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Unpacking Cookies and Affiliate Tracking

cookies and affiliate tracking

Unpacking cookies and their role in affiliate tracking technologies

Chris Tradgett

Cookies have been very much front of mind for anyone in digital marketing and specifically the affiliate industry, for some time. There have been major changes in how browsers and operating systems deal with cookies over the last few years and particularly with regards to advertising and tracking cookies.

Much of the narrative on the subject, particularly for consumers is phrased in terms of internet users reclaiming their own privacy; and therefore, of course, a whole new internet privacy sector has grown up alongside that. 

cookies and affiliate tracking

Alongside this privacy industry, authorities across the US, Europe and an increasing number of other countries have cookies and in particular, third party cookies firmly in their sights. This is, of course, a part of the wider issue of online privacy which we’ll explore from the perspective of an internet user. We’ll settle on the term ‘user’ to refer to an internet customer who is making visits to affiliate websites and following any links.

Much of the digital marketing media has been characterising the current environment as a progression towards a ‘cookieless future’. In a Forbes interview, Antony Capano of Rakuten argued that “the loss of third-party cookies should be a wake up call” following years of the wider advertising industry using them irresponsibly.

However, eConsultancy has reported that only 36% of marketers feel they have a good handle on what this cookie-less future will look like after October 2023. 

Cookies will continue to be a part of how browsers operate long after that deadline, even if in different ways. But we want to look specifically at the issue of cookies in the world of tracking in affiliate partnerships. In this first article we ask the simple question “What is a Cookie?” and examine what that means for affiliate marketers.

What is a Cookie?

A cookie is a simple file attached to an internet user’s browser which records one or more elements. Wikipedia is more precise in its definition; “cookies are small blocks of data created by a web server while a user is browsing a website and placed on the user’s computer or other device by the user’s web browser”.

From a user perspective, the up-side of website cookies lies in that they enrich the user experience of websites, particularly for regular users. That may be from something as simple as language or currency preferences to remembering ecommerce basket contents and login details.

Cookies in Tracking

It means that the relevant information is stored in the user’s browser, so that when they re-visit the same advertiser, the action can be tracked correctly. Awin’s technical article gives a very clear description of what their cookies are doing in the handover process. All of this does of course rely on the user accepting cookie consent mechanisms and not deleting cookies at some point.

cookie consent

From an affiliate marketing point of view, a tracking cookie includes one or more parameters that allow a network to allocate commission to the right affiliate and communicate further details such as click references on the completion of an action. The tracking cookie can be placed on the user’s browser in a few ways. 

In affiliate marketing, the cookies also let the network understand the date of the referral by the publisher and include the ‘cookie duration’. This is the period or window for an action to happen where affiliate commission may be earned.

These details are important; where a user follows an affiliate link to an advertiser and leaves the website but then later returns to the site within that ‘window’ and makes a purchase, the transaction is correctly recorded and tracking confirmed. 

Depending on the set up of tracking and cookie compliance devices, tracking may not happen where a user declines or refuses cookies. The user clearing browser cookies will of course cancel that cookie and break the tracking. 

The end of the cookie window will usually be extended (and possibly over-written) if the user revisits the advertiser via a different affiliate. In this case, in the usual convention of ‘last click’ tracking, the last affiliate link clicked will be the one that receives the commission.

Attribution modelling, offered by several networks, enables the user’s interactions with these different affiliates to be recorded. It gives a much more nuanced view and enables either just information on the value they are adding; or effective splitting of the commission between all the referring affiliates.

Setting the Cookie

When it comes to the setting of the cookie it may be completed by javascript within a network’s universal tag (called each time from the network server), javascript in the advertiser’s page, or by code in the header for server tracking. 

The ongoing and continuing changes in advertising technology mean that every affiliate tracking provider and digital marketer needs to understand how, where and when their tracking serves their needs.

What Happens Next?

This is the start of a series of articles examining the various aspects of cookies and tracking. The next article will cover more detail on affiliate tracking cookies and how those cookies are read, so click below to make sure you get notified about the next article.

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