Using cookies on mobile traffic 101

Illustration of people sitting on a laptop, with several cookies behind them.
Published: July 21, 2020

Category: Affiliate marketing guides

Mobile traffic has taken the internet over. More than half of all web traffic comes from different mobile devices. Hence, some changes need to be made in tracking site activity. Here is what you need to know about cookies on mobile traffic.

What Are Cookies and How Do They Work?

Cookies are small files, usually consisting of bits of information in text form, that can be encrypted. They are stored on a user’s computer by different website, and their function is to remember visits to said websites.

On one hand, there are first party cookies, that come from the website itself. Their primary objective is to make site use more pleasant and as smooth and easy as possible. They make sure the preferences user has set on their first visit to the site, such as themes, measuring systems, passwords etc don’t have to be adjusted with each visit. In short – they store information specific to that site alone, and are retrieved the next time you visit it for a smoother experience.

Illustration of people in suits looking at screens with a cookie behind them.
Cookies are crucial for any affiliate campaign.

On the other hand, there are third-party cookies, which most often come from different advertising networks. They help advertisers tailor ads to a specific user. These cookies store information about users’ browsing habits and cut down advertising costs by placing ads for products and services most likely to be sold to that user. Thus, they can help lead generation by showing products to the right people.

To put it simply; cookies are a very useful tool for tracking user activity and affinities, at least when it comes to data coming from computers. On the other hand, the digital landscape has changed irreversibly when it comes to other devices. Thus, using cookies on mobile traffic may not be the best move.

Current state of web traffic

More than half of the world’s population has the access to the internet. This is possible in part because of the rising accessibility of mobile devices, such as cell phones and tablets. In the last few years people started using mobile devices for internet browsing more than desktop or laptop computers. This isn’t strange if we consider the fact that mobile devices can be taken anywhere and are convenient for casual use at any time.

For this reason, online advertising has started to change, as different devices have different dimensions and needs. People aren’t going to buy from a website they can’t access or read properly from their cellphone. Hence, optimizing sites for mobile devices became a marketing priority, as well as tracking those mobile devices.

Cookies and Mobile Apps

Cookies are relatively simple as a concept. Also, they were originally made to be used in a number of different browsers and operating systems. When it comes to mobile devices, cookies need to be able to work in various and ever-changing operating systems, mobile browsers, as well as a multitude of applications, all made by many different developers and companies. The uniform environment of computer created traffic enabled cookies to have insight on basically all online activities coming from a single device.

Illustration of a document with the title ''Cookie Policy''.
Cookies can tell advertiser all they need to know about a user, as long as they only use a computer.

However, the multitude of app developers and their methods of work don’t provide this easy to understand environment to cookies on mobile traffic. Additionally, many users have multiple mobile devices. An average user can have, for example, a personal and work cellphone as well as a tablet. The more affluent the user is, the more devices they’ll have. Tracking user activity over a plethora of devices, operating systems and applications has proven to be difficult for such simple tools as cookies. Surely, no one can claim the era of the cookie is over, but they are definitely increasingly less useful, especially the cookies on mobile traffic.

Understanding mobile tracking

Many publishers have started driving high quality mobile traffic, but a lot of advertisers don’t understand its inner workings. Thus, they don’t know how to properly compensate for mobile traffic and many affiliates feel the consequences.

For example, some advertisers won’t track, and hence pay for, user app installations. This is not a good business model because many actions advertisers regularly pay for aren’t possible without previous installation. You can’t register for an app, make purchases in it, or subscribe if you don’t have the application installed on your mobile device. At Affie.com we believe affiliate publishers should be rewarded for all of their contributions, including installations.

Illustration of people sitting on the word ''cookies'' and looking at different stats, computers and phones.
Cookies can help affiliates when it comes to desktop or laptop traffic.

On the other hand, some publishers will refuse to work with advertisers who won’t track all actions. To put it differently: Either the affiliates are not being paid properly, or the advertisers lose an opportunity for a high-quality mobile traffic source. This is why affiliate marketing demands a way to track all user action from the moment they click the affiliate link.

As we previously stated, cookies aren’t complex enough for this level of tracking anymore. For this reason, alternative tracking methods were created. They include

  • Client specific ID
  • Device specific ID
  • Statistical ID
  • Digital fingerprinting

Another, hypothetical method would be universal login tracking. Here’s what you need to know about these methods

Client and device specific IDs usually don’t allow users to opt-out of tracking, raising privacy concerns. They include Apple’s Unique device identifier (UDID) and ID for advertisers (IDFA), as well as Google’s Android ID. Another concern is the inability to connect different devices used by a single user.

Statistical IDs are algorithms that operate off the user’s device but still use its information, as well as the information provided by the gateway the device uses when accessing the internet. As their name says, they are based on statistics, and thus, can’t predict users’ behavior with certainty.

Digital fingerprinting consists of different methods to track users across platforms. What they have in common is that they use different data points, such as WiFi networks a user has access to, device IDs, time zones, language settings on devices and types of sites the user frequents. Of course, this method raises many privacy concerns and it is still a work in progress.

Universal login tracking is a conceptual tracking method that would need permission from all parties. It would offer a single dashboard solution for all devices and universal login for them. Much like smart home solutions (Alexa, Amazon echo etc), it would offer many customization options.

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