Many affiliates offer an honest additional marketing channel that is necessary for your marketing mix. However, there are affiliates who are looking for ways to beat your system, beat the search system and hide when you try to find them.
Here are specific things you should watch out for:
Direct linking. Direct linking in paid search is where the affiliate copies your ad copy, uses your display url, and then links the traffic through an affiliate URL directly to your website—in essence, hijacking your well thought out search strategy, bumping your own ads out of the listings, and circumventing your affiliate program rules. I covered this activity more specifically in the following articles: Direct Linking Affiliates Nuisance or Real Problem, and Display URL Traffic Tricks Used by Brand Hijackers.
Link cloaking. Link cloaking is a method used to make a long affiliate URL link into a shorter and prettier one—often to the detriment of a brand. For example: http://affiliatename.hop.affiliateprogram.com becomes http://affiliate.com/merchant.php. Cloaked links look prettier but make it challenging for merchants to identify and monitor their affiliates effectively. You can require that your affiliates either do not engage in link cloaking or you can supply a link cloaking software to your affiliates so that you can detect cloaked links more easily. I covered this activity in greater detail in the following article: Be Careful When Your Affiliates Practice Link Cloaking .
Brand bidding by someone else’s affiliate(s). This is a technique deployed to avoid contractual brand bidding restrictions. Let’s say your affiliate agreement prohibits brand bidding on sponsored search. To get around this restriction, the affiliate will sign up for a competitor’s affiliate program, and then bid on your brand, while promoting the competitor. Typically in this scenario, the affiliate operates multiple websites. It will sign-up one of its sites for your affiliate program, bid on your competitor’s brands, then sign-up the other of its website(s) to the competitor’s affiliate program and bid on your brand. To protect yourself from this activity and empower yourself to take action when discovered be sure to make it clear in your affiliate agreement that the affiliate or any website or business owned or operated by the affiliate is not allowed to bid on your brand.
Evading detection. When an affiliate is engaged in a practice that violates the terms of your affiliate agreement, there is also a good chance that the affiliate has deployed methods to evade detection from you.
This is generally done in one of two ways. The first involves avoiding specific referrers. The affiliate checks the user’s browser referrer (the URL of the website they were visiting before clicking on the affiliate’s ad) and then either accepts or avoids specific referrers. If the referrer matches to the affiliate’s database of “accepted” referrers, the affiliate will direct your visit through its affiliate link. If the referrer is empty (e.g. you typed the destination URL directly into your browser), doesn’t match the “accepted” referrers (e.g. is not Google, Yahoo, or Bing), or is listed by the affiliate as a “bad” referrer (e.g. if you clicked on a link from within a web analytics program), then the affiliate will not direct your traffic through its affiliate link, and instead send you directly to the merchant’s landing page. Thus, it evades detection by preventing you from seeing its affiliate link.
Another technique involves exploiting the user’s browser history. Yes, browsing history can be viewed. All browsers expose information usually to provide the user with navigational features (for example, visited links change from blue to purple). The affiliate exploits these features and checks the user’s browsing history, then determines whether to direct them through its affiliate link or not.
Users who have ever visited a web analytics website, an affiliate monitoring/tracking program, an brand’s official website or an affiliate network website will be evaded. There are several known hacks that affiliates use, such as the CSS history hack which plays on visited links, or exploiting web caching by measuring the time required to access a particular resource and deducing that it’s either in the users cache or not. Mozilla has a fix for some of these browser leaks. Read more about this here: Plugging the CSS History Leak.
To outsmart an affiliate evader, you should cloak your browsing history by using a different browser—for example, use IE if you usually browse using Firefox, clear your history and your cache before clicking through the affiliate’s ad or suspected URL, and do not click from within your analytics program. You can also try this Firefox plug-in (which I have not used): Safe History Plug-In .
There are other bad guy affiliate techniques deployed such as cookie stuffing which I will cover in a future piece. In the meantime, be aware of how your affiliates might be both circumventing your rules and evading detection by you at the same time.
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