launch. Any Amazon.com product imagery including Amazon products such as the Kindle must be approved by Amazon and non-Amazon vendor products not owned by the advertiser must also be cleared by the company who holds the rights.
- Product imagery provided should not be downloaded from Google or any other search engine site.
- All advertisement imagery is subject to approval by Amazon.
The main idea here is about copyright and following those rules, at least, that’s what Amazon is looking to oversee.
So you can use images that you own, that you have rights to use or images from Amazon used in the correct way.
If you use images from Amazon, you have to link to Amazon with your affiliate link.
Again, I really appreciate Doug’s approach here of going past the immediate Amazon Associates Operating Agreement and to related guidelines to get the general sense of Amazon’s policy on images. -JL
Why Are Sites Declined For The Amazon Associates Program?
If your site violates any of the points in the Operating Agreement, then your site might get rejected or kicked out of the program.
The Operating Agreement is dense and there are many, many rules.
So here are some common issues…
What are the MOST COMMON violations for Amazon Associates?
The most common violations that I see are:
- Downloading images from Amazon, then uploading to your site.
- Listing the price of products without pulling the data from the Amazon API.
- Listing the rating of a product without pulling the data from the Amazon API.
- Listing the number of reviews without pulling the data from the Amazon API.
- Quoting or using content from the User Reviews from Amazon.
- Not listing the affiliate disclaimer in a clear way. I list the disclaimer near the top of any review posts or just before the links. Check out my Resources Page at the top and bottom.
- Having poor quality content. This can take a few forms, including but not limited to:
- Having all or mostly affiliate review content.
- Poor grammar and spelling.
- Short length.
- Spun or re-used content.
- Inaccurate information.
- Inaccurate or misleading CTAs, such as:
- Get the best price
- Save 25% Now
- Buy now: Only 2 LEFT
This is a great list but there are a few others we regularly see at Geniuslink too. This includes cloaking links, offline use of links, and asking for a click or bookmark. Our top 10 list of reasons your account can be banned can be found in this blog. -JL
Does Amazon Audit All Your Sites or Just One?
Amazon will check all the places you use and share links.
I have some affiliate websites and share some links on YouTube. So I listed all the sites plus my YouTube URL.
This can include social media and other platforms that you share affiliate links on.
Again, it’s important to realize that using affiliate links on social media has some unique challenges and therefore some unique requirements. Be sure that if you are posting affiliate links on Facebook / Twitter / YouTube / Twitch / Pinterest / etc. that you are following Amazon’s guidelines. We’ve summarized the key points of linking on social media in this blog - How to Share Amazon Affiliate Links on Social Media -JL
Is Amazon Just Looking For Generic Things Like an Affiliate Disclosure or That Affiliate Links Are Noted As Such?
I can’t comment on exactly what Amazon is looking for during the audit.
I can’t comment on how rigorous the audit is.
I, personally, treated the audit like Amazon was putting on latex gloves and getting down to serious business.
I expected that Amazon was going to look at every single word on every single post on every single site.
Other people might not react like me which I can respect.
From my experience, it’s best to get things with Amazon right the first time. I have very rarely seen people get a second chance so I tend to agree with Doug here. -JL
Does Amazon Associates Give You Any Tips About What Is Allowed or Not Before, During, or After the Audit?
No, not that I experienced. I got no information from the audit team during the audit. I got this:
- The notice to send the information within 5 business days.
- The notice that stated Amazon appreciates the information and my participation in the program.
I went through the Successful Use Case — I passed the audit — so I don’t know what happens when you fail the audit.
I would argue that Amazon Associates gives you a significant amount of information about what is allowed BEFORE the audit. They have a great number of articles on their resources site, have a very detailed (almost to a fault?) Policies page, etc. Maybe it’s too much info but it’s all available for those that want to lean into being compliant with the Associates program. -JL
I know that you can be re-instated — that’s possible — after being kicked out.
I assume it’s based on the level and severity of the violation. So if you’re doing shady things, then I don’t expect it’s easy to be re-instated.
I think that you could form a company, get a new EIN, and restart things if you really screwed things up.
I disagree here. Once a site has been blacklisted I’m not sure there is much you can do to start earning commissions from its links again… -JL
Here are the Materials That I Submitted
You can get your own complete copy here. I show screenshots of the meaty parts of the information to give you an idea of what you can provide.
Here is my cover letter:
Here is the list of sites.
I provided a folder of screenshots showing my analytics. I shared a few years of data, but you can share whatever you think is relevant.
I shared several hundred keywords, but it was just a sample.
I shared every plugin that I actively use, even if they weren’t relevant.
I shared hundreds of links to my sites, again it was just a relevant sample.
Finally, I wanted to make it clear that I want to make things right if any issues arise. I’m here to work with Amazon!
A huge thank you to Doug for sharing his experience in his blog and letting us add our voice via this post. If you’ve had a similar experience with getting your Amazon Associates account audited we’d encourage you to jump over to Doug’s blog, Niche Site Project, and share your experience in his comments. Also, Doug recently had me on his awesome podcast (Doug Show) and we covered a lot of similar topics. Give it a listen and let us know what you learned! -JL