I’ve made numerous sales online as an affiliate marketer promoting products I don’t own and in this article, I’ll be showing you ethical ways to write reviews for those products you don’t have, while maintaining honesty and integrity.
I have had tutorials on this site making a few quick points about ways to do this, but today’s article is really going to hone in on this specific branch of the subject of writing product reviews and show how to properly bank on writing ones for products you don’t own.
8 steps to writing ethical affiliate product reviews when you don’t own them:
- Start with a great title and description for the product review.
- Include a disclaimer that says you don’t own the product.
- After that disclaimer, say you know about the product you’re reviewing.
- Provide proof you know about the product and subject.
- Summarize the product, give pros and cons and rate it.
- Recommend it or don’t and recommend something better.
- Publish the review, let it amass traffic and see how it does.
- If it works, create more product reviews following this template. If not, make changes/adjustments.
This is the product review template I have used for years and further below, I will be showing you specific examples of mine where I reviewed products and programs I didn’t own.
You’ll be able to see how I followed along with the steps of this tutorial, so that you can see how I practice it personally.
I strongly recommend reading this entire tutorial and especially the detailed steps because there’s so much context I couldn’t squeeze into the above summary that will make a major difference in your results!
Here’s a quick and important story that pertains to the topic of this article:
If I were to estimate how many product reviews I’ve written over my years in affiliate marketing, it has to be anywhere from 700 to over 1,000. And if you were to ask me, how many of those products that I reviewed, I bought, I’d tell you it’s about 50% of them.
As for the other 50% of products I’ve reviewed that I didn’t buy, despite making sales for many of them, I have been criticized (sometimes heavily) by more than one person for doing this and the critics all pretty much say the same thing (You probably may have had this happen too) and it goes something like this:
“How can you review a product (positively/negatively) when you didn’t buy it?”
And I have to say, this is a very fair argument that is hard to dispute.
After all, the best written affiliate product reviews are those that involve people actually owning the product they are reviewing, and I will never tell you that this is not the case.
In fact, since a huge chunk of affiliate marketing success that I and many others have, comes from writing product reviews and doing video reviews of them on YouTube, I always tell those that I teach this stuff to, that YES, you should IDEALLY own the product you are reviewing because that adds so much more odds that you’ll be able to have those who read or watch your reviews trust you.
See more information on doing video product reviews here if you’d like to try that.
But logistically speaking, buying every product you review is nearly impossible.
- Unless you have a company paying you to write reviews and purchasing the product for you to test.
- Or you have a company personally send you the product they want you to review, also to test.
You’re pretty much stuck having to pay for it all yourself.
And if you take low cost items, and start adding up the costs of buying everything you’re going to review, that adds up. And that is certainly an even bigger case when you start to review high ticket products. So if you’re willing to spend money all that money, your cost of doing affiliate marketing is going to explode.
Both scenarios can empty out your wallet very quickly.
And that’s the position I and so many affiliate marketers and regular product reviewers who don’t practice affiliate marketing are stuck in (but I’ll show you how to ethically and financially benefit from this seemingly disadvantageous spot shortly).
3 examples of how buying every product you review is a financial disaster:
These examples are from a context where you are the sole buyer of the product and aren’t being sponsored in anyway to review them:
Example 1: My $1,200 laptop.
It’s called an Acer Predator and since I own it, I can certainly write a great review on it. But if I want to expand on this and start reviewing other similar laptops, all within the same kind of price range, I’d quickly go bankrupt.
I just don’t have the finances to go out and buy 5, 10 or more expensive laptops (That would cost me $10,000+). And in general:
- I’m never going to use them all.
- Since I’m already happy with my current one, I really don’t need to buy more of these.
Example 2: My $300+ hyperrice hypervolt:
This is a product I purchased that helps with muscle aches. It’s a very helpful tool that I’ve used for months and there is an entire niche of these products that are used across gyms and physical and occupational therapy centers.
In other words, it’s a popular product and niche.
