Cookies stuffing is an illegal practice that leads to improper credit allocation. In essence, it is an act of fraud by which people can earn illegitimate commissions without doing genuine work.
The affiliate makes his money not by referring people to the merchant’s website as they should, but by loading the website secretly and without the visitor’s knowledge in the background. In doing so, the affiliate wrongfully receives a commission and is in fact defrauding the merchant.
To understand cookie stuffing we must quickly revisit the topic of affiliate marketing.
Affiliate marketing is a form of incentive-based marketing where a company rewards the affiliate for each visitor or customer brought by the affiliate’s own marketing efforts. Commissions from such efforts ordinarily only become payable in the event that the surfer takes a revenue-generating action within a certain period of time.
That action could be signing up to the site or buying or selling an item or completing an offer/quiz. When such an action is complete, affiliates get paid their deserved referral commission. The activity of visitors is tracked by cookies, small files that are stored within your web browser.
What is Cookie Stuffing?
In affiliate marketing, a merchant or advertiser usually provides the affiliate with a link or banner that he can add to his website. Each time a customer clicks on this link, the advertiser attaches a cookie to the customer.
Some shady affiliates use “cookie stuffing” methods to cause tracking systems record that a user has clicked through a link while in reality the user has not actually clicked through any such link. It’s a form of affiliate marketing fraud. The deceitful affiliate marketer sets a cookie without a real click by the buyer.
That activity will wrongly associate potential future revenue-generating actions by that user who has been cookie stuffed. When you’re visiting a page that is attempting to cookie stuff you, you actually never leave the website and are not redirected to the merchant. Cookies are simply placed in your web browser in the background without you ever knowing.
Potentially this shady affiliate also steals a commission from the rightful affiliate that actually did the selling and created a real click from the buyer in the first place. If that is not the case, then the fraud only happens to the merchant who pays a fake commission to the shady affiliate.
How Cookie Stuffing Works
The techniques used by cookie stuffing affiliates can range from relatively simple to complex and sophisticated systems. With new methods being discovered and improved on a daily basis, affiliate networks need to put lots of time and funds into preventing these methods. If you have been cookie stuffed it most likely happened with one or more of the following:
- Obfuscation via redirects
- Popups and popunders
- Php manipulation
- Stuffing image links
- CSS tricks
- External scripts
Advanced cookie stuffing schemes hide cookies which without throughfully looking at the source code or cookies after each page load makes it near impossible to find for the affiliate networks, even by manual human inspection.
Smart cookie stuffers have developed computer scripts with a range of algorithms that decrease the chances of being discovered. Some of these are even sold on black markets. Such algorithms include, but are not limited to:
- Never cookie stuff the same computer twice
- Encoded source code
- Proxy masking
- Url cloaking
- Stuffing only certain browsers or IP ranges
- Attempt to mimic organic, natural growth patterns
- Cookie is placed into every (X)th visitor to increase the ratio between impressions and clicks
How Does That Affect Me, As a Buyer?
Cookie stuffing does not affect you as a buyer. There won’t be any price increase or decrease for you. However, cookie stuffing will have a negative impact on merchants and real affiliates who referred the customer to a merchant, if there are any.
A cookie will always be replaced with the newest one leading to the same merchant. If one legitimate affiliate referred a customer to the merchant with a real click, a cookie will be placed on the customer’s computer which identifies the affiliate as the referrer.
If that customer decides to wait some time before purchasing and in the meantime surfs the web and gets cookie stuffed, the real affiliate will lose his deserved commission.
How Does Cookie Stuffing Affect Advertisers?
The advertiser who uses the help of affiliate marketing techniques experiences the greatest loss. Because of cookie stuffing, they cannot pocket the credit they should have for certain clicks and conversions. on the e-commerce site while the fraudster steals money from them.
In a case where no real affiliates referred a particular customer to the merchant, and only a cookie was stuffed, a merchant will have to pay a commission to the cookie stuffer. In reality the full amount should stay in the merchant’s pockets. Cookie stuffing causes merchants to pay commissions that they don’t need to pay.
Imagine a $500.000 real estate sale with a 5% commission. If there were no real referrers, but a stuffed cookie, you as a merchant will pay a hefty $25.000 commission to a fraudulent affiliate. But it doesn’t have to be a single big commission. Even if you’re paying out only one or two-digit commissions at most, it will quickly add up and you might be losing some serious money.
Is Cookie Stuffing Really a Serious Issue?
Stuffing affiliate cookies into users’ browsers is considered an unethical marketing tactic, and the practice has consequences. Marketers found to be participating in cookie filling are usually banned by their affiliate networks as this falls within the scope of affiliate fraud.
Is Cookie Stuffing Illegal?
This practice is not only unethical but also illegal. Depending on its scope, a person involved in the stuffing of cookies could even be prosecuted. In a well-publicized case, a leading eBay marketer was sentenced to federal prison for defrauding the auction house of $28 million over several years.
Affiliate Networks Like Cookie Stuffing
All the affiliate networks are in this business for the money. The only difference is that some are more greedy than others. And where greed is a driving force, ethical obstacles are overdriven. Some affiliate networks will not put much effort into catching the cookie stuffers.
This is simply because they too make a commission every time an affiliate delivers the sale. Unless the merchant alone notices weird statistics and report it, affiliate networks may not do much about your problem.
Putting more effort into blocking cookie stuffers and protecting their merchants should be their priority, but because of the benefit from cookie stuffing they can put this matter in the grey area.
MediaMarkt Cookie Stuffing Case
MediaMarkt is the European market leader in the sale of household appliances and consumer electronics with more than 800 stores in 14 countries and a turnover of 22 billion euros.
Before MediaMarkt integrated an anti-fraud tool, the company worked directly with two major affiliate platforms. The objectives of integrating an anti-fraud tool were:
- to achieve greater depth of analysis,
- to uncover possible fraud.
At the end of the first months’ data collection, 48% of orders from the affiliate channel were identified as being cookie stuffed. All fraudulent affiliates were blocked, saving 53% of the affiliate marketing budget without losing orders across all channels.
How to Prevent Cookie Stuffing
Web users can fall victim to cookie stuffing from a variety of sources. The cookies can be downloaded from normal websites, pop-up ads, secret scripts and even from images in a forum. Cookie stuffing has a direct impact on the bottom line of advertisers as well as legitimate partners.
Whether it’s fake publishers dropping malicious scripts or users installing fraudulent extensions, stuffing cookies is bad for business. And eliminating them completely is easier said than done. Since malicious cookies are dropped on the user’s browser, advertisers are very limited on what they can do to make this right.
If you are a merchant and you suspect or have actually noticed that your affiliate network is cheating on you, you should consider placing an anti-fraud mechanism in place. Alternatively, you can also just change your affiliate network, however, a third-party will be much more reliable in this case. A third-party tool will have no incentive to show you incorrect data.