Referral links are back. Here’s why.

I started this blog in September 2011 as a hobby.  I was terrifically excited about the travel hacking “game” and I wanted to share it with friends and family.  A couple of months later, I learned about credit card affiliate links.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my application to join an affiliate network was my first step towards turning my hobby into a career.Affiliate Links Used Car Salesman 2

Affiliate links work like this: through an affiliate network (middle-man) a blogger or other internet publisher gets unique links to products and merchants.  The blogger publishes those links.  Then, when a reader clicks through one of those links and buys something, the blogger gets paid.  It works exactly like online shopping portals except that the blogger earns rewards instead of the consumer.

At its best, affiliate marketing is a way for blog publishers to earn money for writing about the exact same things they would write about anyway.  At its worst, affiliate marketing turns bloggers into the digital equivalent of used car salesmen.

Merchandise affiliate links

With many affiliate links, there’s a conflict of interest between what is best for the blogger and what is best for the consumer.  When a consumer wants to buy something, they can click through a portal to earn rewards for themselves, or they can click through a blog affiliate link to earn rewards for the blogger.  They can’t do both.  And, while it is in the consumer’s best interest to find the lowest prices, the blogger usually earns more money when the consumer spends more.

Credit card affiliate links

With credit card affiliate links, the interests of the consumer and blogger are sometimes aligned.  Since credit cards aren’t available through portals, there is usually no downside for a customer to use an affiliate link when signing up for a credit card.  Big signup bonuses are great for the consumer (as long as they’re responsible with their credit, of course) and great for the blogger since those big offers drive lots of sales (behind the scenes, credit card signups are referred to as “sales”).

Often, though, the interests of the consumer and blogger are not aligned.  Here are a few examples:

  • Differential payouts (or none at all):  Credit card affiliate payouts range from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars per successful sign up.  However, many credit cards aren’t available through affiliate channels.  So, clearly, bloggers are incentivized to recommend certain cards over others.
  • Affiliate promotions:  Now and then bloggers are offered extra pay if they sell more cards.  Usually the offer is tied to a particular card and the blogger receives extra commission if they sell more than X number of cards during the promotional period (typically a month or so).  Again, this incentivizes bloggers to recommend those cards above others.  Did you ever wonder why some blogs suddenly started writing a lot about certain cards that they had previously ignored?  If you see this happen for the same card across multiple blogs, chances are that a promotion is in effect.
  • Best offers vs. affiliate offers: Sometimes the credit card offers available through affiliate channels are not the best publicly available offers.  For example, at the time of this writing, the best public offer for the Citi Premier card is 50,000 points (found here), whereas the best affiliate offer is 40,000 points.  Similarly, 50,000 point offers for Chase Southwest cards are almost always available if you know where to look (on my Best Offers Page, of course), but the affiliate offers tend to cycle up and down between 25K and 50K.  In these situations, bloggers are incentivized to publish offers that are not in the reader’s best interest.

My approach to affiliate links

Revenue from affiliate links and ads make it possible for me to blog full time (see: My job? I blog. Here’s the answer to your next question…).  My goal, though, is to publish what’s best for my readers rather than for myself whenever the two are not aligned.  For example, with credit card affiliate links, we observe the following rules:

Be transparent: Affiliate rules do not allow me to display the commission earned with each credit card, but I can try to make it clear which links are affiliate links and which are not.  Towards that end, we show credit card icons next to affiliate links, but not next to others.  And, we clearly disclose this on each credit card page, like this:

Advertiser Disclosure

Best Offer means best offer: If we are aware of a publicly available credit card offer that is available online, we always link to that offer rather than an inferior affiliate offer (See the current Citi Premier link, for example).  If we are aware of a better offer that is semi-targeted or only available in-branch, we list that information along with the publicly available offer.  For example, at the time of this writing, if you look at the Chase Ink Plus offer on our Best Offers page, you’ll see a note saying “Sign up in-branch to get the first year annual fee waived.”

