It seems that companies like to wear many different hats these days in affiliate marketing. They are an affiliate network, an affiliate, a SEO company, an OPM company, etc. Sometimes, this situation can lead to a complimentary of services available through one company. It also opens the door to potential conflicts of interest. Of course not all companies will exploit those conflicts of interest. But there will also be those companies who are more than willing to take advantage for their own financial gain. When companies exploit conflicts of interest for their own financial gain, the picture can become quite ugly. Case in point…..
What I’m about to lay out is probably going to seem convoluted and twisted (the redundancy is intentional). Just stick with me because it is convoluted and twisted.
Axill is a global CPA Network with divisions in the US, UK, India and it appears on the threshold of launching in China. Specifically, they are a sub-affiliate CPA Network. This means they are also an affiliate themselves. Axill operates as an affiliate in two ways. They promote merchant/advertiser offer’s directly themselves. They also promote merchant/advertiser offers through the Axill Network with Axill affiliates becoming subaffiliates promoting the offers.
Subaffiliate CPA Networks are not in short supply these days. So how does Axill differentiate themselves from all the other CPA Networks? Axill offers daily payouts. This is quite a carrot for many affiliates and publishers. And a company that is able to financially sustain daily payouts must be reputable right? And Axill is not exactly low profile in the Industry. They participate and advertise at many Industry events and resources, including being an AdTech Bronze Sponsor in the past (confirmed on the AdTech web site page 8 of the pdf).
All seems well and good on the surface at the causal glance. However, if you start digging just a little bit into Axill’s business, a completely different picture soon emerges. As with many online advertising companies these days, Axill owns several different companies under just as many different names. I’m not going to go into all of them here, only those few that are particularly relevant to this post. First we have OwlForce which appears to be a search portal. In reality, this site is also used as a front for adware. We’ll come back to that in a moment. You won’t find a direct path that the same people who own Owlforce also own Axill. I imagine there is a good reason for that. But the connection can be made. The Whois for OwlForce is shown as registered in India to Avilash Chowdhary. This is the same Whois information as Beautyscreens.com.
The IP location of both of these sites is United Kingdom Axill Europe. The IP addresses are also within the same Net Block as many other web sites owned by Axill. Axill also lists BeautyScreens as an “Exclusive Partner” on the Axill web site. Indeed all of the “Exclusive Partners” listed are properties owned by Axill.
BeautyScreens.com is a free screensaver web site. I am NOT linking to the site intentionally for reasons that should become obvious in a moment. I found no EULA or TOS on the BeautyScreens web site. I did find a link to RemovalTool.exe on the site if you want to dismiss the Joke of the Day that is installed with your screensaver. I installed one of the screensavers from their site to see what happens. You can see the video of the installation here. Here’s what happens in the video. First I run a HiJackThis scan showing there isn’t anything installed on my system that shouldn’t be there. In other word, I’m starting with a clean system. Next I go to the BeautyScreens web site and click “Download” for one of the screensavers. Next, I run the Rain.exe file for the my screensaver. A couple of seconds pass as the installation is happening and then you will see the Display control dialogue box pop up as the screensaver is installed. I’ll Preview the screensaver so you can see the really COOL screensaver I just installed for free. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Finally I’ll run a second HiJackThis scan where you will see I now have a BHO (Browser Helper Object) installed on my computer, the ofb1.dll. This is the Owlforce Adware application. And once I had my lovely new BHO on my computer, I began receiving call outs to the Owlforce.com domain (hence the name by security companies). For the non-techies and in layman’s terms, this is what is called a very naughty installation of adware. In fact, it is the very type of installation that could make the FTC and/or some Attorney General come knocking on your door. And it’s the very type of installation that could have the FTC or some Attorney General coming knocking on your door if your a Merchant showing through the adware. But Axill doesn’t stop with Owlforce being installed through BeautyScreens. Oh no. It also comes bundled with their Globe7 software. Globe7 is free VOIP software which is also a social network. You can also stream video through the software (although that feature never worked for me) and IM your friends through the software (I didn’t subject any of my friends to this so I don’t know how well that works). Now they were at least mentioning Owlforce in the Globe7 EULA. It was way at the bottom of the EULA and I don’t personally feel it is an accurate representation of OwlForce, but it was there. It was there last month in July. I’m seeing today as I make this post, it is no longer there. Welcome to the world of adware. They stated:
4. Search Results Your Globe7 phone comes to You with a unique search engine component, OWLFORCE, which works parallel with the other search engine when the user uses popular search engines available on the net. It will help users’ browsing experience. When the user use any web-search engine, OWL FORCE gets automatically activated, without any attempt or interference or involvement of the user, and may open a website which fits best to the word/phrase that is being searched in a separate browser page. Though efforts have been made to give You the best resultant website using the OWLFORCE, it is possible that You may not find that resultant website suitable to the word/phrase that is being searched by You. You therefore hereby accept that You would not claim to be aggrieved by such activation of the OWLFORCE in opening such a website and that You would not claim for any damages, consequential damages, compensation or indemnification from the Company for automatic opening of such a website in a separate browser page.
