Affiliate tracking has come a long way in the short history of online advertising. Industry challenges and innovative business models have stimulated the development of many technologies and methods of tracking, and as a result, there are now a number of options for tracking and reporting conversions. Choosing the right conversion tracking method and implementing it correctly can be a little confusing, which is why I thought it was important to clarify the differences between client-side tracking and server-side tracking.
The Basics of Tracking Affiliate Marketing Campaigns
First you need to understand the basic flow of affiliate tracking. Affiliates copy their unique tracking links from an affiliate network or a technology platform like TUNE. This link is specific to each affiliate and is used to give credit to the affiliates sending users to the offer (or advertisement).
When a user clicks an affiliate link, it is recorded as a click and information is stored about the offer, the affiliate, and the user. If the user performs the desired action (purchases something, fills out a lead form, etc.), that stored information is then attached to a conversion. You can learn more in the TUNE Help article Basics of Tracking with TUNE.
Once you understand this concept, the best way to explain the major difference between client-side tracking and server-side tracking is by explaining where that tracking information is actually stored.
Client-side tracking relies on storing information on the actual user’s computer by placing a cookie in the user’s browser when an advertisement is clicked. If the user reaches the conversion page (final sale or lead), a tracking pixel that was placed on the conversion page sends the cookie information back to the tracking platform, recording a conversion for the proper affiliate. The two most common tracking pixel formats are iframe and image pixels.
These are automatically generated once an offer is created in an affiliate tracking software like TUNE. Placing this tracking pixel on the conversion page is the only thing required of an advertiser when using client-based tracking. For this reason, it is often the simplest way to set up conversion tracking. The ease of setup for advertisers and low requirement of technical savvy make client-side tracking an excellent solution for many networks.
Also known as server-to-server, server-side, server-based, and server call tracking, server-side tracking requires nothing to be placed on the user’s computer.
Many consider server-to-server tracking methods to be more accurate because conversions are not lost when a user has cookies disabled on their internet browser. Instead of using cookies to store information, server-side tracking stores information associated with the user, the affiliate, and the offer on a server and attaches it to some unique identifier. The most common unique identifiers generated by network software are Transaction IDs and Affiliate IDs. With server-side tracking, the advertiser is responsible for storing that unique identifier and passing it back to the tracking server when a user completes a conversion (also known as a server postback).
Setting up conversion tracking can be a little tricky the first time through, but after you successfully set up the first offer, the next one will be a piece of cake. I hope this helps clear up some confusion about conversion tracking methods and their implementation.
If you’re ready to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of four digital tracking methods, download our white paper, How to Become a Track Star: Your Guide to Tracking for Performance Marketing Campaigns.
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A digital marketer by background, Peter is CEO of TUNE, the enterprise platform for partner marketing. In 2018, he sold TUNE’s mobile measurement product to Branch, unifying measurement and user experience. Today, he leads TUNE’s efforts to bring better management technology and automation to marketing partnerships, across affiliates, influencers, networks, and business development relationships. Follow @peterhamilton