Before you join any affiliate program there are a number of questions that need to get answered Below is a list of 20 questions you should consider before affiliating with most merchants

If you can't find an answer on the merchant's site, phone or email them. If contact information isn't readily apparent on their Web site, don't waste more of your time on that merchant - find another program.

If you don't get a response within a reasonable time frame, say 24 to 48 hours, then pass on the program. They may be more responsive to their customers and current affiliates, but will you know? Discovering that they are LESS responsive when you have a real problem is a bigger problem still.

On the flip side, be sure that the answer to your question is NOT included in the affiliate package before contacting the program manager. They're busy people, and answering questions that have been covered elsewhere, wastes their time. That makes for a lousy first impression.

OK, let's review those questions.

1. Is the Company Reputable? Most merchants are reputable operators but just because someone has a Web site doesn't mean that they're legitimate and/or trustworthy.

Obviously, you don't have to ask Dell or eBayTM how long they've been in business. The concern here is about promoting an unknown merchant that may turn out to be a fly-by-night or dishonest operator.

A few years ago, I was robbed by just such an operator to the tune of more than $700! Despite sending many emails and leaving a number of telephone messages, I heard and received nothing in return.

I could have avoided that problem by doing just a little research.

Commission Junction posts the date that merchants join their affiliate network. When I see that the company has been associated with Commission Junction for a year or more, I feel confident that they are in business to do business. Furthermore, some networks require merchants to have funds on deposit to ensure that affiliates are paid what they are due.

Alternatively, check to see whether AssociatePrograms.com or Refer-it.com has reviewed the program. (I've noticed that a few of my 'problem' programs were NOT listed on either site. Lesson - check Allan's and Joe's directories FIRST!)

You can also search Overture to see how many 'sponsored listings' are returned for the product. If more than one listing is returned, the rest of the sites are probably affiliate sites. However, if only one listing is returned, the company may not permit affiliates to advertise their trademarked name. Regardless, please don't click on those links and incur unnecessary costs to the advertisers. What goes around, comes around.

Search Google for the site name. For example, if you want to promote 'HostRocket' (a web hosting company), do a search at Google for "HostRocket". Are thousands of results returned? Good! Now visit a number of sites that came up in the regular listings. Read the reviews and check for affiliate links on the site. Are the reviews positive and enthusiastic? You can also contact the webmaster of one of those sites and ask about their experience with the program.

2. Is there an Affiliate Agreement? Most affiliate programs have agreements in place, primarily to cover their butts. However, these agreements should also cover yours.

If the program you are considering doesn't have an agreement published on the site, move on. Without an agreement, it's much too easy for them to shaft you for money you've earned.

3. What are the Conditions of the Agreement? Affiliate agreements are usually lengthy and peppered with long-winded legalese. It doesn't matter. Read it completely and carefully or you could be in for a nasty surprise.

For example, let's say you invest several hundred dollars in PPC advertising to promote a particular product. In return, you earn a thousand or two from that program during the first month of promotion. It would very unpleasant to discover that the company only pays quarterly.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to invest several hundred or thousands of dollars to promote a company that won't invest five or ten bucks to write me a check every month.

If you end up in a serious dispute with a company, agreements are usually interpreted under the laws of the state, province or country in which the company is located. Disputes are usually resolved by binding arbitration in that same state, province or country.

Is it worth traveling from Rhode Island to California to argue over a couple hundred bucks? Probably not.

So, protect yourself against nasty surprises by reading affiliate agreements from top to bottom.

4. May I Terminate the Agreement? How? Most agreements contain a 'termination clause' that outlines the terms under which you or the company can end the affiliation.

In most cases either the affiliate or the company may choose to cancel an agreement at any time without written notice of cancellation to the other. As an affiliate, you'd simply take down your links and that would be that.

Do make sure that is the case, however.

Way back when affiliate programs were new, I was required to sign and return a paper agreement that bound me to a 2-year contract with a merchant. I felt uncomfortable agreeing to such a stipulation without proof that their product would convert well to sales, or that they would pay on time.

I should have trusted my intuition. The company, based in Tel Aviv, was excruciatingly slow to pay. I got sick of hearing 'the check is in the mail'. Furthermore, the checks never jibed with their own statistics reporting.

Frustrated with the situation, I removed all their links from my site and effectively ended our association, about a year before the agreement expired.

Fortunately, the company did not take me to task on this point, and it all came out in the wash eventually. After an inexcusable delay, they finally coughed up all that was owed to me.

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