Is Affiliate Marketing Legitimate or is it a Scam?

Affiliate marketing in my experience can be done both legitimately and in a scam way (both make money) and I’ll give you examples of both in this post.

is affiliate marketing legit or is it a scam

Many people look at affiliate marketing from different points of views such as:

  • Not knowing what it is, which is actually most common.
  • Knowing what it is, but not taking it seriously, because it doesn’t fit the norms of work standards we’ve come to understand.
  • Understanding it and building a legitimate business of it.
  • Understanding it and not limiting yourself to what you can promote, which can lead one to promote some bad, scam businesses, unethically.

Whatever point you can relate to most, what we can all agree on is that affiliate marketing is still a very new and often mysterious concept, at least to those who barely understand it. With that, many people will rightfully question if it’s legitimate and I’d like to answer that here.

The fact is though, the answer is not just subjective, but there’s really no one big answer to it. In my opinion after doing this for well over a decade, affiliate marketing IS legitimate, but that is dependent on HOW you use it and for what purposes and that’s what I’ll explain here…

What is affiliate marketing? How does it really work?

Here is the most simplest explanation of it:

You basically get a link to promote a product/s for a company. You provide that link to people through your website, email and other means which if they click on and buy, you can make something.

In affiliate marketing, you typically earn commissions and they come whenever someone purchases something through YOUR link. Other times, purchase isn’t necessary and you can get paid for things like signing someone up through your link.

So if you want to explain it clearly, think of promoting other people’s stuff, but through the internet, that’s basically it.

And through this blanket explanation, I doubt you can find anything wrong with that. You’re just promoting stuff and why is that wrong? Just about everything you buy has a marketing angle to it. 

However, I think we can all agree that some forms of selling can be deemed unethical and illegitimate and this rings absolutely true for affiliate marketing as well. Just because it happens online doesn’t mean it’s any less or more fair, and it should be held to similar standards.

The question is though, what forms of it are legitimate and which ones are not? That’s what I’ll cover right now:

Scenarios in which it’s ethical in my experience:

1) You promote something for the same price as it would cost had the person buying it were buying it directly through the vendor.

Say a product is $10 on it’s own. If you promote it, you should also sell it for the same price.

2) If you are providing a good valued review/recommendation of it. 

Recently, I purchased myself 2 high end drones, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for quite sometime.

Prior to buying them, I digested a bunch of hours of YouTube videos of people reviewing them and recently purchased a backpack to hold both my drones straight from an affiliate link a person provided for me.

Now I knew it was an affiliate link when I bought it, but the price was the same and I felt the review I was given was very well done and gave me a good choice of what to buy, considering I was looking for a good backpack to hold them.

I had NO problem buying it through the person’s promotional link. It was my way of thanking them for helping me make a good choice. By the way, here is an affiliate marketing success story on the person whose affiliate link I purchased the drones from. It explains how he’s been able to grow his own business without a website.

If you have questions about sending people somewhere to buy something, you may want to rethink what you’re promoting. Be absolutely sure you stand behind what you promote. 

3) Usually if you buy the product, it gives weight to your recommendation.

Typically nothing is more ethical than purchasing the product you’re promoting (and trust). Although sometimes being an expert in a certain type of product, you need not buy everything to prove if it’s good or bad, just simply having the parameters and other info about it is enough to make you give an accurate review. 

A good example of this is laptops. Why buy every laptop when you can just look at it’s specs as an expert and deem if it’s good for someone or not? 

4) You are actually selling things that solve problems.

This is also a major part of the model. If you’re not promoting things that solve the problem of your customers, you’re not really doing affiliate marketing legitimately. And the greatest success I’ve had in this business came when I actually solved people’s problems with the sites I had. Read more.

Scenarios in which it’s not ethical:

1) If you promote something you have no knowledge in and just make up things. 

This happens a ton in the work from home programs you may likely see or have seen. There’s pages saying you’ll make tons of money, but I would bet that the people who make those pages have no understanding of the program nor consideration for who is buying it or what will happen once they do.

2) The program promoted has hidden, GIGANTIC (and that’s key) upsells behind it. 

Sometimes upsells aren’t bad and in cases where they are optional and cheap and there’s actually a good purpose behind them, I am fine with them. I even buy them sometimes. With my drones for example, you can count an up-sell as extra accessories I could get for cheap to make it safer to preserve it. Why wouldn’t I want to buy that? 

Sadly though, in the make money online world for instance, this concept is ridiculously exploited and multiplied in terms of price. And I want to use that topic to illustrate the illegitimacy…

For example, there’s tons of high ticket items and typically MLM programs which sell these types of high ticket items that try to funnel people in for low prices and then hit them with exponentially more expensive upsells. Here’s a perfect example: Digital Altitude.

Here’s other reasons why high ticket programs are dangerous.

3) There’s a hyped promise and misleading information being given out. 

