Skip to content

The attribution rules

How attribution rules are applied in affiliate marketing

Where attribution decisions are made in affiliate tracking

Steven Brown

Affiliate tracking quickly turns from conceptually simple to being a technology with subtleties once one starts to look a little deeper. From its simple origin in registering a referral ID via pixel tracking, modern tracking technologies have developed using a variety of referral methods including an application of attribution rules during the end-to-end affiliate referral process.  

Getting up to speed on concepts

We have written some articles that form a good background knowledge base to this article that we recommend reading before looking at this one.  These are:

As this article on attribution is being published at the end of the first quarter of 2024, it’s worth just confirming that Chrome’s imminent deprecation of third party cookies has little or no bearing on the considerations that follow.  User consent also has little bearing too. Read more on these in the tracking and consent articles in the blog.

The memory cookie

The memory cookie article highlights the three key components of tracking:

  • The hand over from publisher to advertiser
  • The setting of the memory
  • The confirmation from the checkout to the affiliate network

These three components focus on the advertiser site, they are therefore preceded and followed by actions by the network, and indeed the publisher.

Publishers and Advertisers – should be fair to each other

It is also worth remembering that one of the principles underpinning affiliate marketing is that publishers should be paid for sales on which they reasonably expect to earn commission and, correspondingly, advertisers should pay commission on sales on which they reasonably expect to pay commission.

Underpinning this principle is a requirement to set out the rules of the program on which the ‘reasonableness’ is based.  Networks typically have an advertiser page, and the advertiser may also publish information on their own site too.  Outside of the affiliate networks, Amazon with their associates program does an excellent job of this.

The attribution rules

The advertisers’  ‘attribution’ rules are often more complex for advertisers that:

  • Have their own tracking right from the outbound link from the network
  • Utilise an API or similar (so not real time) for communication of details of sales as, or after, they happen at the checkout page to the network’s servers.

Such advertisers are typically large, global advertisers operating in many territories and possibly are using different affiliate networks in different countries.

Stages where the attribution rules are applied

five stages in applying attribution rules

These are the main stages and times that program rules are implemented:

  • Within the network during the referral
  • In the setting of the memory cookie
  • In the basket/checkout
  • In the advertiser’ analytics processes
  • At the network on receiving the transaction confirmation

After the transaction has happened, advertisers have a period to confirm that the transactions match more rules on commission being payable (most obviously whether they relate to returned or cancelled items),  This article is not about the reasons behind acceptance or rejection decision making at that stage.

Looking at these five steps in more detail

The attribution rules and considerations at these five steps include the following:

At the network during the referral

    • Is it a first click / last click program?
    • Is the referral from a publisher that is set to ‘stand down’, or not to overwrite other publisher’s referrals (sometimes called a ‘soft’ cookie, and may be the case for some browser extension or technology publishers).
    • The network may only record the last referring publisher in its records, and not by writing the latest referral details or identifier (e.g. the Affiliate Network Identifier) into a pre-existing cookie on the user’s device.

At the setting of the memory cookie

    • Does the advertiser recognise the affiliate channel as the channel to earn recognition for the referral, or is the referral already allocated to another channel (e.g. on a first click basis).  This could lead to an affiliate ‘memory cookie’ not being set.
    • With regards to the memory cookie it could be set with an expiry date that is:
    • Longer than the ‘cookie window’ of the program
    •  The same length
    • Shorter, perhaps as a session cookie (and potentially erroneously)

In the basket/checkout

    • The communication to the network could be withheld if, at or by the time the purchase is made, a rule is triggered:
    • Determining the item bought is not a commissionable product
    • The advertiser pays on new customers only (and now the customer has entered their details to buy it’s identified as a repeat customer)

In the advertiser’s analytics processes

    • The advertiser deems, by the checkout stage, that another channel is now the last click, for instance the user has come through paid search after the affiliate referral.  This therefore is a ‘deduping by channel’ as well as by publisher.  Attribution to the appropriate publisher may be  either at a network level, or at the time of setting (or not) the memory cookie.

At the network on receiving the transaction confirmation

The network’s checks on the legitimacy of the transaction and the allocation of commission include:

    • Is the sale in the cookie window
    • Apportioning to a publisher on the last click/first click basis
    • The handling of the products in the basket by commission rate and whether postage and taxes are to be included
    • The allocation of the products to different commissionable categories
    • Is the same referral permitted to earn commission on multiple transactions during the cookie period, or just the once.

The impact on the advertiser-publisher relationship

The considerations above illustrate that conversion rates can be lower (or higher) than expected if the rules are technically implemented differently to the commercial intentions.  

One use case for which Moonpull’s publisher clients are using Moonpull’s data is to inform part of their decision making in cases where conversions have changed or are anomalous versus competing advertisers.  Moonpull sometimes may confirm the memory cookie setting process is well implemented, and this therefore forms a basis for a publisher commencing a conversation to unpick the low conversion rates.

Changes may occur at any time

The technical implementations of these considerations may change to suit another channel or measurement methodology, without necessarily considering the impact on the affiliate model. This is why we recommend:

  • Regular testing with Moonpull to establish a baseline of the advertiser’s program vs itself and vs its peers
  • Publishers having sufficient Business Information to identify sudden or trend related issues in conversion
  • Publishers not relying on other publishers own investigations, as one or more of these rules might only impact on a small number of publishers
  • Publishers having dialogues with Advertisers.  And where Moonpull identifies the handover as working well, exploring with advertisers the matters herein.


There is a lot of detail that goes into making an affiliate program consistently successful.  We talk about first party tracking having more ‘moving parts’.  Many of the matters above, are ‘moving parts’ that will become more relevant in a ‘first party’ only world.   At this moment in time we cannot entirely avoid the topics of deprecation and consent. With the removal of the fall back third-party tracking:

  • Some of the attribution rules may become more relevant
  • Consent is another big rule that may interact with these rules negatively

The factors discussed herein emphasise our belief that there will be a ‘Flight to Quality’ during 2024 and thereafter, with publishers working more closely with advertisers with whom they have a close dialogue and that consistently demonstrate a reliability of tracking.  This moment in time where there is a focus on understanding matters and leaning towards higher quality programs presents an opportunity for all players in affiliate marketing to demonstrate and communicate their quality to maintain and grow their successful use of the channel.

If you would like to see more of how Moonpull can benefit your business, we’d love to hear from you.
Please drop us a line on the Contact page

Subscribe to the newsletter to stay up to date