In a Fast Company story last week about the cutthroat world of online mattress sales, David Zax examined the mattress review websites that earn a commission, via so-called affiliate links, for every mattress they sell. The story paid special attention to a series of lawsuits that bed-in-a-box giant Casper filed last year against some of the web’s most popular mattress reviewing sites, and one in particular, Sleepopolis. The sites, Casper claimed, had downgraded their Casper reviews while heavily promoting competitors like Leesa.
The controversy didn’t end there: After it reached a settlement with Sleepopolis this year, Casper provided a loan to another mattress reviews company in order to acquire the site from its previous owners. The new version of Sleepopolis features a revised Casper review—this time a positive one—along with ample links to the mattress maker’s website and coupon codes. (Casper CEO Philip Krim told Fast Company, “We exert no influence and have no influence over the site, other than that we lent them money.”)
At a discussion at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival on Thursday, reporter Ainsley Harris asked Neil Parikh, cofounder and COO of Casper, about the Sleepopolis saga and Casper’s role in it.
“There are a lot of salacious titles out there,” he said, in reference to the headline of the October 16 article, “The War To Sell You A Mattress Is An Internet Nightmare.” “But when you actually dig into the story, we have always stood for ‘customer first.’ A lot of the people who we were involved with here were SEO content sites that were essentially trying to hijack our traffic and divert it,” he said. In its lawsuits, Casper had claimed that the websites’ arrangements with other mattress makers had cost it millions in potential sales.
“I have no problem with Consumer Reports or Wirecutter,” two popular product review sites that also earn commissions through affiliate links, Parikh said. “They are tremendous, incredible places where you should go and read objective stuff. But if someone is going to subvert our traffic and say, ‘Here’s an independent review’ but cut deals behind the scenes, that’s not fair, and we should be protected.”
Sleepopolis’s founder Derek Hales also blamed Casper for an effort to downgrade his site’s high ranking in Google search. In a counterclaim to Casper’s lawsuit filed earlier this year, Hales alleged that after Casper had terminated a business relationship with him, Sleepopolis became the victim of “negative SEO” attacks, including the placement of detrimental links to his site across the internet that harmed his Google ranking. Derek’s claim attributed the attack to a reputation firm working for Casper, but a Casper spokesperson denied those allegations, calling them “frivolous” and “baseless.”
At a separate Innovation Festival event on Thursday, the CEO of Leesa, David Wolfe, did not directly address his company’s own extensive use of affiliate marketing, but said it was considering an investment in its own reviews site that would function something like an “independent” TripAdvisor for mattresses. “If you build a business based on truth, truth is easy to sell,” he said.
It’s no secret that without physical stores, the raft of new e-commerce mattress companies—like most internet-based brands selling directly to consumers—must rely heavily on print and digital ads, SEO, affiliate links, and online reviews to move product. But Casper’s battle, Parikh insisted, was a matter of protecting the consumer.
“We started the company because people were getting screwed over at the local [mattress] stores,” Parikh said. “For us, its important to continue to protect that customer experience, and we want to encourage people to go to places where there is an objective opinion.”
With additional reporting by Morgan Clendaniel.