I suppose this point ties into points 1 and 2, but say a program promises you that you can make six figures your first 30 days (this is a common pitch you see these days) and it’s free or you can join for a low price to find out how. 

Then when you join, you discover there’s an up-sell (point 2), a BIG one and by buying it, ONLY then can you possibly make those big sales to lead to six figures. 

That’s not right. 

Note: I did say one legitimate aspect of this business was buying a product, but sometimes, this can be in the grey area. For example, you purchased a gigantic high ticket up-sell, but didn’t tell your visitors about it. That’s lack of transparency and probably wrong.

4) Promoting products that don’t solve problems. 

Point 4 above talked about solving problems for people. Well when you do this the opposite way, unethically that is, you usually give people the illusion of solutions.

For example, if an affiliate promotes a high ticket program which promises to make people money (the supposed solution is that it’ll help people out financially), but it gets them into more financial troubles, you didn’t solve their issue, you just enhanced it more.

My final thoughts:

If you really use the ethical points I eluded to throughout your affiliate marketing efforts, you’re not just going to build a great, ethical business, but you’ll also have people come to you with questions and, something I recently wrote about: Trust. 

Now not everyone will trust you, but you can definitely build some credibility by being the type of person who promotes things that help people and the more you do that, the better it’ll look for your credibility. That’s one of the reasons why being involved in a personally involved niche is so helpful.

Now I will say all these points are based on my opinions. Certainly if you feel differently, I’d love to get your thoughts! 

22 thoughts on “Is Affiliate Marketing Legitimate or is it a Scam?”

  1. This is a great post and you’ve made some really good points. I think it is always best to remain ethical as an affiliate marketer. I for one have never felt comfortable promoting a product or service I’ve never used myself, or at least have ample knowledge about (per your laptop example.) I think readers can detect when someone is being disingenuous. In the long run, it is better to be an ethical marketer and build trust.

    • The laptop example is an interesting one Eartha, because I think that is one of the times when you really don’t need to test it out personally. Just by reading certain parameters the laptop has, you can come to a conclusion about it if you’re experienced.

      Contrarily there are products where testing is really the only way to go. If you test, say health products, that might be a good scenario in which buying it, trying it and then reviewing it on your site holds greater value.

  2. Thank you for this great post! I like how you started off by stating how people misunderstand or misuse affiliate marketing. I think your second point is common with a lot of people who are trying to make money online. They know what affiliate marketing is, but they don’t take it seriously enough to be successful at it. From what I’ve seen from some people is that they want to make money online, but don’t want to put in any time or effort. That’s not how it works.

    I appreciate you listing the different ways affiliate marketing can be done in ethical ways and unethical. I think that’s important for people to know before they get into it.

    Very helpful information! Thank you!


    • That’s a great point Weston, a few days ago I wrote another interesting article on affiliate marketing and why people fail in it. I highly recommend it, but it touches upon a big point you made and that’s people really do not want to work for it!

  3. Great post on what and how affiliate marketing works. I agree with you wholeheartedly on your points about ethical and unethical approaches.

    Affiliate Marketing is simply a process that can be used to generate money, so it is neither ethical or unethical. In my opinion the people marketing are the ones who are ethical or unethical which you did a great job of pointing out.

    So I just wanted to piggy back on everything you stated. Thanks for sharing!

    • Well there’s a lot of processes that generate money Ian, but they aren’t all ethical. Think about counterfeit money or illegitimate business models, they also generate money, but not the ethical way. Affiliate marketing should also be held to the same standards.

  4. Thank you for the article. Ethics is a very important idea for me. I have looked for a few years online for an honest, true, revenue creating way to earn an income. I like how you added in the UN-ethical scenarios in order to bring that to the readers attention. What would you say would be the best way to learn how to become an affiliate? Thank you.

    • Well my opinion is really a mix of the 3 ethical points above, plus the overall approach of wanting to help people with a particular issue within the niche. As long as my reviews are up front and I help them out, that’s the best scenario for me. Very few programs teach this, but I’m proud to say only 1 of them has actually made this point a central thesis in their training: Wealthy Affiliate, which by the way is also one of the most ethical programs I recommend.

  5. I’ve considered this stuff too. I certainly can’t get behind products I don’t know something about. Even thinking about It doesn’t feel good inside.

    I’ve explained affiliate marketing as a modern version of commission sales. A commission sale where you don’t have to show up at a certain time and dressed a certain way. It’s the website that you pour time and effort into to start that looks presentable 24/7 and does the sales over time.

    • That’s not a bad way of explaining it Geoff, although like a sales person who shows up to other people, in this case, they show up to meet you, so obviously having a presentable site will help with whatever recommendations you plan to give.

  6. So which affiliate marketing programs would you suggest for someone just starting out. I can imagine there are probably tens of thousands out there. Are they all basically the same as far as the amount of commissions you can receive, or are some just head and shoulders above the rest?

    Nice post. Thank you for writing this.

    • Hi Eric, I’m going to be writing a post on the exact networks any type of marketer would be happy to do business with very soon. Will link to it as soon as it’s up!

  7. Great explanation on what and how affiliate marketing is. I agree that it’s unethical to make things up about a product just to make up a review.

    When I create product reviews, I do my very best to gather as much information before I publish. At the end of the day, my purpose is to help someone make the right decision.

    Dishonesty in order to make a quick buck isn’t going to provide you with a solid business; eventually people will learn the truth.

    Thanks for sharing,


    • You are right about the long term ramifications of dishonestly going about affiliate marketing Diana, unfortunately, I know more than a few names of people who hop from one product to another, and sell it/promote it for the most jacked up price imaginable and when it fails, their reputation and bragging about how much they’ve made online is the only thing that carries their audience over to the next product they promote.

      Eventually people do catch this trend and stop trusting the person, but in this business, there’s always new victims to these people which is why affiliate marketers like us have to inform them about it.

  8. I am glad you posted this, Vitaliy. I think that most affiliate marketers are ethical. Unfortunately, there are those who engage in unethical practice, and that hurts us all.

    Two unethical tactics I have observed are similar but also somewhat opposite.

    The first are marketers that offer promotions that masquerade as reviews. Now, there’s nothing wrong with posting a review of a product and recommending it. But it’s a huge red flag if they are reviewing everything at Clickbank, and everything is 100% enthusiastically positive… and they are affiliates of all these products they love so much.

    The other example is the marketer who labels everything he reviews as a scam, and then redirects them to one product he’s reviewed. Everything can’t be a scam, and more than likely, he’s just saying that to redirect everyone to his chosen product.

    I try to look for a mix of positive and negative reviews to determine if a marketer has credibility. Just my opinion.

    • I think you’re completely right about both points you made Andy and the word “masquerade” is perfect to use to describe unethical affiliate practices.

      Your first point is dead on but the good news is that these types of affiliate websites generally do not last long. The internet has become a place where people don’t just buy everything, they want one or two things that stand out and when they see someone promoting everything, they are less likely to buy in my experience, vs if there’s a solid winner out of the plethora of choices available.

      I have said before that if you make yourself out to be an authority in your niche, then it’s natural for you to only promote one or a few things to your audience and it’s also natural for them to expect the authority to have high standards in what they recommend.

      And on your second point, I have been accused of “practicing this” tactic by many people who didn’t like my negative reviews of programs they were either promoting or looking for reasons to join. But I kept telling them the same thing I mentioned in my first point and that is very few products in so and so niche are good and I know about it because I’ve lived it.

      If I can recommend one program in say the make money online niche that works, is cheap and honest, I will back that program above ANY that is more expensive, even if it is of good quality. It’s one of the reasons Wealthy Affiliate is the only program I’ve consistently labeled as my #1 choice for affiliate marketers and online business people. Also in my very first sentence in my review of it, I literally tell people that I’ve reviewed over a 100 programs to reach this conclusion and it is true, I’ve actually seen/reviewed well over a 100 of them.

  9. This article was a very informative article about affiliate marketing. I am glad you covered the ethics. I don’t think many consider that when they indulge in this. I can say I never thought about it in those terms, but it is a good idea to discuss that aspect. It made me think about it and keep in mind as I move forward with my affiliate marketing.

    • It’s certainly going to help make a more trustworthy business Leroy. The businesses and people who succeed in the long run are those who are truly trusted by their readers, so obviously, looking at the ethical aspects I mentioned will help you figure out how to best gain that trust in my opinion.

  10. I totally agree with your POST Vitaliy. For me, it’s very important that affiliate marketers give more than just links to buy something, or else why should customers buy from us? It’s much easier to just search for that product in Amazon right?

    Unfortunately (or fortunately for me) I’ve found that many affiliate blogs within my niche tend to give only the best reviews for all products, including products that I’m very sure to not be a good choice…


    • Ah it sounds like you’re in a niche market with lots of “Good competition” with all the high quality reviews Isaac. Mind if I ask what it is? Whatever the topic though, you can absolutely outrank the competition by providing even longer, high quality reviews/content, doing videos and getting comments.

      No matter how much space your competitors occupy, you can find newer topics to discuss on your site to eventually surpass them. Read up on this, it’ll REALLY help you get there.

  11. A very informative page which gives a clear explanation of the ins and outs of the principle of affiliate marketing. You are right to point out the ethics of the practice as this is often overlooked.

    Trust is the key as you rightly point out. If you havent created the T word then no-one will want to do business with you. Trust is everything.

    • Couldn’t agree more Andy, but we have to be careful as many people who promote shady things tend to be trusted a lot. I have seen this blind faith in scammers. People need to be educated enough to know when they are being fooled by a program/product and when it’s legitimate.


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