Our attention was drawn to a YouTube video that shed light on how US affiliates have been utilising Snapchat to employ cookie-stuffing strategies, taking credit for traffic that they did not actually refer.  

As a leading affiliate marketing tracking software company, we recognise the gravity of these allegations and believe it is important to clarify that cookie stuffing is not a novel practice introduced by Snapchat. In fact, it has been a pervasive issue for a long time, and pop-unders are just one of the many ways it has been carried out.

So, first of all, what is cookie stuffing?

Cookie stuffing is a strategy affiliates may use to get credit for a customer, without having really referred that customer to the operator. In essence, the affiliate triggers a request against a tracking link (i.e. generates a click) on behalf of the visitor, without their knowledge. Once the click is generated, the tracking cookie is set to capture the tracking token/ Btag, which would link to the affiliate and assign this visitor to belong to that affiliate in the future.

If the visitor joins from any other path after that, their browser already has a cookie set to credit the affiliate despite not having, in reality, clicked on the tracking URL.

Of course, this is a problem, because this means that operators are rewarding affiliates despite them not successfully referring the customers. But not only, this also means that other affiliates may miss out on getting paid for the traffic they refer to because it is being overwritten by cookie-stuffing affiliates.

Fraudulent affiliates may be using different strategies for cookie stuffing, some are very simple, and others are more elaborate. 

A rudimentary strategy of cookie stuffing is the use of pop-unders, where the visitor visits the affiliate’s site and the tracking URL is automatically opened in a background browser window, resulting in a cookie being set to credit the referral of the visitor.

Another strategy involves using JavaScript to perform a background request to the tracking URL without opening a background web browser. In this way, the visitor does not have browser windows opened automatically, but the request occurs without their knowledge. 

However, this strategy takes advantage of Third-party Cookies (aka Cross-site Cookies) support in the browser. Modern browsers such as Firefox (and soon Chrome) will (by default) automatically block cookies that would be set using this strategy.

Snapchat has also been identified as a platform that enables cookie stuffing. Where an affiliate may publish their ad in Snapshot, they have the option to enable Smart Prefetching of the URL for the ad. This feature is intended to improve the user experience by pre-loading the page for the ad so it opens instantly if the user clicks the ad. However, it works by opening the URL for the ad in the background for every visitor who views the ad, resulting in the tracking cookie being set for every ad impression.

So, is there a way to stop affiliates from using cookie-stuffing strategies?

First of all, it is important to understand that MyAffiliates itself is not vulnerable to cookie stuffing, as our technology does not use cookies to track clicks. Instead of using cookies, it passes the information in the landing page URL as an encoded packet, known as a tracking token.

However, it is common practice for operators to use cookie tracking on the landing page to capture the token for preservation. This is when the operator and the affiliate program become vulnerable to cookie stuffing.

The landing page developers responsible for reading and writing the cookies can employ strategies to mitigate the effect of cookie stuffing. Of course, these strategies may have varying degrees of effectiveness.

The first one is quite a simple one. Checking when the cookie was set, versus when the custom joined. However, more complex strategies, such as fingerprinting devices and analysing traffic, may be more efficient. 

Also, acquiring the visitor’s consent before setting the cookies may be an effective strategy for visitors who have not yet visited the operator site, as it requires the user to be present at the web page to accept the cookie.

Can affiliates participating in cookie-stuffing activities be identified?

Affiliates who generate an extremely high number of clicks with a proportionally low number of signups may be employing cookie-stuffing strategies, and these are the kind of affiliates you need to keep an eye out on.

As the leading affiliate marketing tracking software, MyAffiliates also has the ability to identify which other affiliates a customer has clicked the banner of, in addition to the affiliate who was ultimately credited for the referral. 

Some people in the industry suggest that multi-touch attribution for affiliates may be a way to solve or mitigate cookie-stuffing practices.

After running some queries on our software, our data analytics shows that it is not uncommon for some customers to have several touchpoints before converting as a customer.

This further reinforces that Multi-touch attribution models can be complex and require significant expertise to implement and analyse the data accurately. This complexity can lead to errors, and inaccurate data can lead to incorrect attribution of sales.

It is important to understand that multi-touch attribution does not prevent cookie stuffing: It is merely a model that assigns credit for a conversion to multiple touchpoints. Cookie stuffing can still occur even if multi-touch attribution is used.

Cookie stuffing can still manipulate the model by placing unauthorised cookies on a user’s device at various touchpoints in the customer journey to earn commissions on sales they did not refer, because it is clear that the root cause of cookie stuffing is the lack of trust and transparency in affiliate marketing. Multi-touch attribution does not address this issue and may even make it more difficult to detect and prevent cookie stuffing.

In conclusion, cookie stuffing is a known issue in the world of affiliate marketing, and it is important for operators and affiliates to be aware of the risks and potential negative consequences. While cookie stuffing is not a new practice, it remains a concern, particularly with the advent of new technologies and platforms like Snapchat that make it easier for affiliates to engage in this fraudulent activity.

To combat cookie stuffing, operators can take steps such as implementing anti-fraud measures, monitoring affiliate activities, and being vigilant about tracking cookies. Additionally, affiliates must ensure that their strategies comply with ethical and legal guidelines, avoiding any tactics that may be deemed fraudulent or manipulative.

Furthermore, to further reduce this issue, companies must focus on building trust and transparency in affiliate marketing and implementing robust measures to detect and prevent cookie stuffing.

Ultimately, affiliate marketing success depends on trust and transparency, and cookie stuffing undermines these values. To address this issue, affiliate tracking softwares like MyAffiliates, operators and affiliates need to work together to help ensure that affiliate marketing remains a viable and legitimate means of driving revenue for all parties involved.