Recommend cards based on value to the reader, not to me: All credit card offers are managed from a spreadsheet.  Within that spreadsheet, we calculate the estimated first year value of each offer.  You can think of this as the estimated value of the signup bonus, less the first year annual fee.  On our Best Offers page, offers are separated out by bank and often by type (e.g. airline cards, hotel cards, cash back cards, etc.).  Within each of those groupings, cards are sorted in descending order by the estimated value of their signup bonus.  In other words, cards that pay me more do not get more attention.  You can learn more about this approach in these posts and pages:

Never include credit card affiliate links within daily blog posts: In my mind there’s a difference between blog posts and blog pages.  Posts are the articles we write daily containing analysis, stories, deals, etc.  Pages are the things found in menus on this blog.  They are mostly informational resources: best offers, how-tos, complete guides, etc.  Often posts become pages when we find that they’re worth a permanent place on the blog.  While some pages have credit card affiliate links (along with many disclaimers about the affiliate relationships), posts never do (unless they later become pages).

There are a few reasons for this rule.  The most important is that it helps me to separate the creative act of blog writing from the business of the blog.  The rule helps me keep my focus on the story I want to tell rather than the possibility of money to be earned.  Another reason for the rule is that I think it helps with the appearance of impartiality.  I work hard to keep reader’s interests in mind, but it might not look that way if I were to interrupt my posts with credit card affiliate links.

I may revisit this particular rule at some point in the future if it seems like readers would be better served having the links within posts, but for now at least I have no plans to change this rule.

Referral links

Referral links are similar to affiliate links.  Mostly, they work like this: you sign up for something: a portal, a product, a membership, etc.  And, the company behind that thing offers you an incentive to encourage your friends to sign up too.  A simple example is the cash back portal BeFrugal.  BeFrugal currently offers you $10 when a friend signs up with your referral link and makes a purchase through the portal (your friend also earns $10, by the way).

I used to treat referral links the same as affiliate links: I kept them on a separate page (found here) and never listed them within blog posts.  Recently, though, I decided to change that policy.  Here’s why:

It’s less annoying: My previous rule was annoying to some readers.  With the previous rule, when I wrote about a deal that involved an opportunity for a referral bonus, I linked to my referral links page rather than the offer itself.  If readers wanted to help me out, it required more effort than necessary: they had to click through to the referral link page and find the particular link of interest.  With the new rule, the relevant link will be in the post and easy to find.

It makes better business sense:  This blog is my career, so it makes sense to earn money where I can.  Due to the old rules, I used to link directly to some deals without referral links.  Now, as long as my link gives the reader the best available deal, I’ll use a referral link.

Less conflict of interest than credit cards: Most referral bonuses are worth $5 or $10.  Some are worth as much as $20, but it’s rare to see any bigger than that.  So, the stakes are relatively small.  Plus, its rare to see a referral link that is not the best offer for the person signing up (but it does happen occasionally, so we’ll let you know when we’re aware of it!).  And, unlike affiliate commissions, referral commissions can be fully disclosed.  If I know I’ll get $20 when you sign up for something, I’ll let you know.

Less maintenance, and automatic disclosures: I’ve moved all of my referral links into a data table.  By doing so, I can maintain information in one place even while displaying it in many posts.  For example, here’s my current table entry for BeFrugal:

Name / LinkOfferFrequent Miler Notes
BeFrugalAfter you make your first purchase through this portal, you will earn $10 and I'll earn $15In my experience, BeFrugal is a reliable cash back portal.

As you can see above, the table information includes the referral link, information about what you will gain, information about what I will gain, and Frequent Miler notes (often a mini-review of the service).  As things change, I can edit the table info in one place, and all posts showing my BeFrugal links will be automatically updated.

Non-credit card affiliate links

In addition to credit card affiliate links, I have access to product and merchant affiliate links.  I keep these in the same table as my referral links.  I’ll display these links (with disclosure) only when I’m not aware of any better options for the reader.  For example, in posts about 1800Flowers, I haven’t displayed my affiliate links because there are always good portal options for that merchant that will benefit the reader.  With posts about Amazon.com, though, I may post an affiliate link if the circumstances warrant it.  The reason?  Even though Amazon.com is available through many portals, there are almost always strict limits on which product categories apply.  Most products bought through Amazon.com do not qualify for portal rewards, but they do earn affiliate commissions.

