I started my workday with my friend Scott Jangro’s fairly gloomy take on the future of affiliate marketing. In his words, we’re screwed, in part because Google opted to bypass user privacy settings and set cookies in instances where users explicitly indicated they didn’t want cookies to be set. Google is being fined a reported $22.5 million by the FTC as a result of their actions.
As Jangro correctly points out, “do not track” is best characterized as a user request not to be tracked. There is some confusion around what signifies a request by a user not to be tracked. Browsers have long maintained an option to block various types of cookies. IE9 and Safari block third-party cookies as a default behavior, but allow first-party cookies. Google Chrome allows all cookies by default.
For the most part, neither of these defaults prevents the majority of affiliate cookies from being tracked. Google Affiliate Network is currently unable to use conversion pixels in Safari, but that’s actually because GAN uses the same DoubleClick cookies that were side-stepping user security preferences. That said, Do Not Track isn’t directly related to whether or not a user’s browser has cookie blocking enabled or not.
So if Do Not Track isn’t about browser cookie settings, what is it?
At the moment, the accepted FTC guidance around Do Not Track is that behavioral targeting respect a specific Do Not Track indicator in the client browser on a user’s computer. This is separate from any cookie blocking preference. If a user has turned on Do Not Track, then no behavioral targeting data should be used to personalize the user’s browsing experience.
Do Not Track as it currently exists should not impact the ability of affiliate programs to track conversions with cookies. I haven’t seen any indication that a transaction is considered a targeted behavior. If a cookie is set when an user clicks an affiliate link, the only thing that cookie does is track whether the payable action occurs at some point later. An affiliate tracking cookie shouldn’t be able to show users any kind of targeted advertising based on their other online behavior.
More to the point, an affiliate tracking link has nothing to do with tracking user behavior. Affiliate tracking is exactly that, an effort to track sales and leads delivered by affiliates to determine who gets credit for the transaction.
The other thing to keep in mind is the limited scope of Do Not Track. The last time Firefox released statistics about Do Not Track usage in their browser, the number of users was only about 5%. While Microsoft is still planning to make Do Not Track a default setting in IE10, it remains a setting to deter behavioral targeting, not transaction tracking.
HasOffers provides server-to-server tracking, which relies on a merchant’s shopping cart software to log tracking information and talk back to the affiliate tracking platform to notify a conversion event was completed. Server-to-server tracking is more reliable than cookie tracking, because the tracking is happening with a combination of data stored on by the merchant shopping cart and first party cookies. Some HasOffers competitors are also adopting this approach.
The device fingerprinting technology we use for MobileAppTracking is also a far more reliable method for guaranteeing that the start and end point of a transaction match up.
While I appreciate the spirit of Jangro’s closing promise that marketers play fair, I don’t think that’s the solution. As a community, affiliate marketing needs to look at technology solutions that respect user privacy while still allowing transactions to happen. This means using solutions that don’t overlap with technology that’s being used to target user behavior. In the meantime, if Google needs a new solution for affiliate transactions, I’m pretty sure HasOffers dedicated solution could handle the traffic. ;)
On a loosely related note, one of the side effects of Google Affiliate Network using the same cookie as DoubleClick is that they are unable to track conversions from Apple’s Safari browser. GAN recently announced their plan to compensate affiliates who may have lost commissions due to this problem. Here’s my take on their resolution: