Programmatic Ads vs. Affiliate Links For Monetization

Digital publishers, content creators, and bloggers are always seeking to find the most effective way to monetize their content, and the attention of their visitors, without cannibalizing the value they provide to their audiences.

Two of the most popular and easiest ways for publishers to receive a fair price for their efforts is by leveraging programmatic ads (served through an ad network or exchange) or affiliate links.

Often, I’m confronted by publishers that are interested in learning how programmatic ads stack up against affiliate links. The truth is that it is different for every publisher – depending on a whole host of factors.

Below, I’ll highlight why one may be better than the other for certain sites. I’ll give some examples and share numbers from real sites and discuss how publishers can find the right combination that works for their site and audience.

Watch me discuss it on The Publisher Lab

How does programmatic revenue work… in a nutshell

I wrote an article a while back about how all internet advertising works on all sides of the coin. If this is something you’d like to learn more about, I recommend reading that article.

display ads vs affiliate ads

Essentially, programmatic revenue is earned by the publisher (website) from a series of ad partners that serve display ads on the publisher’s site.

Advertisers buy ad space (inventory) from large providers or networks like Google, Facebook, Oath, and many others and then those providers distribute those ads according to advertiser campaign parameters across participating publisher sites that fulfill campaign criteria.

A simple way to see this relationship is through Google.

google adsense

Advertisers use Google Ads (formerly AdWords) to target their audience with display ads.

Publishers can then use Google products like AdSense and The Google Ad Exchange to serve these ads to visitors on their sites in exchange for the revenue provided by the advertisers through Google.

Is display revenue (programmatic ad revenue) in decline?

This is a common misconception that could not be more incorrect. In fact, display ad revenue is at an all-time high.

better ad rates at the end of the year

What’s more, Q4 of 2018 is set to be a record-setting time period.

There does seem to be some industry parties out there suggesting that display revenue is decline; however, this is largely due to the decline in monetary value and frequency of direct ad deals being done between advertisers and publishers.

Advertisers have become increasingly reliant on partners, like Google, for their ad campaigns. This has meant a big rise in programmatic revenue, but a decline in direct ad revenue for publishers.

Many larger publishers, like The Guardian, have pulled away from direct ad sales and moved towards programmatic display revenue along with other forward-thinking options like subscriptions and sponsored content.

How does affiliate revenue work … in a nutshell

Affiliate revenue is earned by publishers by referring their visitors – via links – to an affiliate’s site and having them complete a specific outcome. Typically, this is the visitor buying a product.

how affiliate ads work

There are a wide number of different affiliate revenue structures, but most center around the publisher earning a set percentage of the total amount of revenue from the referred visitor’s transactions.

How do affiliates payout?

Just like many ad networks, affiliates typically pay out over certain time periods according to preset thresholds. However, there is a lot of variability in affiliate programs out there. Publishers accrue revenue in an account until these parameters are typically met.

Amazon is one of most classic examples of affiliate revenue in action.

amazon affiliates

Using the Amazon Affiliate program, a publisher can use links to products on on their website that they can then earn money from if referred visitors then purchase things from Amazon during that referral session.

There is a wide breadth of different arrangements that affiliates can make with publishers and they are all different. In fact, Ezoic even has a referral program that allows publishers to earn revenue by referring publishers to the platform.

What affiliates offer the best revenue opportunities for publishers?

This question is tricky because it largely depends on the site, audience, and niche.

For example, there is an Ezoic customer that has a health food website that has approximately 1 million pageviews per month that earns roughly $2,500 per month in affiliate revenue from a bespoke food delivery company.

The site uses that affiliate’s link on all of its food articles about dieting. They said that they had tried other affiliates in that space with those same articles and only earned a fraction of that kind of revenue.

In this case, it is a mesh between a specific affiliate and the audience of this publisher.

Major affiliate link providers like Amazon, are typically the most popular, but often make more sense for some publishers than others.

Simple product recommendation widgets and sidebar locations typically do not offer revenue greater than what could be achieved from display ad revenue; however, site’s specializing in product reviews report finding better success than most with these affiliate widgets.

Many times, major affiliate links, like Amazon, are best used when they are the right tool for the right job.

For example, a DIY home improvement site we work with uses Amazon Affiliate links very sparingly as they have seen very little revenue from them across the entire site. However, on one article, they feature a DIY project that requires an expensive tool only available through Amazon.

This site uses Amazon Affiliate links only on this page now. They claim that the single link generates roughly $850 per month from only 13,000 article views. They monetize the rest of their site with display ads and sponsored content.

