Because affiliate marketing is a performance-based discipline, it is important that any affiliate tracking solution accurately captures data from the moment a user clicks on an affiliate link to the moment they make their purchase on an advertiser’s website. Integrity and reliability of the tracking solution is essential to ensure affiliates are rewarded correctly for the sales they have driven to an advertiser.
Most affiliate tracking solutions will use a variety of methods to capture click and sales data, primarily for reasons of redundancy and flexibility. The different methods can be roughly split into two areas – those that track clicks and those that record transactions. Here I’ve outlined some of the basic methods at Affiliate Window, which make up our tracking solution.
HTTP cookies – At the point when an affiliate link is clicked and the user is redirected to the advertiser’s website, Affiliate Window stores some information. This is normally done using a standard 1st party text cookie, which captures information like the identity of the affiliate and the timestamp. 1st party cookies are cookies set by the domain that appears in the browser’s address bar (in the case of the affiliate model this would normally be the advertiser’s website). 1st party cookies are preferable to 3rd party cookies (set by a domain other than the advertiser’s website) as security software is far more likely to block 3rd party cookies.
Cookies get a bad rap from some sections of the online industry, but are still the most common method of storing information online and are required to transact on most e-commerce sites in the UK. However, even with 1st party cookies, it is prudent to use more than one method to track an affiliate click. Here are some other methods that we use at Affiliate Window.
Flash cookies – This does a similar job to the 1st party HTTP cookie. At Affiliate Window, the Flash cookie is used as a back-up to the text cookie, because Flash cookies are less likely to be inadvertently removed from a user’s machine.
ETags – An ETag is a HTTP header response returned by a web server to determine if the content of a URL has changed. We use this functionality to capture the same information that would be stored in the HTTP and Flash cookies. ETag data is stored in the cache of a browser. It is a failsafe, and serves to improve the accuracy of our tracking solution.
The most important step in the tracking, particularly for all affiliates, is ensuring that when an affiliate-referred user makes a transaction that it is tracked and reported. Most solutions do this by displaying a piece of code on the advertiser’s website, which normally loads an image pixel. However, it is important to have back-ups to a standard image pixel, to ensure accuracy.
Image Pixel – This is normally a 1x1 image that loads on the confirmation page to capture certain pieces of information, such as the order reference for the transaction, transaction value, timestamp and any additional information. An image pixel is somewhat limited in the information it can capture.
All affiliate networks will want to capture as many clicks and transactions as possible. Whilst no solution can be described as completely 100% failsafe all the time, if the network isn’t doing its best to record all transactions then both the affiliate and network will be losing out.