What are Cloaked Links and How I use them.
If you are not sure what Affiliate Marketing is, then please read this post first. Affiliate Marketers use cloaked links for numerous reasons. The most common being to track their affiliate link clicks and conversions; to provide better looking affiliate links for improved click through rates and to protect their commissions from something called link hijacking. Cloaked links, when used correctly will help your affiliate business, but use it incorrectly and you could hurt your sites Search Engine Rankings (SEO Stratergy).
What is a Cloaked Link
A Cloaked Link is the practice of hiding your affiliate marketing URLs by ‘swapping’ them with links that appear more user friendly. The actual process of cloaking links involves the creation of a ‘better looking‘, ‘more user friendly‘ link that your readers will trust and hopefully click on to buy the affiliate product you are marketing.
When you sign up as an affiliate for a product, the product vendor (or marketplace) assigns you an Affiliate Link. The default link is usually very long and/or nasty looking and screams ‘don’t trust me’. Also for some strange reason, some readers don’t like clicking on affiliate links and feel they will get a better deal if they go to the vendors site directly, which means you may loose the sale.
By using link cloaking technology you can turn those ugly looking URL’s into something more user friendly, more trustworthy and generally more useful. How I do this is discussed later on, but for now see an example below of an affiliate link that has been cloaked using the example Affiliate URL (shown above).
Now, I’m sure you agree the cloaked link:
- Appears more trustworthy
- Is better looking and easier to remember
- Correctly Identifies the product/service
Understanding the principles of URL Redirection
A Cloaked URL is basically an instruction that redirects a URL to another URL. The same can be applied to redirecting domains, but I won’t get into the technical aspects of what goes on when you implement these redirects. There are various types of redirects and you should at least have a basic understanding of how these affect your site before implementing them. For example…
- 301 Redirect – is a permanent redirect
- 302 Redirect – is a temporary redirect
- 307 Redirect – also a temporary redirect (meant to replace 302 redirects)
For a more detailed explanation of the types and reasons for redirects, see this wikipedia article.
Things to consider before implementing Cloaked Links
Before you decided to jump in without doing any further research, I think you need to understand that there is some risk when using Cloaked Links. General opinion is that Google frowns upon link cloaking and if you read the Google Webmaster Guidlines about link cloaking, it may come across as something you shouldn’t be doing at all. The truth is that Link Cloaking done correctly is an accepted practice, but done incorrectly to deliberately hide content or misdirect users or GoogleBot will get your site penalised and possibly even blacklisted.
What Google is really objecting to, is the use of cloaked Links in a decieptful or deceptive way. If you decided to implement Link Cloaking make sure you are being honest with your readers and that your cloaked URLS clearly indicate the product, brand or service you are promoting. As per the sample cloaked link above. My cloaked link still makes if very clear that the URL points to the ‘affiliatesite’ or ‘affiliate product’ I’m marketing.
Another thing to consider is the fact that some product vendors and/or affiliate marketplaces don’t like (or don’t permit) affiliates to use cloaked links. The most common reason for this is due to the fact that they use your ‘given’ affiliate link for tracking the source of their sales. By cloaking your affiliate URL, it is more difficult for them to track the source of the sale (i.e. Where the traffic came from). The reason they want to track this is to prevent Affiliates from using illegal marketing tactics to promote their products/services. It is pretty important that you read the affiliate agreement for each affiliate programme you belong too before you mask the links with cloaking. If you are in breach of a providers terms and conditions, you could get your account closed and loose any commission due.
How to implement Cloaked Links
I only know of four methods to implement link cloaking. There are probably more ways to do this and if I haven’t mentioned a method you know of, please feel free to mention them in the comments section below.
Online URL Shortening Services
The simplest way to cloak any URL is to use an online link shortening service. A quick Google search for ‘url shortener’ will bring back many results for online tools you can use. Like anything, some services are better than others and you need to do your homework before using them. One tip I can pass on, if you decide to use an online service, is to make sure it offers link tracking. The biggest drawback for me when using these online services is the fact that you have no control over the service. Also, when you use a particular service, your shortened link will include the providers domain name in that link. Furthermore, due to the number of people using these free services, you may not be able to create the shortened link using the exact term you require.
