Ian Rosenwach, product manager at LinkShare, announced here at ReveNews.com in October this year the launch of the new LinkShare web service called â€œLinkShare Targeted Merchandiser APIâ€ and the feature by LinkShare that is based on that new web service called â€œEasy Linksâ€.
This is only an addition to a set of different web services that are available to LinkShare publishers. The web service was silently launched months earlier already and this post was originally written, but not published in June, a few days before the soft launch of the service. I provided feedback back in June. I updated and expanded this post to incorporate changes and additions to the new features since I originally wrote it some five months ago.
This API is LinkShare’s first step into the realm of contextual advertising. The web service returns 1-X products of a LinkShare Advertiser, based on the content of a web page that was either specified in the API call or the referring page /URL (default), if no link was provided.
This is not a full blown contextual advertising service like Google AdSense, Yahoo Publisher Network, Amazon Omakase Links or eBay AdContext. LinkShare does not render any ads for you. You or somebody else (hint) needs to do this for you. Maybe LinkShare will offer something like this in the future, but nothing is planned to my knowledge.
Letâ€™s take a look under the hood. I had already a bunch of questions after looking over the beta of their Implementation Guidelines. LinkShare did not get back to me yet regarding all the questions and comments that I had, so I decided to repeat them here in my post.
Using the vast number of products that are already available to LinkShare via their Merchandiser Service (Affiliate Product Data Feeds) is a good thing to do and something that I have been talking about with people for a long time already. Making access to the product information as easy as possible for non-technical folks should be high on the priority list of advertisers. Existing and potentially new affiliates often like to promote a particular product they like and recommend. Being able to pull a product ad with affiliate link to get a commission for referrals is not as easy as adding an iLike widget on your Facebook or MySpace profile. It should be, but we are still a far cry away from this.
Access to the new API is cumbersome and not helping a lot with the mentioned goal to make it very easy to use. Advertisers decide for themselves if they want to make their products available through the API or not. The advertiser must be using the LinkShare Merchandiser Service already though. Merchandiser enabled advertisers are not automatically enabled for Easy Links. You can find a list of Easy Links supporting merchants at the LinkShare Help Center here.
The affiliate itself also has to be enabled for the API and as far as I understand does this also require to be already enabled for the Merchandiser Service. The Merchandiser is not free to get access to for many affiliates. You either have to pay a setup fee or must be a good performing affiliate within the LinkShare network for several months already. But even if the Advertiser has the API enabled and uses the Merchandiser and you are an affiliate of that merchant and have Merchandiser enabled for your account, does not give you automatically access to the API. The merchant has to manually approve every affiliate first. I donâ€™t know if advertisers can enable automatic approval or not, at least for affiliates who were already approved to receive the advertisers product data feed via FTP.
Once you are approved for the API itself and for the access to the advertiserâ€™s products via the API, you can start making API calls and use the new web services feature. Unfortunately,Â it is necessary to specify with the API call which advertiserâ€™s products should be used for the contextual matching. It does not work in the way that the more advertisers are enabled for the API for your account the more products will become available for the matching of your content. This is a huge drawback and something LinkShare will hopefully change soon.
The affiliate has to specify an advertiserâ€™s MID with the API call and then only 1-x of the products available for that single merchant will be returned. This means that the affiliate has to pre-qualify the content of every page where you want to make use of the API first. If the page is about listening to music and not about making music, you should specify the MID of Apple iTunes and not Musicnotes.com to get a good match for example. This determination is a large piece of the matching already. If you need the API make some work for you, then I guess that you have to use advertisers like Overstock.com, WalMart or Target.com who have a lot of different products.
I noted back in June in my feedback to LinkShare about the new web service, that the practical use for the API will be significantly limited because of the requirement to provide the MID of an advertiser for the contextual matching. Ads cannot be generated like an AdSense, YPN, Amazonâ€™s Omakase, eBay AdContext or Microsoft Content Ad.