Ultimately, every site has a different audience. That audience’s behavior will dictate the success of affiliate links.

Think about it, in most cases, if a visitor will not click on a link and act on the offering the publisher won’t earn a dime. That means that the publisher has just shuffled a visitor away from their site for nothing.

Selecting affiliates that fit your audience and offer value to your site can be difficult but very profitable if done properly.

The best thing to do is to seek out popular products or brands that you believe your audience would find value in. Then, see what kind of affiliate programs they might offer. Do the math from there.

In this example, a publisher of ours owns a music-based website that sees approximately 900,000 pageviews per month. They have a large audience of musicians and found that the affiliate program from Musicians Friend worked really well with their audience. They were able to offer it on articles relating to instruments and products that the supplier sold and see over $1K in monthly revenue from the program.

What would you need to CTR, conversion rate, and average referral value to be for it to be worth it to display those links on a certain article – or multiple articles?

Lastly, don’t forget to be opportunistic.

In another example, a customer of ours that owns an outdoor/nature blog (350,000 pageviews/per month) discovered that a large number of their site visitors were clicking links to a hotel at a travel location they had reviewed. They reached out to the venue and asked them if they’d be interested in setting up a referral program for any visitors that they sent to the site that booked a stay with the venue.

The venue quickly agreed and the blog and the location venue set up a referral program that has netted the blog approximately $12,000 to date.

Affiliate links deserve a little bit of scrutiny

One last thing about affiliate revenue is worth reviewing.

Recently, a lot of sites using a large number of affiliate links that have previously relied on Google Search and SEO for traffic, have noticed a decline in their search traffic as Google has updated their search algorithm throughout the year.


Research has suggested that part of this may be due to informational or reference sites espousing unbiased or factual information on pages but including affiliate links.

It would suggest that Google may view sites representing themselves as an authority – only to then profit from a 3rd party relationship – to be a strike against their credibility. This seems to be a major factor in the Google Medic Update (for those that follow the world of SEO).

Do you have to choose between ad and affiliate revenue?

Clearly, the answer is no. Plenty of publishers choose to find a combination of the two forms of revenue to facilitate the growth of their businesses.

There is one important thing to keep in mind. Your visitors.

Overmonetizing pages can become really annoying to visitors. This can create great RPMs, but really bad EPMV (revenue per visitor); which ultimately results in lower monthly revenue. This is why RPM optimization is a terrible idea.

Users that leave sessions earlier than predicted can cost the publisher a fortune in potential revenue.

All forms of monetization dilute each other in some or fashion. This means that loading up pages with tons of affiliate links and display ads will ultimately cause the value of all forms of monetization to be divided and decreased.

Every site must find the right balance between ad and affiliate link impression density and the value that all the parties on the page bring to the publisher.

How do you find this balance?


… and long-term testing.

We wrote about how loading pages with ads can help publishers earn more money in the short-term but do massive long-term revenue damage here.

Ultimately, you need to see how ads are affecting the value of other ads and affiliate links long term. This is what Ezoic does automatically when it tests things like ad density and ad placements.

ad testing

Want to try that new affiliate link? How were pageviews per session, engagement rate, and display ad revenue affected? If the answer is that it negatively impacted all of those things, now you have to ask if the revenue is worth it to your web property or not.

Understanding audience engagement and its impact on revenue is ultimately the number one thing you want to keep an eye on to ensure the long-term sustainability of your site’s content to advertisers and affiliates.

website revenue

You can monitor audience engagement for free using Ezoic’s Big Data Analytics which calculates this for you.

Which will work better – affiliate links or ads?

Clearly, it depends.

That said, there’s probably an opportunity for most publishers to make both forms of revenue work.

Affiliate link revenue is the harder of the two to optimize and get right.

The publishers that earn the most from these affiliate relationships usually have one or two really good partners that mesh well with their website audiences.

One publisher, in an example above, said this about their close relationship with a profitable affiliate…

We had totally given up on affiliate revenue until we found this partner… They were the only one we were able to make any revenue from and that’s because they fit our audience. It took us years to find them. Now it works.

Display ad revenue is simple for most publishers. It is easy to start and can become more complex depending on the publisher’s desire to dedicate time to optimizing platforms, partnerships, and experiments.

Testing is typically the key to ensuring that user experiences aren’t affected and that revenue is optimized for the long-term.

Additional thoughts, ideas, or questions? Leave them below and I’ll happily chime in.