Last month, I came across an article in Business Insider about cookie stuffing, and how two eBay super affiliates got on the FBI shitlist for using it.
It’s a very compelling and shocking story – and I recommend you read it carefully – but what I want to talk about in this post is what cookie stuffing really means, why we avoided it in LinkTrackr, and why you should stay away from doing it yourself.
Shawn Hogan eBay Cookie Stuffing Saga
According to the article, Shawn Hogan, the CEO of DigitalPoint, and Brian Dunning, together generated more than $28 million in affiliate sales for eBay.
However, they did this with many “grey hat” methods at that time, including cookie stuffing. Today, cookie stuffing is a clear violation, but a few years ago everyone and their grandma was doing it without even thinking twice.
eBay has also prosecuted other affiliates for cookie stuffing, including a six month prison term for selling tools that can help other affiliates defraud eBay with the same cookie stuffing method. The most interesting part of the article, is that “some marketers do not appears to realize that cookie-stuffing can trigger criminal charges”.
Is cookie stuffing illegal?
Damn right it is. You can get away with it for a while, and you may even be doing it by accident. However, it’s still going to get you in trouble eventually.
So What Is Cookie Stuffing?
Every time you click on an affiliate link, the affiliate tracking software places a cookie on your computer. This cookie stores important data about your click, visited pages, and the referring affiliate. When you complete a purchase, the affiliate tracking system will locate this cookie on your computer, and with the information contained inside, reward the referring affiliate with a commission.
With cookie stuffing or cookie dropping however, you can make commissions from people who DID NOT click on your affiliate link at all.
In other words, you’re making money not by referring people to the merchant’s website as you should be doing, but by secretly loading the website (and dropping the affiliate cookie) in the background without the visitor’s knowledge.
Here are some common cookie stuffing methods:
- Image or iFrame cookie drops – With this method, you insert a 1×1 pixel image or iframe on your website that loads your affiliate link. For the visitor, your tiny image or iframe is invisible, but nevertheless he gets your affiliate cookie on his computer and you’ll make money off his purchase for all the cookies you drop.
- WordPress plugins – There are some WordPress plugins (I won’t mention them here) that basically do the method above, but in an automated way across all your posts, or only selected ones.
- Pop-ups or pop-unders – These are very easily blocked by your browsers today, but in the glory days of popups, tons of people used them to stuff cookies.
- Browser toolbars or malware – Shawn Hogan, in the eBay case, used browser toolbars that he created to implement cookie stuffing. Some computer software you’ve downloaded for free may also be stuffing cookies on your PC every time you use it.
- Adobe Flash and Flash components – Everyone knows Flash is not secure. You can load an affiliate link in Flash, both you your site and on third-party sites
Cookie stuffing works best for large affiliate programs like Amazon or eBay. Most US consumers buy from Amazon regularly, therefore by loading an Amazon affiliate link using cookie stuffing, you actually earn commissions from the visitor when he checks out at Amazon.com – even though you never actually brought him to any Amazon page.
Cookie Stuffing Script & Software
Before LinkTrackr, I used numerous tracking software to manage, redirect and cloak my affiliate links. Among those was a software called GoTryThis, and one of the features in that particular version I had was cookie stuffing. I used it, it worked, and I made easy commissions.
(I sent traffic to one web host as an affiliate, but also loaded cookies from all their competitors. So even if the visitor ended up buying hosting from someone else, I still got the commissions. )
I did it mostly as an experiment, and never really went all out with it as I felt it was wrong. Also, I understood the risk of using cookie stuffing, and that it might get my affiliate accounts banned.
Today, in LinkTrackr we have link cloaking and conversion tracking, but we made a conscious decision not to include any cookie stuffing capabilities. It can get us, and you, in a lot of trouble. It’s not worth the extra commissions you could be making by using the technique in the first place.
Still, we keep getting inquiries every now and then about cookie stuffing from many affiliate marketers.
Tons of cookie stuffing software still exist, mostly in “black hat” forms and closed groups. Here’s an example of one that proudly proclaim how awesome they are at cookie stuffing:
Use them, or don’t, you have to decide.
Whatever you decide on, you must be aware of the serious shit you can get into (did you read the article above) when you do cookie stuffing. There must be more legit ways of earning a living!