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It's Halloween and time for two true tales of tracking that went terribly wrong.

The scariest part of these cautionary stories is that either one could so easily happen again.

The cuckoo cookie

Many species of cuckoos can be rather sinister birds. The technical term is 'brood parasite'. Could that be a name of a David Cronenberg movie? The cuckoo lays their egg in the nest of another bird and tricks the other bird into feeding and raising her chick. Sometimes, in order to pass off the deception, any eggs in the original nest which look too different from the cuckoo's egg are thrown out.

Many companies these days use a web interface in conjunction with their call centres. When a customer rings the call centre and places an order then the operator uses either the very same interface as any internet customer would in order complete the transaction.

I know of at least one occasion when an affiliate cookie ended up on the PC of one of the call centre operators. I've even spoken to the affiliate who benefited and this is where the story comes from.

With the affiliate cookie on the call centre operator's PC it meant that whenever the operator placed an order on the system that came in over the phone that commission was given to an affiliate who had nothing to do with the sale. With a thirty day and multiple order cookie it meant that this continued and re-occurred undetected for a month. The company in question awarded the affiliate with several hundred pounds worth of commission for sales that he did not generate.

Fortunately this tale has a happy ending. The mistake was noticed. The company decided to let the affiliate keep the commission - after all, it was not his mistake. In exchange the affiliate went on to become one of the company's biggest lead generators (without the aid of the cuckoo cookie).

It just goes to show that not only does it pay to closely watch your affiliate statistics (look out for any unexpected spikes or dips) but it also pays to try and find mutually beneficial solutions with your affiliates should any problems arise.

The never-dying brochure
Most glossy brochures are printed with equally glossy URLs in them. In this particular tale an automobile company had produced a brochure to illustrate the safety features of their latest family car. On their website the URL to the safety feature page would have ended in something like ?model=&s=&f=. That's neither optimal for search nor a URL the marketing department wanted to force would-be car buyers to type in. The solution was simple, an alternative URL that was easier to remember, easier to type in and which redirected to the right page on the site. The brochure went to print with the URL ending in /safety/ rather than ?model=&s=&f=.

This is where it gets clever. The car company was naturally interested in how successful their brochure would be and had set up tracking on their glossy /safety/ URL. The website was coded to keep track of the number of times the special /safety/ URL was used. The marketing department then attributed all those visits to the brochure.

The brochure seemed to very well. Lots of visitors found the site via the specially tracked /safety/ URL. In fact, a month after the brochure had been included in the car magazine it had been distributed in the /safety/ URL was still sending plenty of traffic to the site. Two months, three months and even four months after the brochure had been distributed the /safety/ URL was sending a steady stream of traffic to the site and bringing in visitors from all around the world.

The marketing department were rightly suspicious. We were asked to investigate.

The brochure was not responsible for the traffic. On a car enthusiasts' social media site someone had linked to the /safety/ URL - rather than typing the address into their browser, they had typed it into the forum and shared it with other people. Google had found the /safety/ URL on the forum and added it to their index. When people searched for the make of the car and the word 'safety' then Google responded by including the /safety/ URL in the first page of results.

It was not the case that the brochure had found a way to self-perpetuate itself around the UK and never die - it was a search engine that was sending in all the traffic.

Unfortunately the automobile company had no way of reverse analysing the traffic and working out which visitors were really generated by the brochure and which had been generated by keyword searches on Google. Fortunately this is a trap that's easy to fall into and easy to get out of and with the right tweaks you can tell Google not to include the /safety/ URL in their index and to credit the original URL instead.

The cautionary point of this particular terrible tale is that it pays to be careful of redirects. The car company did well to be suspicious of the reported figures and to order an investigation.

Happy Halloween!

Andrew Girdwood

Published 31 October, 2007 by Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood is Media Innovations Director at DigitasLBi and a blogger for Econsultancy. He can be found on Twitter here and Google+ here.

41 more posts from this author

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