Affiliate tracking systems are intended to pay commissions to independent afiiliate web sites to advertise merchants services and/or products. Commission ordinarily only becomes 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.
However, some nasty 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 fraud. They set a cookie without a REAL click by the buyer and potentialy stole a commission from the rightful affiliate that actually did the selling and created a REAL click from the buyer. These partner sites are pretending that users have clicked on affiliate ads when they have not. 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.
Cookie Stuffing Systems In Action
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 which 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?
It doesn’t affect you at all. There won’t be any price increase or decrease for you. Cookie stuffing will have a negative impact on merchants and/or real affiliates. In a case where NO real affiliates reffered a customer to the merchant, and only a cookie was stuffed, a merchant will have to pay a commission to the cookie stuffer, while in reality the full amount should stay in the merchants 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 refferers, 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.
The other people affected are real affiliates who reffered the customer to a merchant. A cookie will always be replaced with the newest one leading to the same merchant and/or product. If an affiliate referred a customer to the merchant with a real click, a cookie will be placed on the customers computer which identifies the affiliate as the referrer. If that customer decided to wait a few days before purchasing that particular product and in the mean time surfs the web and gets cookie stuffed, the real affiliate will lose his deserved commission.
Affiliate Networks Like Cookie Stuffing
All the affiliate networks, like every other business, are in it for the money. The only difference is that some are more greedy than the 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, because they too make a commission every time an affiliate delivers the sale. And unless the merchant alone notices weird statistics and report it, affiliate networks won’t do anything about it.
Putting more effort into blocking cookie stuffers and protecting their merchants should be their priority, but because of the benefit from cookie stuffing they put this matter in the grey area. There have even been cases where a cookie stuffer, after a merchant alone noticed a mismatch in numbers, only got away with a warning from the affiliate network. They did not ban this affiliate from the network or deduct his earnings. If they took back stolen commissions from the affiliate, they too would have to lose its share from the merchant who paid them. If you are a merchant and have noticed that your affiliate network is cheating on you, or not doing their part in preventing cookie stuffing and commission fraud, I would recommend you to join shareasale. Until now, I have not noticed any mismatch in numbers and they look like the most trustable affiliate network I have worked with.