This article is owned by Recode and authored by commerce expert Mr. Jason Del Rey

Jason Del ReyThe online mattress industry promised a more honest shopping experience. We may have gotten the opposite instead.

There was a time when a new breed of mattress companies like Casper were supposed to usher in an era of mattress buying that was more transparent for consumers — and one that would make the dishonest store salesperson a thing of the past.

But as these brands have risen, so too have new entities that have filled the salesperson’s old role: mattress review websites — purported to provide honest reviews — led, in some cases, by everyday people who have no experience in the mattress industry or in product reviewing.

Gone is the slick-talking store sales guy directing you toward the mattress with the best profit margin or the highest commission. But in his place are a slew of website owners proficient in the art of search engine marketing, funneling you with the help of Google toward the mattress that lines their pockets the most.

These sites make money from so-called affiliate fees — commissions earned when a reader clicks a link in a review and goes on to purchase that mattress afterward. This model has been around almost as long as the internet. But the rise of online mattress sellers has created a perfect recipe for these content chefs: a high-priced item that results in a large commission, coupled with a heavy consumer reliance on reviews, since many of these new mattress brands are not widely sold in physical stores.

The power these websites amassed has not gone unnoticed in the industry. After Casper sued three of the sites, the high-profile mattress company financed the takeover of one of them, called Sleepopolis. This raised questions about a conflict of interest when Sleepopolis’ review of Casper suddenly improved. Today, Sleepopolis sends more traffic to Casper’s website than to any other mattress brand, according to data from SimilarWeb.

Reviewers don’t have to disclose higher commissions

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s guidance on affiliate-fee disclosures is that they need to be “clear and conspicuous.” But the guidelines do not explicitly say that a website must disclose when one partner is paying a higher commission than another.

This has become a major problem, according to Joe Alexander, CEO of Nest, another mattress brand in the space. And, to prove it, Alexander supplied emails to Recode to where the operators of review sites detail what influences their mattress rankings. Alexander believes they show pay-to-play schemes.

Case in point: If you searched “Nectar mattresses” on Google this past fall — the name of one of the newer mattress brands that has quickly done tens of millions in sales — you would have found links to several, little-known review sites appearing on the first page of search results.

These sites, like MemoryFoamTalk and GetBestMattress, do not have strong name recognition with most people. But their high rankings on Google gave them significant power.

Both sites ranked Nectar as their No. 1 choice for mattress buyers. (Nectar recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission after it was charged with falsely marketing its China-made mattresses as “assembled in USA.”)

What mattress buyers likely did not realize about these Nectar rankings is that they were, in some cases, based as much on personal gain and personal relationships as on objective product analysis, email correspondences show.

In emails reviewed by Recode, MemoryFoamTalk owner Andrew Levy explained to Nest’s Alexander his motivations for Nectar’s ranking. While he noted that he liked the mattress so much that he sleeps on it daily, his emails also divulged that Nectar paid his site $150 for each mattress sale, which was as much as three times more than some other mattress brands that pay around $50 per referral.

Levy’s rankings have also been based on how much demand there is for a given mattress, by observing how many visitors enter the review site on Nectar’s review page.

“Just letting you know that from my perspective,” Levy wrote in one of the emails, “its [sic] a no lose situation putting them up high on our list, having a good review, and with the demand – getting big checks.”

In a phone interview with Recode, Levy insisted that his rankings were not for sale. His case was built around the fact that some other mattress brands pay him more per sale than Nectar does, but are not ranked high on his list. He also insisted that he sleeps on a Nectar bed every night, and that features like a 365-day return policy added to its appeal and, thus, its ranking.

He did, however, make a critical admission: That the combination of the size of the commission he gets from a mattress brand coupled with the sales volume of that item does indeed influence his rankings.

“I would not disagree with that,” he said in the interview.

As recently as February, three of the top four search terms leading people to Levy’s website included the name Nectar, according to SimilarWeb.

In the fall, a disclosure page on Levy’s review site stated, “No company…pays more than any other so we don’t have any incentive to promote one over the other, which we don’t do anyway.”

When this reporter suggested that the disclosure didn’t appear to be accurate, Levy claimed it had been written when he first launched the site “when no one really paid much more than anyone else.”

He later changed the language of the disclosure to something that still didn’t appear to be completely accurate.

“No company…pays explicitly more than any other, as it all varies based on what size mattress someone purchases, whether they provide a % of the sale vs. a flat referral fee, and so on.”

Screengrab from MemoryFoamTalk website
Screengrab from MemoryFoamTalk website

Personal favors

In another instance, the owner of GetBestMattress.com, Chris Young, told Nest’s Alexander in an email that the commissions paid by the Nectar mattress company played a role in its rankings, as did the fact that Young’s site “grew up” alongside the Nectar brand.

“Craig is a very nice guy and we grow [sic] up together, that’s why I always rank it first,” Young wrote in an email viewed by Recode, speaking about Nectar founder and CEO Craig Schmeizer. “[C]ommission is part reason, but not all reasons [sic].”

For these sites, a single mattress brand can drive hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions a year to review site owners — a significant sum when you consider that these operations are often run by only one or two people.

MemoryFoamTalk’s Levy brushed off most of Alexander’s complaints and painted them as bitterness over Nectar losing business to a newcomer brand like Nectar. He also pointed out that Alexander himself offered to give Levy’s review site a larger commission if he moved Nest up his Top 10 rankings.

Alexander countered that he only made the offer of a higher commission so that Levy’s acceptance would prove that commission size played a part in how the site owner ranked mattresses. Alexander later severed Nest’s affiliate-fee relationship with MemoryFoamTalk.

For his part, Schmeizer, Nectar’s CEO, argued that customer interest in a given brand should factor into review site rankings; not just a reviewer’s personal experience with the product.

“We believe strongly that recommendations in the reviewer community are driven far less by a defined compensation figure, than by a reviewer’s evaluation of the product and by actual consumer interest,” he wrote in an email to Recode. “Consumer interest results in more potential traffic to a particular brand’s review. It makes sense to me that strong consumer satisfaction, word of mouth, advertising and natural interest would drive added attention to a review, and that reviewers would also incorporate this increased interest and engagement in their evaluations as a positive indicator.”

Consumer confusion?

The unanswered questions are whether the average mattress shopper realizes that, and if they don’t, what responsibility the FTC has to protect their interests. The same goes for the potential influence that the size of a commission has on individual reviews.

An FTC spokesperson declined to comment when asked whether the agency would consider requiring these sites to disclose the specific amount of the affiliate fee they are receiving from each brand, rather than just simply stating that they are receiving a commission.

“The FTC does not comment on what we may do in the future regarding law enforcement actions,” said spokesperson Mitch Katz.

In the meantime, it’s clear that the influence of these reviews — whatever is behind them — extends beyond their own sites. As I was finishing up my research for this article, an ad for a mattress company followed me around the web.

It was a straightforward advertisement that contained a simple, positive quote taken from a mattress review website: MemoryFoamTalk.

“The team behind Nectar,” the ad read, “really got things right.”

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