For the report, Edelman examined ads for online graphic design and printing shop VistaPrint and concluded that the company's affiliates use "trick marketing analytics." "VistaPrint's marketing partners are defrauding VistaPrint by claiming commissions on sales they actually did nothing to cause," alleges Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard.
Edelman said he conducted tests by navigating to VistaPrint on computers with adware programs. In some instances, the adware served him pop-ups for VistaPrint after he arranged to navigate there independently. In those cases, it appeared to Edelman that VistaPrint paid the affiliates who purchased adware-served ads for delivering a "lead" to VistaPrint.
VistaPrint did not return messages seeking comment.
But Zac Brandenberg, president and CEO of Hydra, one of the affiliate networks examined by Edelman, said the tactics mentioned in the report don't appear to violate any VistaPrint guidelines. "We are complying with the instructions we've been given," he said. "Maintaining the integrity of the advertisers' campaigns is very important to us."
Brandenberg added that VistaPrint allows affiliates to use adware, as long the adware providers don't deceptively install the pop-up serving software on users' computers.
While VistaPrint could impose conditions on the use of adware--such as not allowing affiliates to arrange to have ads appear when users have navigated to the site on their own--Brandenberg said VistaPrint had not banned that practice.
Separately, affiliate tactics have also recently come under scrutiny in a lawsuit brought by online auction site eBay. In August, eBay sued three affiliates for a type of marketing fraud known as "cookie stuffing," which involves causing eBay cookies to be placed on users' computers even though users hadn't clicked on eBay ads. That case is currently pending in federal district court in San Jose, C