Why; because there are probably hundreds of affiliates trying to shorten their affiliate link using Bitly’s service and every shortend URL Bitly creates has to be unique and stored indefinitely for the user who got there first. If you are fortunate enough you might get something suitable, but in most cases you will have to try several variations to get an acceptable link.
Some URL shortening services you can use are:
WordPress Link Cloaking Plugins
If you are a Wordress user, which I assume you are, if you’re following my blog; then you are in luck. The whole process and/or techincal hurdles for creating cloaked links is easily done using WordPress Link Cloaking Plugins. There are several FREE Link Cloaking Plugins available in the WordPress Repository and a whole lot of Premium Plugins (Paid Versions) too. I started out using the FREE version of Pretty Links (Pretty Links Lite). Which suited me fine for a long time until I found out that it doesn’t cloak your link entirely. You see, what some link cloaking plugins do is; they cloak the link on your side, but after the link is clicked, your true link (affiliate link) is shown on the destination page. This is a good thing for the product vendor, but not good for the affiliate as this exposes the link you were trying to hide, in the first place. If link hijacking isn’t a concern, then I would highly recommend Pretty Links as a FREE Option.
Last week, I purchased WP Link Shield (my cloaked affiliate link) and while I have only had this installed for about 5-days, I love this product. Not only does it handle Link Cloaking, it also makes it easy for you to share your links via Facebook and Twitter. It also monitors your affiliate links and if a link is no longer available, it will detect this and redirect that traffic to another of my affiliate offers or a page of my choosing (see landing pages below).
With WP Link Shield I can also create a landing page for redirected traffic and it will automatically display other offers/links created from my list of already cloaked affiliate links. This is powerful stuff, simply because your visitor is brought back to your site and they are shown more of your offers when the original intended offer is no longer available. Normally, you would loose this visitor/traffic on the vendors non-existent offer (or 404-error page). Now they are automatically brought back to your site.
I intend writing a FULL BLOWN Review of WP Link Shield in the coming weeks, after I have used it for a little longer. For now, the only thing that disappoints me with this product is the fact that it doesn’t currently provide link tracking, which is essential. That being said; I have spoken with the Product Developer and both click tracking and conversion tracking are currently being tested and will be added in a future update (coming soon).
WP Link Shield is only $27 (at time of writing this post) and thus much cheaper than most other Premium Cloaking Plugins. There is a Sales Funnel, with some products that add to the features of WP Links Shield, but they are optional extras and not required for using the link cloaking features.
GET WP LINK SHIELD + MY BONUS’
Redirecting Links using .htaccess file
If you are not using WordPress or you like to get your hands dirty tackling code and setting FTP Permissions, then the best way to do link cloaking is by editing your .htaccess file. If you don’t know what the .htaccess file is, I’d recommend you use a plugin because messing up your .htaccess file could cripple your site. You also need to edit your robots.txt file to tell the search engines not to index or follow (noindex, nofollow) your cloaked links. Like I said, I use WP Link Shield for my link cloaking and this plugin makes the necessary changes for me. I have mentioned this manual method of cloaking for the ‘geeks’ (no offence) in the room and if you want to go this route, you’re better off researching this yourself because I have never tried it.
A final note on using Link Cloaking
No matter what solution you use for link cloaking, you need to ensure the following is taken care of. Redirects are handled via a 307/302 redirect and that these links are set to ‘nofollow’. The cloaked link should be cloaked both on your side and on the product vendors site to prevent commission hijacking. Your URLs should be user friendly and at the same time making it clear what they are pointing to (don’t deceive users or the search engines).
Conclusion: I hope this article helps you understand why affiliate marketers use link cloaking and gives you some helpful tips to implement link cloaking on your website or blog. As a final message, if you don’t do affiliate marketing then you probably have no need to cloak links. But, there will be a time when you will have to redirect links or domains, so take home from this, what you can.
Let me know your thoughts on cloaked links in the comments below.