Mattress review sites are a nightmare of affiliate links and court battles

Fast Company’s David Zax has written a fascinating account of the industry of mattress review sites that have sprung up. They’ve been sustained by the new breed of mattress startups that deliver mattresses-in-a-box to your home for much less than the traditional businesses. 

It’s clear that many of these sites, while aping the form of journalistic review operations, are essentially SEO-driven affiliate marketing enterprises – and that’s led to corporate skirmishes over content on them. After the prolific podcast sponsor Casper suspended its affiliate scheme, whereby reviewers were paid for traffic they referred to Casper that converted into sales, they started suing some review sites that carried negative reviews

Mattress Nerd and Sleep Sherpa quickly settled their cases, and suddenly their negative Casper reviews disappeared from their sites, in what many onlookers speculated was a condition of the settlements. But by the end of 2016, when I started closely studying the lawsuits, Derek’s Casper review remained, defiantly, up on Sleepopolis. He was soldiering on in his legal battle with the mattress giant. People who knew him called Derek a fighter; one of his nicknames was “Halestorm.”

Casper had another way of referring to him. Derek was “part of a surreptitious economy of affiliate scam operators who have become the online versions of the same commission-hungry mattress salesmen that online mattress shoppers have sought to avoid,” Casper’s lawsuit alleged.

The twist ending is quite something…

What’s interesting to me is that everyone I know who has used a Caspar mattress has been more than happy with them. I’m not sure that Casper really needs these sites to build a good business. What it’s more concerning is that if a business is solely built on affiliate links in a single sector, the sorts of blackmail that Casper alleged is perfectly feasible. In that context, the New York Times’s purchase of the Wirecutter – an affiliate-based business that has a more open and broad-based business model – seems like both a smart commercial move, and a good one for review journalism generally. 

It feels like there’s a business opportunity to do something here with journalistic integrity and commercial sustainability.