When sellers want to promote their product on the Internet, they often rely on other sites to send them traffic. This means millions of referring sites and millions of products for sale. There are several affiliate marketing aggregators (such as Linkshare; Performix, which is now owned by Google through the Doubleclick acquisition; and Commission Junction) who handle the commission programs of thousands of sellers. Referring sites get from 5 percent to 20 percent of the product price, depending on the product and market.
The aggregators provide product information — such as price, description, discount, and country of origin — to the sites that want to promote a product. Evo.com, a green rating startup, searches this data to decide which products and vendors are better for the planet. It’s a tough challenge, because there aren’t any well-defined standards for publishing environmental data. So Evo built a keyword analysis system to look for green-relevant data in these unstructured feeds.
The result is technology that can tell how green a product is.
Most consumers, says Evo CEO Dan Siegel, are asking, “What does it mean to be green?” Prior to Evo, Siegel built Student Advantage to bring college students and marketers together. When he wanted to build homes that were more green, he realized there was no reliable way to find relevant products. Working with co-founder and COO Mark Eastwood, whose background includes working with eToys, rent.com and eBay, they realized that the Internet’s affiliate data feeds were an untapped source of product detail.
The pair started by defining a set of “green” attributes, such as where products are made, materials, transportation, and the company’s practices. They also determined the impact rating of each class of products, since some products, such as energy and home materials, have more significant effects on the planet. They fed several million products into their system. Roughly 5 percent qualified as “net green,” meaning that their green benefits outweighed their drawbacks.
Evo uses human editors to tweak these initial results, as well as spiders to crawl the web for new products. The company also plans to add data from other green rating sources such as Coop America and Climatecounts to further improve accuracy.
The real way to ensure the right rankings is to create a community that will rate products and flag violations. “If a seller is claiming to have practices that aren’t true and they get called out, they first get a warning, and then they get taken off the site,” says Siegel.
Dealing with misleading referrals is nothing new to the pair — Rent.com (part of eBay) faced a similar challenge: Landlords would list properties on the site, but in order to avoid paying fees, wouldn’t tell the company when someone had rented. So rent.com offered a $100 rebate to consumers for telling them an apartment had been rented.
User feedback isn’t the only clue Evo uses. Their analytics detect deviations and suspicious behavior — for example, if a vendor who previously listed their country of origin as China deletes the country in order to hide the long shipping distance, Evo flags the change.
The company is taking steps to prevent sellers from gaming their algorithms in the way Search Engine Optimization tries to improve Google rankings. But Evo wants sellers to add environmental data to product descriptions, since it ultimately improves transparency and increases environmental awareness.
Evo also ranks members, and will eventually implement a system similar to the Karma scores of Digg and Slashdot, in which positive recommendations improve a reviewer’s credibility on the site. But like any community-based site, there are bound to be cases of abuse. “We’re already starting to see a company that says, ‘we don’t like products from this other company,’” observes Siegel. “It doesn’t take more than a click or two to find out they represent another company with a competing product.”
Evo makes its money from referral fees, just like any other affiliate. Siegel feels that smaller sites are happy to give him a piece of the revenue, because referral fees are a normal part of online business. But if a site isn’t participating in affiliate programs today, Evo just sends them the traffic for free. “We don’t have a ‘We’re free for six months’ window,” says Siegel. “Our intention is to work with the folks that don’t have an affiliate program in place.”
Down the road, if Evo becomes big enough, it might bypass the affiliate aggregators and offer its own affiliate system the way online giants like Amazon and Pricegrabber do. “It’s a question of getting to a certain scale,” says Siegel. “It’s a lot easier from a management perspective to have three points of data distribution.”