With respect to affiliate marketing, a data feed is an electronic transmission of product data from a merchant to an affiliate partner. The data is used to update a web site with current product information. In this article, we explain how a data feed works.
Most web entrepreneurs who decide to engage in affiliate marketing start out with a web site where they can add text links, advertising banners or contextual advertising, such as that found with the Google AdSense program. The next advanced step is to build web site using data feeds. Not all merchants with affiliate programs generate data feeds for their affiliate partners, but most larger merchants do. A data feed is used to either periodically update a site with new product data and pricing, or in some cases it can be used to provide real time information to dynamically generate an entire web site full of products.
A standard data feed is a text file containing all of a merchant’s product data. With some large merchants, such as Cabelas, a data feed can contain over 60,000 products, along with description, categories, standard pricing, sale pricing, links to product images, affiliate links to their web site, etc. This is basically all of the database data used to populate their own web site.
Depending upon how the merchant or affiliate network decides to deliver the data to you, it can be transferred to your site using an FTP account you set up, it could be something that you have to download from their site, or in some cases it can be e-mailed to you. Most data feeds are very large files, so we do not recommend that you use e-mail as an option. Product information in these files is updated weekly with some networks, or only periodically with others.
Most affiliate networks allow you to choose a file format for the data feed, but some require that you use their pre-determined format. Although the data is always organized, the file format determines how the file is read by a script. Choices are typically comma-delimited, tab-delimited, pipe-delimited or XML. A delimiter is a code or character used to separate the data fields. Comma-delimited files can sometimes be problematic to work with, so any of the remaining formats is typically a good choice.
After downloading a data feed file, it must be processed and transferred to a database in order to use it. If you do not transfer the data to a database, the web site will be excruciatingly slow. Fortunately, PHP and other popular server-side web languages make it easy to process data feeds and convert them into a usable form. The database is then used to create a dynamic web site that categorizes the products, displays product details and allows searches of the data.
The most advanced form of a data feed is a live XML feed, which is what Amazon.com and a few other top-level merchants use. A live feed contains real time data that is frequently updated throughout the day. That means price changes, new product additions, and other information is always up-to-date. There is no need to transfer data to a database with a live XML feed. Each time a user loads a category page or a product page the data is retrieved directly from Amazon’s server. This creates a totally dynamic web site that requires no database, no manual data feed downloads and no maintenance. The site is pretty much fully automated.