How do Affiliate Marketing Software Programs track sales, leads and clicks? 

The methods of tracking affiliate conversions continue to evolve as the internet constantly changes and advances.  The most common method today is Cookie tracking so it will be discussed in most detail.  This is the method currently employed by Affiliate Wiz.

Common tracking methods include:

  • Cookie Tracking
  • Simple Direct URL Links
  • URL Query String Tracking
  • Self Replicated Pages
  • Sub Domain Tracking
  • Database Record Match Tracking

As you'll read in the next few paragraphs, each of these methods has strengths, and each has weaknesses. However, you'll see that Cookie Tracking is the clear winner as the preferred single tracking method when it comes to reliable, flexible, and convenient tracking.

When exploring the different tracking methods, an affiliate manager must consider:

  • How flexible is the method? (Can I track everything that I want to track and will it work with my shopping cart or ordering system?)
  • How easy is the tracking method to administer? (Must I exert much effort re-designing and maintaining my website to work with the tracking method)?
  • How reliable is the tracking method?
  • How easily can an affiliate defeat the tracking method?
  • Does this tracking method affect the performance of my website or web server?

Cookie Tracking

Cookie Tracking is the most popular method to track web visitors "from click through to conversion", because it is simple to implement and use, requires no significant web design considerations, and rarely does it impact the performance of the web server.  With this method a 3rd-party affiliate software program can be installed as a stand-alone product requiring minimal changes to your existing web site.

Affiliates place the merchant's affiliate links on their web site.  The affiliate link defines the Affiliate ID within the link.  The web visitor clicks the link and is sent to the affiliate tracking software.  The affiliate tracking software plants a small text file or "cookie" on the web visitor's browser.  This cookie stores the Affiliate ID.  It may also store other information such as the date/time for purposes of tracking how much time elapsed between the click and the conversion.  It may also track the specific banner or link that the web visitor clicked.  The cookie is also assigned a date as to when it should expire and get deleted.

After planting the cookie, the web visitor is then redirected to the page that was defined for the specific banner or link that was clicked.  It could be the homepage of the merchant's web site, or a specific product or information page.

As the web visitor traverses the merchant's site, the cookie remains untouched and continues to hold the Affiliate ID.  The cookie is retained for the "cookie expiration period" as defined in your affiliate tracking software.  In Affiliate Wiz this value is defined in days.  For example, if set to 365 days, the cookie will be retained for 1 year.  The beauty of this is you can still track a conversion even if it happens days or weeks after the first visit.  You can also track repeat sales from the web visitor.

However long it takes for the web visitor to make a purchase, as long as it occurs before the cookie expiration period, the sale will be properly credited to the affiliate.  The only way this method fails is if the web visitor has disabled cookies, uses cookie-blocking software, or manually deletes their cookies before the conversion.  Those users who go through the trouble to disable cookies are, oftentimes, the same users who will probably be wary of other tracking methods and have learned to intentionally bypass those as well.   The great benefit is conversions can be tracked over a relatively long period of time.

In summary, cookies make tracking affiliate-referred-sales very convenient. The cookie can be read and used on any page or on any form, and can be used in conjunction with almost any ordering system. Plus, the cookie that records the affiliate's ID can "live" for as long as the merchant desires, allowing affiliates to get credit for customers who clicked on a link weeks, or months, before finally purchasing or making a repeat purchase.

Cookie Tracking is essentially invisible to the user, because cookies are written and read "behind the scenes". Unlike the other methods, the merchant's URL does not need to display the affiliate ID.

Simple Direct URL Links

A direct link to a web site is the most basic form of tracking.  While this may help boost search engine popularity, it is one of the most limited methods of tracking affiliate conversions.  This method often requires placing special tracking code or coded scripts on each page that will be directly linked to.  The Affiliate ID is also visible directly in the tracking links.  Typically this method only tracks sales made during the immediate "session" and does not track repeat sales, or sales that are not made on the first visit.  Unless the affiliate returns using the same link that passes the Affiliate ID, the conversion will not be tracked.

URL Query String Tracking

URL Tracking is a relatively effective, yet programmatically involved, tracking method that passes the affiliate ID throughout the merchant's entire website. The Affiliate ID is visible to the web visitor and follows them throughout the merchant's web site by being passed from one page to the next in the URL Query String.  The URL Query String is visible in the address bar of the browser and appears after the question mark.  For example,

To accomplish this method of tracking, your web pages must be dynamic and a programmer must program each and every page to capture and pass the Affiliate ID in the query string.  This can be accomplished using programming languages such as ASP, Perl, CGI, or Javascript.  The code basically reads the current URL, extracts the affiliate ID, then appends the Affiliate ID to the query string of the next page that is requested.

This method, though fairly effective, is a bit fragile and cumbersome, as it requires careful design of the website and maintenance of every link within the merchant's site. Moreover, under heavy traffic, the script can become a "bottleneck" to the merchant's web site. Furthermore, if the script ever fails, the merchant's site will fail.

Self Replicated Pages

Self Replicated Pages (SRP's), offers the affiliate a replicated copy of the merchants web site.  It could be as simple as one page, or as much as an entire replica of the site.  These pages are then used exclusively by the web visitors sent from the affiliate's web site.  Tracking is easy because all sales made from this replica are attributed to the affiliate for whom the replica was created.  This type of affiliate tracking is typically built in to the merchant's shopping cart system rather than as a stand-alone affiliate tracking software solution.

While this method may sound great, there is a major drawback.  This method was once popular but is now frowned upon in the affiliate marketing industry.  The reason is popular search engines such as Google often penalize sites for replicating identical content.  This reason alone has greatly diminished the use of this method.

Sub Domain Tracking

Sub Domain Tracking is very similar to Self Replicated Pages, in that it provides an affiliate with a full URL to which the affiliate can direct customers. Unlike Self Replicated Pages, though, this method gives affiliates an actual sub domain at the merchant's site, not a simple directory path found at the merchant's main domain.   Just as in the method of self replicated pages, this method results in duplicated content and again you risk having your organic search engine listings penalized for duplicate content.

Database Record Matching

Database record matching (also called "lifetime affiliate tracking") is the least used of the methods because it is difficult to operate and maintain, and must be used in conjunction with at least one of the other tracking methods; it cannot be used alone. Database Record Matching rewards affiliates for returning customers, not new customers. The initial sale must employ some other form of referral tracking, and then store unique contact information about each customer (their email address, name and address, credit card number, etc), along with the referring affiliate's ID. When that customer returns and buys again in the future, the customer database can be searched to find that the customer is "owned" by an affiliate. This affiliate will receive commissions on that customer's repeat purchases for the life of the system

In summary, the cookie tracking method is one of the cleanest and most effective methods of tracking affiliate sales.  While no method is 100% accurate, this method is most widely used in the industry.  Affiliate programs that combine multiple tracking methods tend to provide the most accurate tracking.

Read More Affiliate Marketing Tips:  What features should I look for in an affiliate software solution?

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