Exclusive - Which? takes payments for promoting Best Buy products

16 September 2009

Which?, the long-established consumer champion has admitted to Bitterwallet that it accepts pay-per-click advertising on its website, allowing companies to increase the visibility of their products above others.

While the reviews of the products themselves are not in question, the fact that Which? is profiting by promoting them to consumers is surely a concern for an organisation famous for the edict "no advertising, no bias, no hidden agenda".

Most product reviews on the Which website are hidden behind a pay-wall; Which? is famous for solely generating income through subscriptions to maintain editorial independence. However, there are several instances where users can access Best Buy information - those products and services that Which? recommends above all others. Plenty can be found within the Money section of the Which? reviews; in some sections (such as the car insurance section), the information is presented in a plain text grid:

Bitterwallet - Which car insurance grid

Click on some and the associated URL re-directs straight to the company's website. However, others will re-direct you through an affiliate link, such as this link for Hastings Direct:

Bitterwallet - Which quote for Hastings car insurance

The same is true of Best Buy recommendations in other sections, such as the URL for American Express in Which's list of recommended cashback credit cards:

Bitterwallet - Which? American Express affiliate link

Furthermore, there are Best Buy recommendations where certain products have the company logo displayed beside them, such as the section on Personal Loans:

Bitterwallet - Which? personal loan best buys

There is no doubt that those deals with a logo are far more prominent than those without. So why do some Best Buy recommendations display a logo while others don't? It seems Which? are showing bias towards particular products without explaining why.

Clicking on the "Go To Site" button of all the deals without a logo, and you'll be directed straight to the company website in question. But visit the site of all those companies with a logo displayed, and you'll be directed through a series of third party URLs that track your progress.

For example, the link for Alliance & Leicester initially forwards to:

http://www.alliance-leicester.co.uk/loans/index.aspx?urlgen=y&exp=30&cm_mmc=int_invpt-_-ptr-_-ec01097000276991al_loans-_-app3

Which then forwards to:

http://cg1.maxymiser.com/CG2/?fv=dbg%3D0%3Bdmn%3Dalliance-leicester.co.uk%3Bcok%3D1%3Bref%3Dhttp%253A//www.which.co.uk/reviews-ns/personal-loans/best-buys/index.jsp%3Burl%3Dhttp%253A//www.alliance-leicester.co.uk/loans/index.aspx%253Furlgen%253Dy%2526exp%253D30%2526cm_mmc%253Dint_invpt-_-ptr-_-ec01097000276991al_loans-_-app3%3Bscrw%3D1280%3Bscrh%3D800%3Bclrd%3D24%3B&cv=LMb_1%3D%3BLMb_2%3D%3BLMb_3%3D%3BLMb_e%3D%3B&jsver=4.0&ri=1

And is finally resolved as:

http://www.alliance-leicester.co.uk/WebResource.axd?d=1pb0XaGoyb6wKtHmTrhRyA2&t=633493707888503454

Alliance & Leicester are a client of Maxymiser.com - a company that specialises in conversion management - they ensure that a client's marketing campaign delivers the best possible results for their spend. The natural conclusion is that companies are paying Which? to display their logo, thereby increasing their product's visibility.

We couldn't find any literature on the Which? website that explains the nature of these URLs or why some products receive undue prominence, so we told the press office of our findings and asked for an explanation. A spokesperson told us:

"Which? includes links on its website to help consumers by making their online product search as easy as possible.

"Any company with their logo next to their name in these tables pays us a small admin fee each time a customer clicks on the corresponding "Go to site" link.

"These payments do not influence where a product appears in the table or whether the product will remain in our tables going forward. Our Best Buy tables are compiled by our independent researchers. The only way for companies to appear in these tables is to offer the very best products on the market that meet our stringent Best Buy criteria.

"As a not-for-profit organisation, all revenue raised from these tables is reinvested in our research and campaigning work on behalf of all UK consumers."