That does have to be one of most amusing clauses I’ve seen in a EULA in a good while. Consumers have no rights to be “aggrieved” if they don’t like web site in the pop-up. Okey dokey, moving right along. So what does the OwlForce BHO really do? It’s a browser redirector. It will take certain traffic (aka URL) called by the browser and replace it with a different URL. The URLs which trigger the redirect are Merchant’s URLs with whom Axill is an affiliate. The replacement URL is their affiliate link to the Merchant. This results in their affiliate link being automatically set (a forced click) and if a purchase is made, Axill will receive the commission. How does this look to the end user? Well here is a video of OwlForce in action. Here’s what happens in the video. You’ll need to watch closely and possibly use the pause button to catch it. I type the URL for ecampus directly into the browser address bar. You’ll see the cursor change to the hourglass as the page is loading. If you watch the status bar (bottom of the browser window closely and hit pause when you see some text show there), you will see status message saying “Opening page http://www.axillsearch.com/redirect.php?….” The OwlForce BHO has activated and it has redirected the traffic from eCampus to a php script on axillsearch.com. AxillSearch.com is owned by Axill. Surprise! The redirect script on AxillSearch in turn redirects to their CJ affiliate link for eCampus. You’ll finally see the eCampus web site load with both an AID and PID in the URL because they have just “received” affiliate traffic through CJ to their site. You will also notice the CJ cookies appearing in the cookie folder. My network logs show that call first went out to the OwlForce.com servers, then to the AxillSeach.com servers. In fact, calls were going out to the OwlForce servers posting back the URL of all web sites I visited. This type of behavior typically falls into the classification of spyware which tracks end-user’s surfing.
Now all of this is very naughty affiliate behavior. And since OwlForce is a .dll file, it won’t show in TaskManager as a running exe file. Along with the redirects happening quickly in the same browser window, the software may go undetected longer by end users. But Axill doesn’t seem to be satisfied with all of the deception outlined so far. They take it a step further.
You see they run Globe7 as an advertiser on Axill. And possibly BeautyScreens as well. Yes, they are the gall to actually have their own affiliates promote their own adware which automatically sets their own affiliate tracking links. Greed to the extreme. They have their own affiliates promote their very iffy software with very questionable installation tactics. Software which could very well be interfering with other Networks and Merchant’s their affiliate’s promote. Not to mention, just other affiliates in general. If you are an affiliate who does not promote what is typcially considered CPA Network offers and think you are not potentially impacted by this, think again. Check out who they are saying are their Partners. Although I suspect that some of those partners listed have no idea what all Axill is up to. This all seems like quite a trade-off to me for those daily payouts.
Bottom line, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t fall for the marketing spin, know your partners. Both the Axill name and logo have always reminded me of some prescribed medication for allegeries or something (I laid that off to all my years in healthcare). Now I’m thinking that the name may be more appropriate than I first realized. This type of “marketing” by Axill is what I consider to be the armpit of internet marketing. This type of business model should not be accepted nor supported in any way by our Industry. It’s a blackeye to affiliate marketing as a profession and a legitimate marketing channel.