The Affiliate Cookie Fortune

A tug of war is going on between affiliates and everybody else over the business of cookies. And as the cookie crumbles, affiliates are losing out because of users disabling and deleting their cookies, because of short expiration times (if cookies are being used at all), and because of other anti-cookie forces of nature.

What it all comes down to is something of a virtual Boston Tea Party. Affiliates are giving “clickation” without “commissionization,” and they’re not going to take it anymore.

What Are Cookies?

Cookies are pieces of information sent by a Web server to a Web browser that the browser software is expected to save and send back to the server whenever the browser makes additional requests from the server.

Depending on the type of cookie used and the browser’s settings, the browser may or may not accept the cookie, and it may save the cookie for either a short time or a long time.

Cookies might contain information such as log-in or registration information, shopping-cart information, user preferences, and so on. When a server receives a request from a browser that includes a cookie, the server is able to use the information stored in the cookie. For example, a server might receive affiliate tracking data from a user’s browser that attributes a sale or lead to an affiliate.

Cookies are usually set to expire after a predetermined amount of time and are usually saved in memory until the browser software is closed down, at which time they may be saved to disk if they haven’t expired.

We’ve Got a Problem Here

It’s pretty simple: The average user on the Internet is not buying a product on his or her first visit — and, in most cases, subsequent visits — to your site. This negatively affects affiliates if you do not award commission on repeat visits through cookies.

In a recent poll of affiliate managers from the United States Affiliate Manager Coalition (USAMC), nearly half of the affiliate programs are offering cookies of only 30 days or fewer. More than 10 percent offer no cookies at all.

Since affiliate marketing is based on performance, affiliates are up in arms that their performance is not being fairly tracked.

“The No. 1 fault of affiliate programs is the ability of allowing the merchant to set cookies at zero days or [for] a short length of time, [such as] under five days. This effectively eliminates the chance for affiliates to earn commissions and repeat shopping revenue and all buyers not purchasing on the first click-through,” commented Mike Hyland (“Webmaster Mike”) of Image Marketing Services.

“The average consumer visits five to seven sites when shopping for a product with a cost of $75 or more, or a technical product like digital cameras, computers, and home electronics, so return-day cookies beyond 10 days are essential,” continued Hyland.

Providing a Cookie Solution

The affiliate solution providers vary in their approach to the use of cookies by merchants. For instance, Commission Junction, LinkShare, and Performics enable merchants to edit the cookie length, and this information is made available to affiliates for each merchant. But Be Free utilizes a different approach.

“Be Free does not track affiliate activities with cookies. Cookies are implemented by the individual merchant companies, and each merchant’s IT group determines how long a cookie session will last,” according to Kerri Burke, manager of program consulting for Be Free.

“However, as a best practice for merchants, Be Free does recommend the use of cookies for a minimum of 7 days; for merchants who promote or sell large-ticket items, like jewelry, computers, travel services, etc., cookies should be set for at least 14 days, ideally 30 days,” continued Burke.

There are some conspiracy theorists who maintain that merchants and solution providers are in collusion to scam affiliates by intentionally disabling reporting on affiliate transactions.

“Some merchants disable peak shopping period reporting (Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day) to the affiliate solution providers by turning off the reporting tag in their shopping cart program. [There is] no real-time accuracy in recording all affiliate-linked sales due to the variety of shopping carts and Web forms,” said Hyland.

The Privacy Issue

In addition to the cookie perils affiliates face at the hands of merchants, the general public also presents a hurdle for affiliates to collect their commissions. In response to the public outcry for more privacy, there is a new standard called the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P), which mandates that Web sites provide machine-readable versions of data-collection and data-sharing practices.

P3P is a browser specification developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that examines XML tags tied to elements contained in a corporate privacy statement, and then triggers privacy settings matched to a user’s set of privacy preferences.

Sites that provide third-party cookies to track e-commerce activity are being encouraged by the W3C to complete P3P requirements. Internet Explorer 6.0, under its default settings, will automatically block many cookies routinely placed on visiting browsers unless a site has acceptable privacy provisions in place. This feature, known as a “Cookie Cutter,” is another cookie concern for affiliates.

Are you a cookie monster? Your company controls whether you are P3P compliant and the number of days that you pay affiliates through cookies. Do the right thing: Comply with the P3P standards, and set those cookies for at least 30 days.

Hey, Hey, Hey… Goodbye

As Yogi Berra once said, “The game isn’t over till it’s over.” Well, this is my last column for ClickZ. Thanks to all of you who have been reading my affiliate marketing columns on ClickZ since 1999. I hope to see you at the upcoming All-Star Performance Marketing conference in NYC next month and other affiliate marketing events. Game over.

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