Pinterest: Covert Affiliate Link Scheme Exposed

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Although nearly every start-up and fledgling company battles to find new ways to monetize its users, Pinterest appears to have been secretly capitalizing on its customer base through the use of affiliate links. The two year-old social network site, which allows users to “pin” photos, recipes, and products to a “virtual pin-board,” has quickly grown to millions of visitors per week and is one of the top traffic referral sources on the Internet.

According to a recent discovery, which was made public by digital marketer and blogger Josh Davis, Pinterest is modifying links to ecommerce sites to include their own affiliate tracking links. Now, when a Pinterest user clicks through a “pin” on Pinterest and makes a purchase at an ecommerce site, Pinterest receives a percentage of the sale. Pinterest has been using the skimlinks service, which automatically adds affiliate links to any products that may be associated with an affiliate program, to quietly modify the links.

Davis said the following of the automatic affiliate link-swapping in his post:

“I, like many people, don’t have a problem with Pinterest making money off of user content. The links are modified seamlessly so it doesn’t affect the experience. Pinterest likely should disclose this practice to users even if they aren’t required to do so by law, if only to maintain trust with their users.”

Even though the majority of Pinterest users will not have a problem with the rapidly growing site making money off of affiliate links, it is a questionable decision from both a business and ethical standpoint to not disclose this fact to Pinterest users. If Pinterest wants to regain the trust of its users, they should fully disclose the details of the affiliate program and issue a statement as soon as possible.

[Sources Include: & NY Times]

David Angotti

David Angotti

After successfully founding and exiting an educational startup in 2009, I began helping companies with business development, search engine marketing (SEM), search engine optimization (SEO),... Read Full Bio
David Angotti
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  • Daniel

    Fair play to them I say. They offer a good service so why shouldn’t they make a bit of money from us? Better than charging for the service really isn’t it.

  • Peter

    Why that’s brilliant. Good luck regulating that trick- but duplicating won’t be too hard.

    that’s a tough thing to regulate
    an easy trick to duplicate
    In our World of slick and tricky
    this one is sure to be sticky.

  • LGR

    Should they tell people, sure, but honestly your title makes it sound like some big cover up. Not to mention the fact that the affiliate links can be changed back by users if it happens.

    Perhaps they should be congratulated for having a way of making money from the start.

    • David Angotti

      Thanks for reading — I definitely was not trying to mislead people with the title. I thought the title accurately reflected the fact that a prominent blogger recently uncovered the fact that Pinterest was swapping affiliate links for users’ links and never disclosed this fact. My main problem, as stated towards the end of the article, was that Pinterest did not disclose they were altering the links.

      • nickycakes

        It’s their website. What’s wrong with them using affiliate links? Websites aren’t free, and they need to make money.

      • Grafton

        “My main problem, as stated towards the end of the article…”

        And we’ve come to the root of the problem.

  • Vijay

    Pretty neat.. they have been making money since start where as Twitter is still struggling to meet the ends.

  • Tricia Meyer

    I’ve been reading about and commenting on this issue all morning (

  • Greg Longmuir

    I am sorry, I don’t see the news in this. A website that is making money without degrading the user experience seems smart to me. As long as the “Pins” are user generated (this is important) and not “Planted” by Pinterest I say good for them. This just seems to be a very shallow bit of news.

  • Alicia Navarro

    Hi David,

    I do think in fairness your title was a bit sensationality. Skimlinks has been around for almost 4 years and are used by 20,000 sites, many of them very well-known and respected sites. There is nothing ‘covert’ about what we do, and neither is what we offer a ‘scheme’, but a popular monetization technology that helps more sites earn money from affiliate marketing. We think this is pretty wonderful 🙂

    And Pinterest in fact *did* disclose – read their T&Cs where they clearly state they have the right to modify or alter text or content added by the user. They are not ‘swapping’ links, they use Skimlinks to rewrite the links into their affiliate equivalent on-click. All very above-board, respectable and well-liked. A two minute poll on anyone in the industry will confirm we are well-liked and completely legitimate.

    Of course, the buzz such a title creates is great, but it does feel a bit sensationalist. Happy for you to talk to any of my team to find out more.

    Alicia Navarro
    CEO – Skimlinks

    • David Angotti

      Hi Alicia,

      Thank you for your response. The title “Covert Affiliate Scheme” was in no way meant to refer to Skimlinks — rather it was referencing the lack of transparency and disclosure on the part of Pinterest. From the research I conducted, I understand that Pinterest is your most valuable customer. I completely understand that you offer a valuable service and I appreciate you weighing in on this issue.