Wrap Up

My credit card affiliate link policy hasn’t changed.  Credit card affiliate links are still shown only on a select few fixed blog pages and only when they match the best publicly available offer.  Referral links and non-credit card affiliate links, though, will be shown within posts, but only when I’m not aware of any better deal for the reader.  And, I’ll always disclose not just the benefits to you, but to me as well.

Your thoughts?  Please comment below.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

More articles by Greg The Frequent Miler »

Regarding comments: Comments posted at the bottom of Frequent Miler pages and posts are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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Avi
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Avi

Have at it and no worries Greg!

Howard
Guest
Howard

Love the transparency! You’re certainly entitled to earn a living, given the value you bring to this blog on a daily basis. Nothing’s for free in this world, and if people find value here (or other blogs), they’ll click through. Keep writing…and traveling.

Jaden
Guest
Jaden

My sentiments exactly!

mb
Guest
mb

Thank you! Your integrity is so refreshing. My next app is going through you.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

Thanks for being transparent. While there are other blogs I also read, it’s easy to tell when one of these card sign up incentives are being pushed hard. I always come back to Frequentmiler knowing I’m going to find interesting and completely unbiased content.

Keep it up, it sure is a breath of fresh air!

Jake P
Guest
Jake P

+1. Forthright communication is undervalued these days. Personally, I’d love to financially support you–I like the straight shooters. There is cash involved, and that’s a good thing! God Bless, Greg.

Eric
Guest
Eric

Seems very well thought out & reasonable. Probably why I like reading your site and posts . Thanks Greg!

Juno
Guest
Juno

No problem here. You do such an excellent work, it would be my pleasure to apply for a card that I want/need through your links.

paul5795
Guest
paul5795

Great post. Will start with your blog when looking for app links for my next apporama (Feb mid-month).

Jack
Guest
Jack

I rarely ever use blogger links because of the frustration with 3 blogs who border on the line of unethical with their links. We all know who they are – 6-8 articles per day with no rhyme or reason except to hawk links

Trip reports divided into 20 posts so they can keep pushing those links hard

Your policy seems really cool – if I have to use a blogger link I will be glad to use yours going forward.

Eric
Guest
Eric

I actually don’t know which blogs you are referring to. I saw someone write something similar on a DoC post with a bunch of letters and someone else mentioned “Lucky”. What blogs are these? BTW, I think FM’s policies in this article seem fair and reasonable.

Kira
Guest
Kira

He’s talking about Ben from OMAAT and TPG. I understand they need to make a living, but it does get a little rediculous. FM is a breath of fresh air and (ironically) just increased his monthly revenue by all of us that will be using his links for our (and our spouses) quarterly AORs.

Ed
Guest
Ed

Completely acceptable and certainly reasonable. I’ve never had a problem with links since that is the source of points to gain by readers and a source of income by the writer and owner of the blog. You already have the write formula in regards to tact and not blasting links all over articles like some sites, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing people to what could help them earn points, cashback and other rewards.

I thought some cc issuers banned blogs that didn’t meet certain criteria, such as blogs that talk a lot about ms when certain card issuers didn’t want to be associated with that. Did some of them relax this stance? I hope so.

ucipass
Guest
ucipass

+1
I have been using your links, exactly because when I read your posts I do not feel like I am being sold something. I actually admire that you do NOT include affiliate links in your posts.

My thought process:

– Check if an affiliate link for an application that fits my need is indeed the “best” offer from at least 2 independent sources.
– Reward a blogger who has the combination of best posts and integrity

I actually do not mind if someone , and this could be you, perhaps once every other week posts something along the lines of “best credit card offers” clearly outlining that the post is intended to help the site. Just please do not turn into an MMS style operation…

Will
Guest
Will

No worries! All for this.

Lantean
Guest
Lantean

thank you for an informative post. i have been using your links exclusively for years because your blog doesn’t have the “used car salesman” feel. hope you can keep it up, it’s a delicate balance.

Dave
Guest
Dave

Good post, fair and understandable.
I agree that I’m tired of those same few bloggers who push credit card links on their posts that should have nothing to do with credit cards.

Tom
Guest
Tom

…and this is why I use your affiliate links when it corresponds with the best offer. Keep up the good work! OMAAT should learn from you. Transparency and honesty is best.

Eric
Guest
Eric

What site is OMAAT?