What Which? refers to as an "admin fee" everyone else will recognise as the very definition of pay-per-click advertising. Where a product is placed in the table, or whether it'll still be there in the coming months isn't the issue. While operating under the code of "no advertising, no bias, no hidden agenda", Which? is being paid to promote particular products without telling the consumer why they are doing it.

TOPICS:   Advertising

18 comments

  • Michael
    It's hardly a surprising revelation to be honest. Martin Lewis' "ad free" site is stuffed with affiliate links. Admittedly, he's upfront about this but I don't buy the line that is doesn't affect his editorial content. He champions cash-back sites by claiming "some [affiliates] cream a commission from the sale" as if they are some sort of nasty middle-man. Errm, sorry Martin, isn't that what you do?
    • Andy D.
      Fine. Just don't take 'admin fees' from certain companies whose logos you feature while you've got 'No advertising, no bias, no hidden agenda' plastered across the top of your website. As for Martin Lewis, don't get us started.... that's another story for another time.
  • Nobby
    Which have had affiliate links to other sites on their site for years. As a member, if you click on the compare prices for a particular product, it will send you to a page full of affiliate links. Sometimes, the prices are not even correct.
  • james d.
    Ah which and their controversy, I found it amusing when they criticised tesco internet staff when the very same staff provide support for their premium rate Which Online technical support service.
  • goon
    scum i'll never use which again hang on. i dont use them the money grabbing twats bonus
  • Mark (.
    @ Andy Does that story start with the line "Martin Lewis is a cunt" ?
  • Mark S.
    Paul, Thanks for the article, totally agree with your sentiment. I am the Founder and Managing Director of Maxymiser and just wanted to clear up the piece around us. You are correct in that we make sure our clients marketing campaigns deliver the best possible result for their spend, we do so through managing and improving our clients website conversion rate so results are seen across all marketing spend. We don’t get involved with the traffic driving part of the site, so advertising in places like Which? is not our bag. The code you picked up is related to Multivariate testing on the Alliance and Leicester landing page in order to improve the usability and results delivered by it. I hope that helps. Again, I completely agree with your article. Certainly the average consumer thinks of Which? as impartial. Regards Mark Simpson
  • Carrie B.
    Clicking on links to deals on HUKDs leaves cookies on your PC some asociated with malicious software. Peraffiliate cookies are common presumably that is posters being paid to share honest tips, emjcd.com which Google lists as acting as an intermediary for malicious software, tons of ad tracking software expring in 2014. By comparison I;d say Which' site is safe.
  • HamMan
    i'd say you missed the point of the article. its not about if it's safe to click on the Which's affiliate links, it's what are they doing on there in the first place, and why are there paid advertis that Which don't tell anyone about.... making them complete hypocrites? that's the point isn't it?
  • artpizzey
    @andy Ed Mayo CEO of Consumer Focus on his blog says moneysavingexpert is 'wonderful' Why does the head of the leading consumer organisation think he is wonderful if he is a cunt. You can't both be right?
    • Andy D.
      @artpizzey - point out the part where I said Lewis is 'a cunt' and I'll explain it further. You can't? Oh, okay then.
  • artpizzey
    @andy Sorry that was suggested as what you might think, but seriously, this guy is described as a saviour by Consumer Focus and you did post suggesting that's not how you regard his advice, it would be useful to have some explanation as I said both can't be right.
  • Marcus S.
    He is a cunt, but then so are the HUKD owners. cunts the lot of them!
  • Which? B.
    [...] not, depending on whether you’ve got a crippling addiction to Calpol or not) we called out consumer champions Which? for accepting pay-per-click advertising on its website, allowing companies to increase the visibility of their products above others, while [...]
  • Which B.
    [...] blood after we discovered the ‘“no advertising, no bias, no hidden agenda” organisation promoting specific products in return for pay-per-click advertising. Perhaps they think we’re a bunch of feckless halfwits. They’d be certainly be correct [...]
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