But most of these products also cost $100’s. And just like with the laptop example, if I’m already happy with my 1 product, do I really need to waste money and buy the others?
Example 3: My 5 drones ($5,000+ investment).
This is a different example than the previous ones, because it is the only one of the 3 where I own more than 1 of the same type of product (drones).
I review and promote drones on another site I run and I’ve made sales on that page from promoting the same models I own to even ones that I do not.
But few people can spend money on 1 of the many expensive drones out there, let alone 5 and considering there’s already 100’s of them on the market (and growing), my wallet can’t keep up with this.
So for me, buying every single drone I’m going to be reviewing would be ineffective. And these 3 examples would make you think:
“Well why don’t you just write 1 product review and make money that way Vitaliy?”
And this is a great question, but it has 3 major points that give you a clear picture of why this is a bad idea:
Major Point 1: The volume of reviews you write matters a lot (more = better):
Anyone who makes a little or good money off writing product reviews will tell you that 1 review of a product is likely NOT going to make you a lot.
There are rare circumstances when it will (and you have to know advanced internet marketing for that to work), but I would never tell you to rely on that belief and in most cases, the more product reviews you create, the more money you will make, especially when it comes to affiliate marketing. This is why I have so many of them in my resume.
So in other words, if you want to make more money (affiliate marketing or not) in this business, write more product reviews.
Major Point 2: Reviewing products within a particular niche is what you want to focus on.
People who aren’t getting paid to review random products are better off creating a blog that focuses on reviewing products within a specific niche topic (here are 10 affiliate niche examples).
It is better because you can build up your credibility in a particular topic and it’s a great way to grow an affiliate marketing business and be known as a legitimate product reviewer who knows their stuff.
- So if I were building a site on expensive gaming laptops, I’d only want to review gaming laptops (accessories for them too).
- If I were building a site on that product that is good for muscles, I’d only want to review those types of products.
- If I were (and I am) building a site on drones, I’d only want to review drone models and their access.
- If I were (and I am) building a site on affiliate marketing and reviewing products that teach it, I want people to know me as “THAT dude who knows his stuff on affiliate marketing” who they can trust with suggesting what WORKS.
In doing so, I’d be known to my visitors as the authority for whatever central niche topic my site is focused on and that is GREAT for having your reviews sell.
Major Point 3: You are going to have to review products you aren’t promoting, that are bad.
There is tough pill us product reviewers have to swallow and that is we often have to review products that:
- We don’t want to review because they suck or are scams.
- That we don’t want to say anything negative on but kind of have to since they are bad.
- Many bad products are so popular and there is so much search traffic on the internet looking for their reviews, we are kind of missing out on money if we don’t review them.
But of course, this is where ethical questions really arise, because not only can we often NOT purchase the product, but we are also saying negative things about them.
But in my experience, a good authority website that reviews products in a niche is going to want to have a mix of good and bad reviews, because it will show your audience that you have taste and standards and because there are so many low quality products in every niche you’ll find, it’s not that difficult to find them.
Ethically writing a negative review however is another story (I’ll show you how to do that).
All of these major points, all point to one central thesis which is: Write more product reviews basically, good or bad.
So with these 3 major points, as a product reviewer, you’re on a tight spot:
- On one hand you want to make money writing product reviews.
- On the other hand, you can’t buy everything you want to review but still have to write many to profit.
- Yet you want to keep things ethical and still make money from the reviews you write, including those of products you don’t own.
But this is how you can navigate around this dilemma and stay ethical:
As easy as it is to criticize people for not buying what they review, I already showed you the other side of this coin and what I’m going to show you right now is exactly the same steps I take to write my product reviews for the ones I don’t own and this will also cover the negative reviews I do as well.
My approach to this dilemma has worked for years and while you are still going to get critics, I will show you how to retort their point/s easily and continue to produce profitable and ethical product reviews.
