There are two ways to do referral marketing: the good way and the scummy way.

Unfortunately, the scummy side of referral marketing seems to take center stage in the media because of stories like eBay’s 2013 referral marketing scam. In fact, many companies avoid using the phrase “affiliate marketing” altogether because it has such a negative connotation. From presenting false information to scammy sales techniques, there’s a lot to look out for when you’re establishing a partner or referral program for your business.

Partnering with a referral marketer who uses shady tactics can hurt your brand’s reputation, email delivery rates and SEO. Watch for these red flags to make sure your potential partners are reliable and trustworthy:

Purchased Lists

It may sound harsh, but most people don’t want to hear from you, especially if they’ve never opted in to your list or given you consent to send them emails.

One of the biggest red flags is when a referral partner uses purchased email lists. Even if your partner’s emails do end up landing in a prospect’s inbox, the recipient is immediately going to wonder, “How the heck did you get my email address?” Attempting to establish a relationship with contacts by spamming them isn’t going to work and will reflect horribly on your brand.

Plus, sending unsolicited emails violates CAN-SPAM and CASL, which are the United States’ and Canada’s regulations for commercial emailing.

Scammy Landing Pages

Referral or partner programs are wonderful tools because they allow you to reach people and markets that you might not have had access to otherwise. However, they’re also dangerous because some referrers might be willing to do anything to make a sale, including driving traffic to Landing Pages that promote “too good to be true” offers. These offers are false claims about your product and unfulfilled promises that can lead to backlash, especially on social media. You’ll then have to do damage control to try to recover your reputation.The prospects to whom your referrers are attempting to sell aren’t going to know the difference between your company and a referral partner, so if they have a bad experience with one of your partners, they’ve had a bad experience with you.

Black Hat SEO

Simply put, don’t trust a referral partner who uses Black Hat SEO tactics.

Before Google introduced its Penguin Update, its algorithm didn’t focus as much on inbound link quality as it currently does. If you had an influx of “spammy” links that led to your site, Google would most likely rank you higher than a competing site that didn’t have as many. However, Google’s algorithm now focuses more on quality than quantity, meaning that the inbound links leading to your site better be good ones, or you might be penalized. If your referral partners are posting dozens of links to your website from low-quality sites, this will negatively impact your SEO rankings.

Black Hat SEO doesn’t stop at inbound links. Content Scraping is when someone steals original content from your website and posts it on their own. If a referral partner is immediately reposting your content on their site, Google could mistake them as the original author, which can potentially ruin your SEO rankings. Another Black Hat SEO tactic is Negative SEO, which is basically buying a bunch of spammy links and then directing them toward competitors so that search engines will penalize them.

All three of these tactics are extreme red flags, and if your referral partners are participating in unethical web practices, they should not be associated with your brand.


Let us know what you think and share your referral marketing red flags and tips in the comments below.

About Tatiana Doscher
Campaign Strategist Tatiana Doscher is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara with a dual B.A. in Communication and Global Studies. After working with several small and local businesses, Tatiana joined Ontraport’s Marketing team. She loves running, hiking and enjoying Santa Barbara’s beautiful beaches.