Being involved with affiliate programs as a means of generating revenue from your web site can be very rewarding, but it's by no means a get rich quick strategy for the vast majority of site owners.
Previously when I've published articles regarding the challenges affiliates face with receiving the proper commissions for their hard work and referred sales, the focus has been on issues relating to merchant affiliate commission tracking problems and strategies to deal with people's aversion to clicking on affiliate links.
Aside from these usual problems that all affiliates and merchants face, there's a more sinister issue that can threaten the integrity of any affiliate program - stealware.
What is stealware?
Stealware is software that modifies affiliate tracking codes, replaces affiliate cookies on a users computer or "overlays" links on a web site with another affiliates tracking link - resulting in payments going to another person or company.
How does stealware end up on a computer?
As with adware and spyware, companies that create this software "piggy back" it onto applications such as toolbars, P2P applications and other freeware. Stealware is installed as part of the setup process for the main application and usually without the users full knowledge.
In most cases, the stealware application will be briefly mentioned in the EULA (End Users License Agreement), but given that these documents are so long and users are so eager to get the main software installed, the agreements are rarely read or understood.
Even if the user does remove the main application, in many cases the stealware will remain, thieving commissions from hard working affiliates for as long as it remains on the system.
How does stealware work?
To understand how stealware works, let's first examine how most software that powers the majority of affiliate programs works.
Most affiliate programs credit commissions based on the affiliate software interpreting cookies on the users' computer. A cookie is a text file containing information sent by a site to a user's browser. In the case of affiliate programs, the affiliate software issues the cookies.
Cookies include information such as login information, user preferences, shopping cart sessions and referral information such as an affiliate ID. The browser saves the cookie on the user's computer and sends it back to the site whenever the user visits again. This is an important point in relation to affiliate programs as users have a tendency not to purchase on the first visit. Most merchants set cookie durations of 7 - 90 days so that even if the person doesn't buy on the first visit, the affiliate will receive the commission when they do buy products and services later on.
If the user clicks an affiliate link on another site afterwards, then the cookie is overwritten with that affiliates information. This is standard practice throughout the affiliate industry; i.e., the last affiliate visited that results in a sale is the one who receives the commission. This method is based on the premise that the *last* affiliate visited had information on their site that triggered the person to buy, which is fair enough. If a user should visit a merchants' site again after clicking an affiliate link via another means; e.g. direct browser request or non-affiliate link, then the affiliate cookie is not overwritten.
If stealware is installed on a users computer, when an affiliate link on your site is clicked on by an "infected" user, instead of a cookie being set with your affiliate id and details, it is changed to the company controlling the stealware - if they are participating in that affiliate program.
To add insult to injury, stealware can also engage in "cookie stuffing". This is the process by which the software places hundreds of cookies of other merchants affiliate programs on a users computer. If that user then visits those sites and makes a purchase, the stealware powered affiliate receives the commissions.
Stealware can also affect non-cookie referrals, such as some programs that pay per click instead of a commission on sale. This is achieved by a virtual overwriting of the link on the affiliates site whereby the affiliate id in the link is "removed" and replace with the stealware affiliate id.
These unscrupulous affiliates do not spend hours creating content to attract visitors, sales pages and other marketing material like the rest of us. All they do is sign up for the affiliate programs and garner revenue through parasitical means. Their justification for this practice is that the revenue they generate allows them to continue providing their main software application for free. This is absolutely ridiculous of course - what gives them the right to hijack commissions when the actual affiliate they are stealing from probably doesn't even run their software!!
How widespread is the stealware problem?
Stealware isn't new; I've found references to the practice dating back to early 2002 - it's just become more common in recent times.
To me, stealware is just another form of online fraud and should be punishable under the same laws. Unlike most kinds of fraud on the web, this isn't perpetrated by the loner geek, the spam gangs and others we usually associate with this kind of crime.
Some very large, well known companies are reported to be involved in this activity. For obvious reasons, I won't publish names here, but if you're interested in finding out who is involved and how; just type "stealware" into Google and you'll have weeks of reading.
Given that roughly 15 to 20 percent of all online sales occur as a result of referrals from affiliates, it's easy to understand why companies spend the time and money on developing these ingenious and sinister software applications.
Protecting affiliate commissions from stealware
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do in terms of direct action, as the "power" belongs to the user and those companies running affiliate programs.
If users allow stealware to be installed on their computers; the chances are you'll lose commissions from any purchase they make with popular vendors. The only thing you can really do is not bother with affiliate programs where stealware powered affiliates are allowed to participate - and to that end, you need to find affiliate networks that you can trust.
Some affiliate networks will only pay commissions to affiliates if the lead/sale comes from a site registered under their profile - this can discourage stealware powered affiliates from signing up with a program. Again, it's a trust issue that the network or merchant will carry out this kind of screening.
The other weapon that affiliates have is in raising awareness of this problem. Alert consumers where you can about the stealware epidemic and point them to articles on the subject. While users may not care too much about who gets the commissions from their purchases; most will be outraged that software is being installed on their computers without their knowledge.
Another strategy is to put pressure on affiliate networks and merchants to terminate affiliates who generate revenue through using stealware - many of them may not be aware of this issue. Even if they are, explain to them that in the long run, allowing stealware affiliates to participate in their program, especially if it's publicized, will turn other affiliates away and create a very bad image for the company. Do not threaten, just inform. If you are aggressive or threatening in your approach; you will more than likely be ignored.
Related learning resources
Just starting out in affiliate marketing? Wanting to generate more revenue from affiliate programs? View our affiliate marketing tutorials section - links to articles on strategies, affiliate program and network reviews, tips and hints to help you achieve your goals!
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In Loving Memory - Mignon Ann Bloch
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