Tom
Guest
Tom

Google usually works for that.
The blogs that people are referring to as unethical card pushers are:
Million Mile Secrets
The Points Guy
View From the Wing
and some would lump in One Mile at a Time, but I think he (Lucky) provides really unique content even though he also pushes the subpar links.

Eric
Guest
Eric

The only one that I’ve heard of is MMS. Yesterday I read an article from him where he wrote that he always tells the readers the best credit card deals to signup for. Are you saying that he is lying or is he unethical in some other way?

Dave
Guest
Dave

You shouldn’t insult used car salesmen like that. I’d say they have a more legitimate career than affiliate bloggers.

mrredskin
Guest
mrredskin

just keep doing what you’ve been doing and no one will care if the signup offer is a referral. most of your readers know when a blogger is simply pimping a CC (since they all do it within 24 hours of each other for the same card).

Dino
Guest
Dino

You’re the best, Greg! My family’s apps are always thru your links.

Miles and points maven
Guest
Miles and points maven

I get a lot of value from your blog and am happy that you also receive compensation while helping me obtain this value.

Madison
Guest
Madison

I feel the same as Howard and the others expressed. Thank you.

Lance
Guest
Lance

Since there’s such a barrage of nice comments, I thought I’d leave one also. I do appreciate your blog and religiously check it daily. I have been doing this for at least 2 years and will continue to read on.

JustSaying
Guest
JustSaying

Ethical capitalism! What a concept!

Dave C
Guest
Dave C

No worries, do whatever you want. We trust you.

That said, I’ve been subscribing to your newsletter since April 2015. Is there any possible way I can reduce the amount of emails? Since they tend to be quite long and detailed, there’s just no way I can keep up with you.

I am already 15 or so newsletters behind (I try to read each an every one). But my busy life prevents me from doing so.

I could not find an option to change delivery to, say , weekly, or to only subscribe to a weekly re-cap of all newsletters for that preceding week.

Randy
Guest
Randy

Greedy bloggers probably think you’re a douche – (no offense to douche – its a fine product.) The article was great – and my guess is that it will bring a ton more business – which is what great ethics in business ought to do. Keep up the good work.
I’m going to Greece this summer – thanks to your help (among a few other good guys and gals.) Thanks!

italdesign
Guest
italdesign

Thank you for your integrity, Greg. You avoid the temptation of shamelessly promoting (often inferior) CC affiliate links, and I’m happy to avoid the temptation of clicking those mindless promotions. You and one other source (of equal integrity) have been getting all my CC apps. You deserve it. Keep up the good work.

NetSpender
Guest
NetSpender

Cant wait until you try to kill the next deal. Awesome, get the pumping up and going. This hobby is dying you gotta try to stay alive for as long as possible.

John
Guest
John

You don’t seem as bad as most of the used car salesmen types on Boarding Area. But this blog has been slipping for a while. Too bad. It used to be one of the best.

JustSaying
Guest
JustSaying

John you make a valid critical comment. But the big problem is the death of MS has occurred with the new wave of Fed tightening………they are cutting the fluff and they believe they can do it and not hurt the economy…..we shall see………..but the question it begs is if you were doing MS every month and deflating your credit score as a result then why would you continue to do that when signups are so much easier and so much more stress free……….that is the death knoll for Boarding Area and it must adapt and must adapt quickly if it is to have hope of survival at the “same” levels……………

Mike
Guest
Mike

I love your links and find them to present the best offers time and time again. You are great at updating them and have the most manageable listing of credit card offerings (I mean I can go easily to the offers I am interested in). This transparency is A+. Great great job and service. And I note that I am not into manufacturing spend or looking for best sync specials so many of your articles are not of interest to me. But love your credit card links. From a seasoned miles and points person.

Firm Doc
Guest
Firm Doc

Appreciate your transparency. Taking a break from churning for a few months, but will be clicking your links as a thank you for your work.

Shonuffharlem
Guest
Shonuffharlem

Transparency rocks thanks! One question, are airline-direct mileage sales also affiliate links?

Nick
Guest
Nick

Greg your blog rocks! My wife and I have used your links quite a bit. I was wondering if they show which individuals are approved or is that part of a confidential protocol?