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Affiliate Networks Technology

Joe Black
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Hi all,
I'm studing affiliate marketing networks, and I was wondering if anybody
knows how Affiliate Service Providers (ASPs)like or
track successful sales on merchant websites.

As far as I know the algorithm should be:
1) The affiliate publishes a link with his ID and the Merchant ID in his
website (ie.
2) The visitor clicks on the link with the intention to buy from the
3) The link takes the visitor to the site of the Affiliate Service
Provider (in this case that logs the visit, referrer, etc. and
sets a cookie in the visitor's PC
4) The visitor is redirected the the Merchant's web site that logs the
new visitor as coming from the ASP either by reading a special ID on the
GET string or by reading the referrer value
5) The visitor proceeds to shop while the Merchant tracks the visitor
around the site with an id binding it to the ASP and probably the Affiliate
6) The visitor checks out paying on a secure server with a credit card

Now here comes the puzzle. How does the Merchant notify the ASP of the
successful transaction?
My hypothesis are:
- The ASP gives the Merchant a snippet of code to be embedded in the
source code of the "Thank you" page that connects to the ASP server
notifying the details of the succesful transaction.
- The ASP tells the Merchant to embed an <IMG> tag in the "Thank you"
page linking to a server-side script in the ASP server.
- The ASP gives/sells a custom e-commerce platform along with the
subscription to the service to the Merchant (not likely)
- The ASP tracks the visitor throughout his "journey" on the Merchant's
webserver via embedded <IMG> tag or some other tracking technique,
including his checkout process in the HTTPS secure pages (not likely).

All of these artifices are perfectly viable, but what puzzles me is that
they all suffer from one huge flaw: the merchant can cheat.
Obviously the whole point of tracking the visitor is to credit
successful sales to the rightful Affiliates (thus giving them the right
commission), but if the Merchant cleverly manipulates the server-side
code in his scripts, for example by randomly or deterministically
disabling ASP's tracking tecniques, he can receive free leads for sales
that neither the Affiliate nor the ASP will never be aware of.

Now, my big question is: am I missing something here or is the whole
model of affiliate networks heavily reliant on trust?

I would love to here from you guys if you know anything about the "real"
mechanics going on behind the scenes of ASPs.

Joe Black
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