Affiliate Tracking: How We Know Your Click Led to the Sale

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How Affiliate Networks Know Who to Credit for a Sale


Affiliate sales attribution is one of the most important parts of any affiliate program. Here’s how affiliate tracking works and why affiliate networks and tracking platforms play such an important role.

Tracking and attribution are vital to any affiliate program. For some publishers, the biggest fear is that they’ll publish the links and not get credit for the conversions. For merchants, not paying out when a publisher gets a conversion is a good way to lose your best affiliates. All of this relies on a technology tracking layer that reports to affiliate networks and tracking platforms.


Click a Link, Get a Cookie


There are a few ways to track users from link click to conversion, but the most common way is to use cookies. However, they are not third-party cookies, which Google plans to disable in 2023. Affiliate marketing uses first-party cookies left by sites the browser has visited directly. First-party cookies are essential to basic website operations, like keeping users logged in and remembering shopping carts. (Read more about how affiliate marketing uses cookies and why it is not threatened by third-party cookie bans.)

When the user clicks an affiliate link on the publisher or deals website, they are briefly sent to a network page for delivery of a first-party cookie (or, sometimes, the network page records the transaction on the server, which we’ll get into in a later article). The user is then sent to the merchant’s landing page.

After the user converts on the merchant’s website, the confirmation page loads a pixel that allows the network to read the user’s browser for its own cookie. If said cookie is found, it looks up the click history of that user, then determines which affiliate gets the commission. If no network cookie is found, then an alternative tracking approach might work, such as an affiliate-exclusive coupon code.

These cookies have an expiration date, often called the “number of return days,” which is the length of time a visitor has to return to the site and convert for the affiliate to get credit. If the visitor converts before the cookie expires, the affiliate gets credit for the conversion. (Of course, if the user clicked on another affiliate link during that time, the more recent affiliate would typically get credit.)

Browser-based pixel tracking is mostly effective and easy to set up, but it does have shortcomings. For example, many mobile browsers and apps don’t keep cookies, so those are lost conversions. Likewise, any user can delete their browser cookies at any time.

Server-side tracking has a similar outcome to pixel-based tracking, but it uses a different method. Instead of leaving a cookie on the browser, the server collects information about the event and attaches a transaction ID to it. This ID is used to identify the device when it completes the transaction.

Server-side tracking is more reliable, but you’ll need to make sure the merchant’s network or tracking platform supports it. It also captures fewer data about the user, which is good for privacy regulations but bad for the merchant’s customer data.

While most of the industry uses cookie-based tracking, all the major networks and tracking platforms have developed options that go beyond cookies. For example, Awin offers “bounceless tracking“ through a master tag if you activate their tracking optimization plugin, and CJ has been developing cookieless tracking solutions through event IDs.

These solutions use server-side tracking not just to get around cookie restrictions but also to make sure affiliate marketing works in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Apple’s privacy policies, and other rules and regulations. In that sense, the industry has long been preparing for a cookie disruption and is positioned to ensure affiliate marketing works no matter what policies are changed.


keyboard with blue key that says Track Sales

Who Tracks the Sales?


Merchants decide how their affiliate programs will track and attribute sales, but it usually starts with the affiliate networks. Every network has a method to attribute sales back to their publishers and make sure they get paid.

When an affiliate signs up with a network, they generally get IDs. Different networks call them different things, but these are common:

  • an affiliate or account ID
  • website ID
  • Ad ID
  • ID optimized to use in links

One or more of these affiliate IDs 一 along with a merchant ID 一 are included in every cookie. As long as the cookie is intact, so is its attribution to that publisher and merchant.

For per-click conversions, attribution is made when a user clicks a link on a publisher’s website and is sent to a merchant’s platform, where the cookie is recognized. If the conversion metric calls for another action, such as the user filling out a lead form or making a purchase within 30 days, the cookie just needs to be active in their browser when they take that action. This allows an accurate commission to be paid.



How Are Tracking Software Platforms Different From Affiliate Networks?


Not every merchant or publisher is satisfied with relying on network attribution. Many install tracking software platforms.

These platforms play a similar role to affiliate networks in tracking link interactions, but they’re usually used by merchants that manage their own affiliate programs. Tracking software platforms don’t do as much to connect merchants with new publishers, but they offer many of the same communication, tracking, performance, and support features as affiliate networks. However, a tracking software platform is often more transparent since it supports the merchant’s affiliate network.

Publishers install tracking software platforms when they want more visibility into their affiliate link performance than their network allows, or to ensure there’s no discrepancy in how they’re getting paid.


Tracking Software

FMTC Trackonomics


No matter what affiliate tracking solution you choose, let FMTC streamline your management with our Trackonomics dashboard integration. Trackonomics consolidates all your affiliate data into one easy-to-read dashboard. Have your affiliate network and tracking platform data in the same place, along with other info about your affiliates and their performance.

If you’re ready to see the difference FMTC can make to your affiliate marketing, contact us today for a free demo that can change your affiliate program forever.