The overwhelming majority of so-called ‘online pharmacies’ on the internet are not pharmacies at all, but independent websites run by affiliates. This page answers some common questions about pharmacy affiliate sites and explains how you can learn to recognize pharmacy affiliate sites and identify what value they (or can’t!) offer.
What is an Affiliate Scheme?
Affiliate programmes have become one of the most popular marketing vehicles on the internet and are now in use by all kinds of businesses — by computer manufacturers (Dell, Apple), by supermarkets (Tesco), by jewellers (Blue Nile), and of course by the granddaddy of affiliate schemes, Amazon. The underlying idea of an affiliate programme is very simple: a webmaster provides a link which ultimately allows a potential customer to make a purchase from a merchant, and in return the merchant offers some kind of financial reward to the webmaster who provided the link. (Actually, the arrangement needn’t necessarily involve a website: some affiliates provide merchant links via email lists or occasional even paper mailing lists.)
Why Are There So Many Pharmacy Affiliate Sites?
With thousands upon thousands of so-called ‘online pharmacies’ out there, it might surprise you to know that there are probably far fewer than 100 actual, bona fide, legitimate pharmacies actually providing medications over the internet. The vast majority of sites which appear at first glance to be the electronic shopfronts of normal pharmacies are not pharmacies at all, but simply independent affiliate websites operated by marketers who get paid for referring business to the real pharmacies.
The real reason why there are so many pharmacy affiliate sites out there is that, as explained on our page on the discount drug controversy, the pharmaceutical business is extremely profitable.
What Kinds of Affiliate Sites Are There?
Pharmacy affiliate sites fall into two general categories:
- Informational websites
- These sites provide information (e.g., information about drugs), together with links to the actual merchants who sell products. Some of these sites provide elaborate price comparison engines which allow visitors to see the selling prices at many different merchants, with the affiliate being paid when the visitor clicks thru to a merchant site and makes a purchase. (Many people are unaware that the popular price comparison service Kelkoo is in fact a giant affiliate site: all links to buy products from the service are actually affiliate links.)
- Set-your-own-price websites
- This other type of affiliate site may provide information, or price comparisons, but they also have an important difference: the affiliate is actually able to set the prices on the products being sold by the merchant. Rather than simply referring a percentage fee of the merchant’s normal price, the affiliate receives the difference between the price they have set and a minimum price set by the merchant.
In addition, there are of course many sites which are dedicated to another purpose, but which include a few affiliate links here and there. Our main site, for example, includes affiliate links to Amazon for many of the books included in our Annotated Bibliography.
How Can I Identify Affiliate Sites?
If you’d like to know whether a site is an affiliate site, or whether a link is an affiliate link, there are a few things you can watch for.
If you’d like to know whether an entire site is an affiliate site, the first thing to do is to click on a ‘buy’ link and see where it takes you: if it goes to an entirely new, self-contained site, then the site you came from is very likely just supplying affiliate links. If, on the other hand, the ‘buy’ link takes you to a specialized payment processing site, you often won’t be able to tell for sure what the relationship is between the site you were visiting and the payment site. In that case, one technique that often proves useful is to return to the original site and check the phone number provided in the site’s contact details; then do a quick Google search on that phone number. If your search turns up many different sites, all using the same phone number, then you are likely dealing with an affiliate site. (Of course, it’s also possible that you are dealing directly with the ‘real’ merchant at the top of the chain. A quick check of WHOIS data, explained in our main site’s section on market intelligence tools, can sometimes help you find out.)
Apart from checking where ‘buy’ links lead, you can also check the structure of the actual link you have followed to reach a site. An affiliate link will usually include some type of tracking parameter which lets the merchant know that a given click has come from a particular affiliate. Often these will look something like:
In this case, the number following ‘affiliateID’ lets the merchant know where the link came from. Of course, the tracking parameter might be named something else entirely, such as ‘referrer’, or ‘AID’. Beware that parameters are passed via URLs for all kinds of purposes, so the mere appearance of a parameter in a URL does not in any way mean that a given link is an affiliate link!
Other affiliate links pass through a separate domain belonging to a company which offers affiliate program tracking tools or a company which runs an entire affiliate network; you can identify these links by their domains, some of which include:
When clicking on these types of links, you will be sent through servers run by the affiliate company, before then being redirected through to the actual merchant site.
If Affiliate Sites Don’t Actually Sell Anything, What Good Are They?
So, the question remains: should you buy anything via affiliate sites, or through affiliate links? If affiliates aren’t actually selling anything, what good are they?
I believe there is a very straightforward answer: if the affiliate site or affiliate link is providing some value to you, then why not use it? For example, if the link is on a price comparison site which has helped you to identify the cheapest price for the medication you are looking for, why not use it? Likewise, if a set-your-own-price affiliate site has set its prices to be particularly low, why not take advantage of those low prices? You’ll still be dealing with the same end merchant supplying your product, but you may be able to get something for your trouble (just as the affiliate is getting something for his or her effort).
On the other hand, if an affiliate site or affiliate link has been forced on you via spam, or you have wound up at an affiliate site through some misleading redirect, spyware, or other technical trickery, then personally I hope you’ll ignore it completely — or report it to the appropriate service provider!
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Site Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by