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
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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