The “MID” is not something that a publisher specifies today on a page and ad unit level. He cannot reuse existing meta-data (keywords meta-tags etc.) and has only very few (and always ugly) ways of doing it. If you cannot find or program yourself a work around, the only option you are left with to limit the content of your whole website or website section to make sure that it always matched the product catalog of a specific merchant and then hard code the MID in your site template. I strongly suggest to make the MID optional and do a contextual matching across all merchants that are enabled for the publisher.
The updated developers guide also did not provide an answer to what results you have to expect in certain instances. I hope that the following question will be answered by the LinkShare web services team soon.
If I specify that I want 10 products back as a result, but you cannot find 10 products that actually match the content, what do you do? Do you return less than the 10 (only the ones where you have some kind of match)? Or are you filling the missing slots with products that you pick based on other criteria? What happens if there are no matches at all? I didn’t see an error message for that, which implies that you always return at least one product.
Web Interface and Widgets
In addition to the access to the Easy Links feature via web services, for the tech-savvy affiliates, LinkShare also offers access to the Easy-Links feature via an easy to use web interface. If you know how to create and implement Google AdSense ads into your website, you wonâ€™t have any issues with using the Easy Links widgets provided via the LinkShare web interface for publishers.
The ad units provided by LinkShare are pre-defined, and are available in the standard banner sizes: 300 x 250 (medium rectangle), 468 x 60 (full banner), 234 x 60 (half banner), 120 x 240 (vertical banner), 125 x 125 (square button), 728 x 90 (leader board), 160 x 600 (wide skyscraper) and 120 x 600 (skyscraper).
The units can be customized to some degree. You can specify the border color, text color and link color and if you want to show the product name and/or product price. You do not have control over the product image and whether or not you want to show it. It also comes with a â€œbuy nowâ€ button image, which cannot be changed. Also the link at the end of each product with the anchor â€œat Merchant Nameâ€ is static and not customizable.
Also not customizable are the background color of the ad unit, the font face, the font styles (bold, italic, size) and an alternative style for links if they are hovered over by the visitor. The border around the ad unit cannot be suppressed, if you want to. You can only change the color to match your site’s background as closely as possible, especially if the background is not simply one color, but an image or gradient etc.
However, itâ€™s a good start and most affiliates are probably able to live with the limitations. I also assume that the team at LinkShare will extend on the available options in the future.
The ads will not show the most relevant products right away. It may take up to 48 hours until LinkShare determined the most relevant products for your particular pages. LinkShare will show products that match the site category that you selected during registration for your web site until LinkShare completed the contextual matching process.
The code to add to your affiliate pages looks like this.
You can get additional help and information to this feature at the LinkShare Help Center for Publishers here.
LinkShare also seems to be pretty confident that they are able to do a perfect job when it comes to the matching of products to the publisherâ€™s page content. Even Google who has a much bigger pool of ads to chose from and several years for improving their matching algorithms (which still fails to produce good results in many cases), provides some means for the publisher to help them with the matching.
I am almost certain that LinkShareâ€™s matching is by far not as good as Googleâ€™s nor do they have remotely enough ads to pick from for the matching, which makes it not always easier to find an ad that is actually relevant and targeted.
I suggested to LinkShare that the publisher will be provided with some overwrite options, e.g. a set of keywords that should be used. At the very least as a failover, if LinkShareâ€™s content matching returns too few results or no results at all.
In addition to that they could use the proprietary HTML tags by Google or by Yahoo! for the specification, which (content) segments of a HTML document should be included for the content matching (the Google tag) and/or which segments should be excluded from the matching (the Yahoo! tag).
I am pleased to see that a few of my suggestions and comments that I made to LinkShare directly were actually listed to and changed, such as the inclusion of the Error Numbers in the developer guide.
Overall I have to say that I think that it was a move into the right direction by LinkShare, but that I am not impressed by the implementation of the API as it is now. Some might argue that you are better of using the existing Merchandiser Query Tool API, which is not very far-fetched, but they just started.
The least I want to do is discourage the folks over at LinkShare and stop with what they are doing right now. Consider this assessment as a well intentioned feedback. Letâ€™s keep the stuff coming!
To learn more about the LinkShare web services and data feeds as well as web services and data feeds provided by other affiliate networks, check out the collection of resources and guides over here.