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While other sites already had merchant affiliate programs in place before them, Amazon probably did more to popularize the concept of paying commissions on sales to web site owners.
Companies wanting to set up merchant affiliate programs in the past had to spend a lot of money and development effort to create programs from scratch. Today, however, much of the process of signing up and approving affiliate publishers can be automated. And, companies don't need to build their own programs from the ground up anymore, but rather can sign up with merchant account affiliate programs that manage much of the process for them.