How I write product reviews of things I don’t own (video):
So now that you have seen the video showing the main points:
Let me say that before you start writing your own reviews, you have to make sure that there is a CRITICAL COMPONENT present before you start and here it is:
Even before I write that first word of my review, I make sure the following criteria are in place:
Before I show you the step by step formula I use to write product reviews for the things I don’t own, this is what needs to be in place:
- I make sure that I know about the product even if I don’t own it.
- I make sure I already own a product similar to the one I am reviewing (that I don’t own).
- I make sure that I have some or a lot of experience with the subject for which product I am reviewing.
- I make sure I research the product from other affiliate blogs (or just blogs in general on the subject) that review the same product to ensure I am not going on theory alone.
I tell everyone who reviews products or starts affiliate marketing to choose niches they actually know and love because without that ingredient, you will NOT succeed and trust me, this is 100% pertinent to writing product reviews, especially for those you don’t own.
Most people who are unsuccessful at making their product reviews go viral and/or make money with it through affiliate marketing make the mistake of not just reviewing something they don’t own, but also reviewing something they don’t have a single clue about, so the content (writing) they produce flat out SUCKS.
Step 0: The golden rule to making sales with product reviews that you don’t own:
If you understand the subject to which your product review is tied to, you can make sales for them without owning them. Remember this golden rule because it will help you make money without sacrificing ethics. In other words:
If I know about drones and drones subjects, but don’t own the drone I’m writing the review on, I can still sell it, ethically.
If I know about affiliate marketing and affiliate marketing subjects, but don’t own the product I am promoting on affiliate marketing because I know it’s bad, I can still make the sale for the product/program I am promoting instead, ethically.
I’ll get into more details on this right now, but this is step 0 before the first step even begins!
Writing product reviews when you don’t own them (step by step details):
Again, make sure the golden rule is present before you write that first word! If it is, then let’s move into step 1!
Step 1: Begin with a catchy title and quick intro.
Choose a product to review you that you don’t own, and write a compelling title including the name of the product in the title (this acts as the keyword). See a tutorial on how to find keywords here.
Titles for blog posts and reviews in this case are the hook that get people to read your content, so make it a good one! Here is a post on writing regular affiliate product reviews which talks about making good titles.
What I also like to do under the title is give a brief summary of the product I am reviewing and give it some sort of rating or score (1-5 stars for example).
Step 2: Write the following disclaimer to keep the product review honest.
If you’re into ethics, the next thing you’re going to want to do is write a disclaimer somewhere within the first 2-3 paragraphs stating you didn’t buy the product (or that you don’t own it).
In such circumstances, I’ll make a big heading saying, “Read this first, an important disclaimer” and then I’ll write that I didn’t buy the product.
Now from a sales or copywriting perspective, this may be one of the worst things you can do on a product review, but remember, we are trying to stay ethical here and honesty is a big part of this. But not all is lost, because we’re about to apply step 3 into this whole sequence to “correct” that issue:
Step 3: Reinforce people’s doubts so they’ll trust you and buy from you.
In your disclaimer, immediately after you say you didn’t buy the product, make a second bold point to counter that and say things like:
- I didn’t buy the product BUT I have experience on so and so subject.
- I didn’t buy the product BUT I have another like it, so I know what I’m talking about.
1) I didn’t buy so and so affiliate marketing program because it’s so expensive, but I have made over so and so money in affiliate marketing for YEARS and this other program (the one you will be promoting instead) taught me how to do it. Also throwing in an affiliate link to whatever you are promoting on this page is perfect. Knowing where to post affiliate links is critical and this is one of those areas I’d do it in.
2) I didn’t buy so and so program that teaches you affiliate marketing because I have read other reviews of it and they are NOT good (reference them in your review for proof) and because I know about affiliate marketing, I know of better programs and ways to make it work (it’s a perfect pitch for your alternative product you are promoting!).
3) I didn’t buy so and so drone because I already own a top of the line drone in my arsenal and all the reviews I have found on so and so product I didn’t buy all point to the other one I own (the one you will also sell) being better.
