Internet advertising is a completely messed-up, multi-trillion euro business that is controlled by a few big players, most notably Google and Facebook. Their business models are based on figuring out as much information about people as possible, and then using people’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities to persuade them to click on advertisements.

A dystopia to make people click

The worrying implications of these companies’ persuasion architectures are wonderfully described by Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk: We are building a dystopia just to make people click on ads, in which she shows how companies like Facebook and Google manipulate people in hidden, subtle and unexpected ways. She also describes in detail how their advertising programs can be used not only to sell shoes, but also to swing elections and gain political influence.

Trackers are really everywhere

In case you are wondering whether Tufekci overreacts, have a look at the number of trackers that Steven Englehardt and Arvind Narayanan found in one million popular web sites. Their study finds Google Analytics on 75% of the web sites. Even more worrying is that all of the top 5 third party trackers, and even 12 of the top 20 trackers, are owned by Google. Facebook and Twitter, while not as ubiquitously present as Google, still have trackers on more than 10% of sites they crawl.

So, Google is not only tracking what you search for and click on, they are also tracking other websites you visit, despite the fact that many users tell Google explicitly: Do Not Track. Google follows your online activities on millions of sites and stores your data indefinitely. That data can be subpoenaed by lawyers, even for civil cases like divorce. Google answered over 100,000 such requests last year.

Google’s AdSense and other advertisement programs

Using Google’s AdSense program is tempting, because it is effective: Google really does manage to make people click on advertisements. But if you run a Searsia search engine like Dr. Sheet Music, then using AdSense is not an attractive option for several reasons:

  1. Google bans search competitors by requiring original content created from scratch, which a search engine typically does not provide.
  2. Google does not allow the use of other third party advertisements, limiting your search engine to get its advertisements from Google only. (Remember that Searsia is a federated search engine that is designed to receive results from multiple sources.)
  3. Google will approve an AdSense application faster if the site uses Google Analytics, which as we saw, is the tracking software that is available on 75% of the web sites already.
  4. AdSense does not give the site control over the advertisements that are displayed: AdSense shows whatever advertisement Google deems appropriate.
  5. Also, your site has to allow third party cookies to be set, that is, cookies from a site other than your own site.

At this point we may conclude that advertisement programs like Google’s AdSense are both unethical and unsuited for sites that run a Searsia search engine. So, does this prevent people that build a search engine with Searsia from monetizing their sites? We don’t think so. There is an alternative to the surveillance advertising model of Google that is often overlooked: the so-called affiliate marketing.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is a type of on-line marketing where an affiliate (also called the publisher) is paid a commission for each sale that is closed based on a link or advertisement on the affiliate’s web site. Running an affiliate program is often as easy as putting a hyperlink to a merchant’s product on your site that contains your affiliate identifier. When a visitor of your site clicks that link, the merchant (or affiliate network) will know from this identifier that the visitor originated from your site. If this user purchases the product (or any other product) on the site within a certain amount of time, then the affiliate receives a commission, which is often a percentage of the product’s price.

Affiliate programs do track their users after they have clicked an affiliate link or advertisement. This tracking is often done by cookies that are placed by the merchant’s website, so these cookies are not third party cookies. Many affiliate programs use cookies that disappear after a limited time, say 14 days, so a purchase within 14 days after clicking will count for the affiliate program. Users will however not be tracked if they only use the search engine, nor will they see personalized advertisements.

One might argue that affiliate marketing is much like other on-line advertising and marketing programs, but with the following differences:

  1. Not the advertisement network but the affiliate decides which advertisement or link is placed on the site.
  2. Affiliate programs are less prone to ad fraud like impression fraud or click fraud, because the affiliate is only paid when the product is actually purchased and paid for.
  3. There are often little restricting conditions attached to affiliate programs such as the above mentioned need for original content, the ban of advertisements from other providers, or the need to allow third party cookies.
  4. There is no incentive for affiliate programs or merchants to sell user data or share personal data, because they do not control advertisement placement, nor do they have to bother about advertisement fraud.

Many merchants run their own affiliate programs. Examples are the programs by Amazon or eBay. Many smaller merchant’s affiliate programs are available through affiliate networks like ShareASale or CJ Affiliate. Most programs allow owners of small web sites, like personal blogs, to sign up for their programs.


Affiliate programs can be seen as advertising programs where the affiliate/publisher is in control of the advertisements that are placed on their site. The programs provide the affiliate with a fair share of the revenue of the merchant, without the need to track and target users. Affiliate marketing, implemented successfully, can serve as an ethical approach to providing advertisements in search engines, not based on excessive user tracking, but instead based on the mutual trust between affiliates and merchants.

In a future blog post we will describe in detail how Searsia supports affiliate programs. We will provide detailed examples of Searsia’s resource configurations for big affiliate programs like eBay’s Partner Network and for affiliate networks like ShareASale. Sharing Searsia’s resource configurations for affiliate programs will give search engine developers quick access to several affiliate programs, and with some adaptation access many more.


We thank the Vietsch Foundation and NLnet Foundation for funding our work on ethical search advertising.