      I did not intend for the article to downplay the value of Skimlinks and that is the precise reason the following piece of information was included in the article:

      “Even though the majority of Pinterest users will not have a problem with the rapidly growing site making money off of affiliate links, it is a questionable decision from both a business and ethical standpoint to not disclose this fact to Pinterest users.”

      It seems like a bit of semantics to say that Pinterest is not “swapping links” when you acknowledge that the user’s link is being rewritten on-click. I guess it would have been more accurate to say they are swapping the user’s URL for an affiliate URL on-click that routes the user to the exact same page and simulaneously produces a revenue stream for Pinterest. Would have this terminology been acceptable to you?

      With regards to the Pinterest Terms & Conditions, I understand that the language of the T&C is somewhat open-ended and could be interpreted to allow affiliate links. However, a large number of people agree that this was not enough of a disclosure or at a minimum not fully transparent.

      Thanks again for reading and your comment! I wish you and the team at Skimlinks the best.

      • Alicia Navarro

        Hey David,

        Semantics matter – the tone suggests Pinterest is being underhanded using a dodgy scheme, when neither is the case.
        My point about disclosure is that while it is best practise and encouraged, can you say that even a majority of publishers that use affiliate marketing or any type of advertising are disclosing as well as they could? I don’t think this is a big deal, if they were a smaller site, this wouldn’t be an issue. We have tens of thousands of publishers who use Skimlinks, and while we actively encourage disclosure, a majority have chosen not to do so as brazenly as they could. Think about every price comparison, every coupon code site, every blog… have they all disclosed perfectly?
        I just think in the spectrum of big deals, this is very far towards the ‘small’ end of the scale. Their service is loved, beautiful, unintrusive… this should be celebrated more than a minor imperfection. Just my view, and of course, it is tainted, as I run Skimlinks. 🙂


  • Dwayne Thompson

    This is disturbing news. What was the danger of notifying users? I like many don’t care they make money in this fashion. I do care about upfront honesty.

  • Christina Gleason @ Phenomenal Content

    Now that the FTC requires websites to disclose affiliate links and other forms of compensation, Pinterest would behoove itself to overtly disclose their use of SkimLinks.

  • Sarah Carling

    I am beginning to think I am the only person who read the terms when this broke this morning. I don’t see why they would have to do anything other than declare, in their terms, that they have the right to sell and exploit what you pin. Further to that they aren’t breaking FTC guidelines as they are not endorsing the products. This is a case of one person reacting without doing their research and everyone jumping on the bandwagon. What’s more no one even seems to have a problem with it.

    I really hope this story dies by tomorrow as it should.

  • Jeff Ferguson

    Not really “covert” is it? I mean, they weren’t really trying to hide it and it’s not illegal or immoral to make money off your own site. Saying its bad for Pinterest to make money off the stuff you post, for free, on their site, is like saying it’s bad for Facebook to serve ads against your postings there.

    This is a non-issue…

  • tre2215

    Hey David,

    With all due respect , I think you completely missed the mark on this story, and I am a big fan of your columns. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a startup of ten people ( 8 entrepanuers and 2 very big investment ) that they must disclose how there making there money. On top of it all they actually do let you know about there affiliate links.

    If everyone was smart we would all start up our own websites and find out the million difffrent ways to monetize it. I think the world would be much happier !! Cheers mate look forward to the next article !


  • Anthony Pensabene

    David – read your column regularly; there were no trespasses committed here from my perspective…write on, writer. Alicia Navarro mentions, “Pinterest in fact *did* disclose – read their T&Cs where they clearly state they have the right to modify or alter text or content added by the user.” Fair enough, but as Danny Sullivan called to attention recently regarding Google privacy policies (

  • Nathan

    There is nothing wrong with Pinterest rewriting links to monetize their service. It makes no difference to the people making purchases, and doesn’t affect the service in any way. Would you rather see “sponsored pins” or “featured boards”? Didn’t think so. More power to them!

  • Jeff Downer Indianapolis, IN

    I think the TOC was more than clear, going as far as to use the term “exploit” when describing how the user’s content may be utilized.

  • Jian

    Live and let live, some wise man said that.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with pinterest monetizing this way. A company needs to get revenue/profit, otherwise, how it could better serve the community?

    I think the title of this article is mis-leading and casts a perception that pinterest did something illegal/wrong. When in fact, if you look at any startups, the survival rate is extremely low and it is hard, very hard to do a business from the onstart. So, I suggest the author look at the other side of the fence also.