Why step 3 works and why you have to use it:
These examples basically negate and counter just about most doubts readers will have when they come to your review and read the phrase “I didn’t buy it” and I have been able to make this strategy work for years, so don’t try to re-frame what already works. USE THIS STRATEGY.
- It’s ethical.
- It keeps your product review honest, despite you admitting that you don’t own it.
- And it actually makes your readers respect the fact that you came clean about this and that respect will lead to trust and actually will improve the chances that you’ll be able to make a sale!
Now this won’t be the case for everyone and you will still get the occasional “call out” from a critic, which is fine, expected and not something you should worry too much about.
As long as you’re being upfront in your review, you are doing it right and it will work, and I have loads of sales over the years to prove that.
Step 4: Provide extra proof of your experience with the subject to boost the reader’s confidence.
Since you’re reviewing a product you don’t own, you’re going to want to combine 2 elements in the body of your review:
Talk about your history with the subject for the product you are reviewing.
Why this works: Citing your history and experience increases the reader’s confidence and trust in the content you write.
Paraphrase the research you did on the product you’re reviewing that you don’t own.
Why this works: This shows you took the time to cite people who also reviewed the product and it could even be people who OWN it, so what you’re doing here is basically letting people know the facts and if they are good.
You can do things like add pros and cons based off the other reviews you read and say that based on the research you found, here are so and so pros and cons you saw across the other reviews. You can even link to those reviews for extra credibility and it also helps with ranking on Google too.
This is where a majority of the content you write for the review will come from but it will really fill up your review a lot and help it get more visitors because it will rank better.
Step 5: Summarize the product you’re reviewing and give it some sort of score.
This is where you’re going to want to summarize everything and basically give the product the initial score you put in step 1, and this is where it can get tough because.
If the product is not so good, you’re basically going to have to say that but the good news is that you will already have evidence backed up from elements 1 and 2 from step 4 to back that rating up.
I never recommend calling things a scam without REAL evidence.
Usually if I’m at a cross roads on calling something a scam or if it’s acceptable, I’ll tell people I don’t recommend it because of the other reviews I saw or that the product is “questionable” or “I think there are better options” and as long as you’re being genuine about it, there’s nothing wrong with stating these things.
If there is however a time where you review something that is SO BAD and so clearly a scam, then as long as you provide screenshots and further evidence such as explaining how you came to this conclusion, then it can also work.
I usually do my best to stick to the first scenario even if I want to call something a scam and especially in cases where I’m clearly reviewing something that I didn’t buy.
So if you’re going to call something a scam, a safe way to do that is to buy the product and if it actually scams you, then call it that! Otherwise, use the work around option (scenario 1).
Step 6: The 2 possibilities you’ll run into with writing about products you don’t own and how to deal with them:
This is important:
It’s good and worth promoting, in which case, you should do that. One great strategy to employ is to promote the product via Amazon Associates and tell people to go read other reviews of it. This will send them to the Amazon page of the product (which is also your affiliate link) and have them further read and possibly buy the product.
If it’s bad, you’re going to want to recommend something better and I recommend that better product be something you own. So if it’s a drone and I review it negatively (and I don’t own it), I’ll tell people, so and so drone isn’t really my top pick, but THIS ONE (the one I own and promote) is better.
And the words this one will be a link that sends them to the review of the drone I own and I will also do this for any other drone reviews I do and this strategy applies to any niche market you make a site through and write product reviews on including those where you don’t own it.
Step 7: Publish the review, give it time and monitor it’s results.
The final step is really a matter of examining how well the review you did does and the short question is: Is it making sales?
- If it is, then your review is good enough to keep (you may need to wait months to examine this).
- If it is not, I would recommend adjusting it and improving the content on it.
I do not recommend you spend too much trying to make your review perfect because in reality, certain reviews just won’t do good and you should use that extra time you’d be spending correcting existing reviews to write new ones.
