How Do Affiliate Links Work

If you are an affiliate marketer or want to make money online with affiliate marketing, you must know the ins and outs of affiliate marketing. The most important thing you need to know is how do affiliate links work. Your affiliate earnings depend on affiliate links and a clear understanding of how these links work is vital.

The money you make with affiliate marketing depends on your affiliate links. People click links, complete a purchase, and you get your commission. This is what most of the affiliates know. They don’t bother understanding the complete process behind affiliate links. However, it is essential to know the backend process.


Because your affiliate earnings are linked to it. You’ll be able to optimize affiliate links resulting in an increase in affiliate commissions.

So, let’s get started…

What is an Affiliate Link?

An affiliate link (or referral link) is a unique URL that contains your affiliate ID or username or any unique identification key. It tracks clicks, traffic, and sales. Each affiliate has a unique affiliate link so it gets easier to identify and attribute traffic and clicks generated by different affiliates.

Here are affiliate link examples:

affiliate links example

As you can see, each affiliate link either contains a unique username or affiliate ID in the URL. This is how affiliate links are differentiated and sales are attributed.

Affiliate networks use different affiliate link formats. However, these affiliate links are always unique. Just like an email ID is unique and if it is taken, you can’t have it. The same is the case with affiliate usernames and IDs.

Here is the format of ClickBank affiliate links:

clickbank hoplink examples

All the three formats contain affiliate usernames that are always unique.

How Do Affiliate Links Work?

You have your unique affiliate link and you are actively promoting affiliate products on Instagram. What happens when someone clicks your affiliate link? How affiliate links are tracked and how do you get commission?

Let’s find out:

Step #1: Affiliate Link Click

So, the first step is that a user clicks your affiliate link and visits the merchant website. This is the first step that creates a cookie.


Step #2: Cookie Creation

A browser cookie or simply a cookie is a text file that contains specific data such as usernames. It serves several purposes such as identifying devices (e.g. computers).

When a user clicks your affiliate link and visits the merchant website, a cookie is created and saved in the user browser. This cookie stores your affiliate ID or username that is used for identification.

Here is how this process works:

how cookies work

The server sends the merchant website along with a cookie that is stored in the browser. This cookie is used to identify affiliate ID for further processing.

Step #3: Purchase Completion

There are two instances for purchase completion:

  1. The user buys the affiliate product right away.
  2. The user leaves the merchant website and visits again for purchase.

In the case of the first scenario, the server already knows your affiliate ID, so the sale will be attributed to your ID.

However, if the user leaves the merchant website without buying, the cookie is still saved in his/her browser. And you’ll be credited for the sale if this user visits the merchant website directly.

When a user requests a merchant website, the server receives all the cookies and verifies if there is any valid affiliate ID available. If so, you’ll receive a credit for the sale.

You’ll get credit in both cases.

Step #4: Sale Attribution

Once the purchase is completed, the cookie is used to identify the affiliate who generated the click. You’ll get your commission.

Cookie Duration of Affiliate Links

Affiliate links and your commission, therefore, depend on cookies. More people click your affiliate link, the more cookies you will have. And this means whenever those people will buy that product, you’ll get your commission.

But what’s the duration of an affiliate cookie?

It depends.

Affiliate networks and merchants have different cookie durations. For example, Amazon cookies expire after 24 hours while ClickBank cookies expire after 60 days.

When a cookie expires, it is removed from the user’s browser and you’ll not be credited for the sale.

If the user clears browser cookies, it will remove your cookie from the browser.

In the worst case, if a user has cookies turned off, the cookie will expire as soon as the browser is closed. A lot of internet users have their cookies disabled due to privacy concerns. And others delete cookies regularly.

 A study found that 3 in every 10 internet users delete cookies in a month with an average deletion frequency of 4x per month.

When cookies are deleted, you’ll eventually lose your commission for all the users who clicked your affiliate link but didn’t buy the affiliate product.

You must persuade your target audience to proceed with the purchase immediately so you’ll get credited for your efforts.

Multiple Affiliate Link Clicks

What if a user clicks your affiliate link and doesn’t buy, and the next day clicks another affiliate link and ends up buying the product?

Who will get credited for this affiliate sale?

Well, it depends on the affiliate network and merchant.

In most cases, the first affiliate gets the commission. In other cases, the most recent (or last) affiliate gets the commission.

It depends on the affiliate network policy.

Final Words

Now that you know how do affiliate links work and the complications involved, you are in a much better position to boost your affiliate earnings.


Make sure your target audience completes the purchase immediately. Give them an incentive to complete the purchase right away without leaving the merchant website. This is the best technique that professional affiliate marketers use.

Better yet, you must collect their email address so you can send them affiliate links via email. This will ensure that your affiliate link is always the last link they clicked.

Don’t let a tiny cookie ruin your earnings. Take charge.

Featured Image: Unsplash

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