skimlinks-logoIn “Managing Online Forums,” I wrote about a monetization idea that, to my knowledge, did not yet exist functionally. Basically, I believe that communities should be able to generate revenue from sales generated through their site, passively, if the merchant selling the product has an affiliate program.

I am speaking, primarily, of links included in posts. Of course, you can’t go into member posts and change their links to affiliate links. Besides editing posts in that manner being a no no, it’s also inefficient. So, the only solution would be an automated one, something that automatically includes an affiliate tag onto links out to qualifying sites, without discretion. In the book, I discussed something like this when working with Amazon.com.

While I was at South by Southwest Interactive in March, I met Joe Stepniewski, co-founder of Skimlinks. What is Skimlinks? Well, it’s basically the type of service that I had envisioned. It takes ordinary links on your website and turns them into an affiliate link, where applicable.

Their homepage shows this example: let’s say you were writing about a product from the Gap. You don’t need to mess around with any affiliate code or even apply to be a member of the Gap affiliate program – just post a link to the product like normal, just as if you were passing the link to a friend. With Skimlinks installed on your site, that link will automatically become an affiliate link.

Skimlinks keeps a portion of the revenue generated. But, their FAQ states that they are able to negotiate better affiliate rates than an individual affiliate would be able to get and, because of that, “you can earn up to 110%” of what you normally might.

One of the markets they are targeting pretty heavily is online forums, where people regularly link out to products related to the community’s subject. I’ve had the opportunity to test Skimlinks out on a couple of sites for around a month and I’m ready to talk about the pros and cons of the service, in my eyes.

Skimlinks is very easy to install. After you sign up and your sites have been approved, it’s as simple as adding a small snippet of code into the footer template of your forums. And that’s it. Automatically, all links on the community are screened, including links posted in the past. Instantly, you can be generating revenue from any product link posted on your forums, ever.

Which product links, exactly? Well, I can’t list them all, but as of writing, the service works with 5,752 merchants and 19 affiliate networks, including Commission Junction, LinkShare, Buy.at, TradeDoubler and more. Chances are, most major affiliates are here, including those in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and Australia.

One of my favorite things about the service is that the links are left untouched in the code. Meaning, to search engines, the links look the same as any other link. So, there is no hogging of search engine juice, for example. When someone posts a link to the Gap or to Amazon or to some other site, the site gets credit for the link with search engines. And when someone mouses over the link, they see the link without any affiliate tag or link in their browser status bar, as well.

So, then, how do you get credit? The code you add to your site is JavaScript and what it does is make it so that, when clicked, the link gets redirected through the redirectingat.com domain name, which is owned by Skimlinks. The redirection itself is OK, but probably the biggest downside is that it affects the link created by when you attempt to “Copy Shortcut.” When you do so, you receive the redirectingat.com link. This isn’t a huge deal – they have to redirect the link somehow, after all, but if you have a sensitive technical audience, this may cause you pause, understandably.

One feature that they will be making available soon, that will help with this, is the ability to redirect it through your domain name, rather than through redirectingat.com. This will no doubt ease concerns over the potential truthworthiness of links passed through a domain name that users will not be familiar with.

Another issue for some will be that all links, beyond internal ones, are screened in this manner. This means that even if a link is not going to generate you a commission, it is still redirected. And it’s not just links in posts, but also links to outside sites in your footer, for instance. Since it doesn’t affect SEO, it’s not a big deal, but I can see how it might be a very small annoyance for some, especially due to the “Copy Shortcut” issue.

However, the good news is that you can exclude certain links from filtering by using the rel=”noskim” attribute. So, for example a link formatted like the following would not be screened: <a rel=”noskim” href=”http://www.managingcommunities.com”>link text</a>.

The service seems to have been crafted with speed in mind as the redirection has always been really fast, in my experience, and I have not noticed any page slowdown, whatsoever, since I have installed the code.

Another feature they will be making available soon is their Skimbuzz forums widget, which is a vBulletin plugin that showcases what products members of a particular vBulletin are talking about. So, for example, if a member of your forums mentions a product, it’ll come up in this widget. They also have plans to make a plugin for Invision Power Board, but no plans for phpBB, which I suggested.

Skimlinks encourages disclosure in a great and highly visible way on their website and as a requirement of their program. They provide examples of how you should disclose your use of the service. This can take different forms and is probably more meaningful where you have some level of editorial integrity you will be concerned with, like a blog or some sort of publication, but it’s important to mention it somewhere on your forums, as well, such as your user guidelines or terms.

They offer detailed stats through their website, regarding the performance of your traffic, including the number of links clicked, the number of qualified affiliate program clicks that have been generated, any sales and how much you’ve made, divided by all sorts of time lines, by merchant and more.

When it comes to support, my experience has been solid. I’ve shared many conversations and suggestions with my account manager and he has always been helpful and responsive.

One nice final side benefit I’d like to point out is that if you are not able to meet the minimum requirements of an affiliate program or network – for example, you generate sales sporadically or you don’t have enough traffic – Skimlinks may be a great way for you to participate in programs that you as an individual were not able to get into. I wrote about this in detail on my personal blog.

In conclusion, Skimlinks is a highly interesting service and a service that would have to be well executed for it to actually work. And I believe they’ve done a great job. There are some areas I’d like to be improved or adjusted, but those things are, by and large, not overly important.

It’s something that I feel is a great solution on most (probably) types of communities. Right now, because of the “Copy Shortcut” issue and the obscure redirectingat.com domain name, I fear that it may not be best suited for hyper sensitive web professionals (like a web development community, for example), but for a community with more casual interests, it is definitely something I would consider and, at the very least, test out. It’s a nice way to receive credit for something that you realistically should receive some credit for, without adding additional advertisements or impacting the user experience in a negative way.