Remember, you want to make more of them because that will equate to more money being made.
Step 8: Rinse and repeat the same formula for future product reviews you write (ones you own or don’t own).
This is really a matter of rinsing and repeating. Writing mass, but more importantly high quality reviews is tough but it gets easier to do.
One great way to get started in doing all of this is to write a review for a product you DO own, love and know a lot about and write an incredible high quality review of it.
Then write reviews for other products that you own or don’t own and if they are bad reviews, link them to that first high quality review you did as the better alternative. That one product review page can become your pillar article and main money making page overtime.
A simple example and template of how to use these 8 steps to write your product reviews:
Let me set up some quick context first and this is a hypothetical example for you to use as reference:
I have trail running shoes I use for running in the mountains. They are called Salomons and I’ve used them for years and I have a review article I personally wrote on them. Keep this part in mind, because it will be relevant shortly.
But now I’m about to review a similar shoe that of the same category. They are called “Mudclaw” and I didn’t buy them.
Yet, that will not stop me from writing the review and this is where we begin to implement the 8 steps:
Step 1: I’d begin with a title and right off the top of my head, this seems fine:
“Mudclaw Review. Are These The Best Trail Running Shoes?”
Then I’d write a simple intro such as how popular the Mudclaw is, the types of people who use it and basically introduce people to the shoe in case they are new.
Step 2: The important disclaimer!
This is where I would mention that I didn’t buy the Mudclaw. You don’t have to bold it or make it a large text, but just mention it.
Step 3: Reinforcing the reader’s confidence.
Right after I mention not owning this product, I’d immediately bring up the Salomons I DO own and briefly explain that since both these pairs of sneakers are similar and almost identical (those 2 words are huge here, similar and identical) and I’ve used them for years, it gives me credibility to review the Mudclaw.
Step 4: More reinforcing evidence!
I’d go into details on what I know about this shoe mixing it with my experiences with the Salomons. I’d probably go over to Amazon and look up reviews of this Mudclaw to further add value to my review of it and mention that so and so number of people rate this product so and so.
Step 5: Provide more basic facts about the product.
I’d provide a summary (bullet points are great here) on the facts on Mudclaw and give the product a score based on the research I found (I’d include pros and cons too). If I see that it is a good product, I’ll promote it and give it a 4 or higher out of 5 star rating.
Step 6: Summarize the product review, rate it and continue.
Followed by the rating, I would also note that I am still a fan of the Salomon and link people to my review of it in this step of the article (and throughout the disclaimer and other sections of it where it’s relevant). I’d probably also mention that the Salomons are my top recommended shoes (if they really are), but if I really like the Mudclaw, I’d just tell people to get that.
Note: What I was reviewing a very bad trail running sneaker that I didn’t own? Well then in this section, I’d give that other pair of sneakers a less than favorable rating, explain why (I found too many bad reviews on it) and then I’d follow up by saying something like this:
Despite these sneakers (Not the Mudclaw, but another, bad pair) getting a low rating, here is my top recommendation: The Salomons and I would still link people there.
Now followed by this mention of the Salomon, I’d also do something provide people reasons to consider the Salomon over the other pair. I’d use the following headings:
Why the Salomons are better than the (insert name of other pair you are reviewing).
You can even add reasons such as “10 reasons why so and so is better”.
Step 7: Publish the review on the Mudclaw and then move on to others.
I would continue to review other trail running shoes (ones I don’t own) in other articles I write and follow the same format:
- If it’s good, promote that product but I would still keep mentioning the Salomon as my top choice for trail running sneakers.
- If it’s bad, recommend the Salomons as the better option and link people to my review of it.
Step 8: Leave the review alone for a bit, but rinse and repeat by writing more reviews.
This is where the waiting game comes into the picture and I examine how my reviews do based on the sales they make (or don’t make).
For many of the reviews you write, you have to give it weeks and possibly months to see it goes, because for most people who don’t have an established website with product reviews Google ranks high, you’re just going to have to wait it out.
In most cases, I won’t even wait to see how things go and I’ll just find that next product to review and add it to my site. The more of them I make, the better my site will rank and get traffic from through Google, and only maybe, a few months down the line will I carefully examine which product reviews I made are working, which aren’t and the ones which are not, I’ll reexamine, readjust the content and then test it again.
But the top priority is to keep writing more reviews, not overthinking why 1 product review you wrote isn’t working (remember, sometimes you have to wait a long time for that product review to get traffic, so that might be the reason you don’t see sales immediately, just focus on writing more reviews and that will eventually snowball).
Writing your own reviews on products you don’t own (the template):
This blueprint follows similarly along with the 8 step process, but it’s not identical. Still, it will help you with writing your reviews. My recommendation is to make them over 1,000 words (and add pictures too):
Other options (grey area ethics):
I did say that owning the product is the best way to review it, but there is a strategy certain people use where they’ll purposely buy a product and then return it only to get that initial experience in so they can get their review out.
I am personally not a fan of this strategy and think it’s a bit shady. The only time I will ever return a program or product I buy is if I truly feel that it is a scam or not close to what I was promised (not a scam, but not good either).
Now you may feel differently about this approach, but either way, I thought I’d mention it in case you have your opinions about it, just in case.
Concluding this tutorial:
And this is what I have actually done on my other sites, the main one which is a site similar to this affiliate marketing one where I promote Wealthy Affiliate and the review I set up for that program is great in quality.
What I’ll do on that site is the same exact thing I just suggested which is I’ll find products in this niche topic, review them and always talk about Wealthy Affiliate as being my top choice.
The people who read my reviews for the good and bad products will see me mentioning Wealthy Affiliate throughout those other reviews and many will click on it to see what it is and this is how I’ve made so much in affiliate marketing sales by just promoting this one company.
Here are my blog posts reviewing products and programs that I don’t own:
1) First we have Savage Affiliates. I didn’t buy this program and you can see how I was still able to write up a great review because I know about the subject.
2) Second, we have Affiliate Lab, a similar program that I didn’t buy but also reviewed fairly well.
3) And third, we have SamCart, a product I reviewed just recently that I also do not own but get into detail on.
4) And here are a few examples of “negative reviews” that I’ve done on this site you can use for reference (Notice how I also use the same strategies here too):
In general most of these reviews follow along with the steps I laid out above. Feel free to examine these reviews, see how I structure them and if you have any questions, let me know!
6 thoughts on “How to Write Ethical Product Reviews (If You Don’t Own Them)”
Thanks to you brother. I’m an affiliate marketer as well and have been going through similar issues for quite some time specially for my religious issues. I really hope I can apply the mentioned structure and promote affiliate marketing products ethically.
In the online space, I have found many people writing reviews and sometimes I feel like they have to put in so much to know about the product but I never thought that some of this reviewers never really get the products at all to write a review on them. Since I am also starting a business where I’ll be letting people know what is the good and bad of online digital products, it’ll be good to know how to write reviews and that’s what brought me down here. I’m glad to see your tips here and research is truly key to this. I will use your tips that I have learnt here. Thank you.
It’s not only research that gives weight to your review being authentic and honest, it’s also your experience with the said subject Henderson. Anyone can research a product and just report on it, that’s like parroting. But a major ingredient to the review being good is adding your own unique spice to it, and this is why when you have experience with the topic, but not really the specific product, it still adds weight to your arguments, something to keep in mind.
I truly enjoyed reading this article. I am fairly new and have been wondering about this very subject. I have intention of affiliating with a few different companies, although I have not actually purchased any of their packages (online courses).
Most of what they offer, I have had a taste of, because of the fact that they do offer many free classes on their subject matter. I appreciate your information on ‘reviews’. I was not really thinking of how much this could add to the traffic of my website. I do plan on keeping you bookmarked for further study and am grateful to have run across your need for comments.
Love, Light and Blessings
No problem Surina!