Why use Cloaked Links and How to implement them

Why Affiliate Marketers use Cloaked Links

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).

Why use Cloaked Links and How to implement them

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.

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An example of a regular looking affiliate links:

https://affiliatesite.com/~affiliat/cgi-bin/affiliates/clickthru.cgi?id=yourname

NOTE: The above link is fictitious and used as an example

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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).

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Uncloaked Link = https://affiliatesite.com/~affiliat/cgi-bin/affiliates/clickthru.cgi?id=yourname

Cloaked Link = https://duanereeve.com/go/affiliatesite

(again, these are fictitious links)

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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.

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Before you feel that using cloaked Links shouldn’t be done at all…

Consider this: Google owns it’s own URL Shortner – https://goo.gl/

At the end of the day, a goo.gl URL is a cloaked link too.

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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.

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Here is an example of this using the URL Shortening Service Bitly.com

If your Affiliate link is:

https://affiliatesite.com/~affiliat/cgi-bin/affiliates/clickthru.cgi?id=yourname

The ideal Bitly link would be:

bitly.com/affiliatesite

But you will probably end up with:

bitly.com/affiliatesiteyourname (or) bitly.com/affiliatesite234 (or some other variation)

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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:

http://tinyurl.com/ (No tracking)
https://bitly.com/ (with tracking)
https://goo.gl/ (Needless to say; Google Friendly)

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I stopped using online services for Affiliate links a long time ago. I still use them for shortening other links, but no longer for affiliate products I promote. Bitly.com was my preferred service, but they started blocking my affiliate links. If a user clicked on my Bitly Shortened URL, they would be faced with a Warning Notice telling them ‘the link might be an untrusted link’. Really, would you buy via any link when faced with such a notice? I won’t. After logging support requests when this occurred, it was usually rectified, but would re-occur with the next link I shortend and I’d have to fight to get the notification lifted each and every time -Then I found out about WordPress Plugins that could shorten links…

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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’
CLICK HERE!

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.

Lastly (as far as I know) you can cloak URLs with JavaScript

Again, this is left for the more techie types, but you can get and implement URL Redirects using JavaScript. I played around with this once before and couldn’t get it to work on my WordPress site. I assumed this was due to the way in which WordPress used to handle code snippets. This was a long time ago and I think it may be possible with the newer versions of WordPress. Feel free to experiment for yourselves; for me… I’d rather revert to using a WP Plugin.

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.

 

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Comments

  1. Duane, this was a very good and detailed explanation about link cloaking. Thank you for going into detail about how it could affect you with Google. Your list of resources was also helpful.
    Roy Miller recently posted…What Is Periscope?My Profile

    1. Hi Roy – Glad you enjoyed the post and managed to get some benefit from it.

  2. Hi Duane,
    Great article. It’s funny, I was just trying to get a masking software, but was having a problem. I won’t mention it’s name, but I needed to upload an ftp file. I tried using filezilla and was failing. So I called hostgator and they told me I needed a “dedicated” host or site to upload ftp files. So I wasn’t able to use it. So this article came along and saved the day! Thank you.

    Peter Young
    http://www.bloggingtreasure.com

    1. Hi Peter – Currently my blog is hosted with HostGator via my Reseller Account, which is in essences, HostGator Shared-Hosting. I have never had an issue like the one you are describing, with regards to uploading files via FTP (I also use Filezilla). If you are trying to upload a script of sorts to the /root folders, this may be the reason they have said what they said. Sometimes the location required for the upload can affect other users on a shared-hosting environment.

      I hope this post has found you a resolution to your problem & feel free to contact me if you need assistance (use contact form)

  3. Hi Duane,
    At the recommendation of a friend, I recently purchased wp link shield and did not realize the full potential until reading your article! I will definitely start using it now! I feel like I got my college degree on link cloaking with all the information you provided here Duane! As Roy said, I was not aware of how it could affect you with Google.
    Barbara Dowling recently posted…Sunday Motivation – Using the LOAMy Profile

    1. Hi Barbara – I haven’t even covered everything WP Link Shield has to offer. My plan for next week is to dive into product and provide a more detailed review. WP Link Shield even protects your affiliate link when I user switches browsers so you don’t loose the commission.

  4. Well, it is wise to use a plugin for an affiliate link. But I think the link shortener is still very useful especially for those affiliate marketers who have not started using WordPress for one reason or another. I noticed the Warning Notice on youtube a few years back with link shorteners but I think that problem is now permanently solved.I still use link shorteners on some niche videos that I link straight to the product page, especially those I do not have a WordPress site on. This most be the link cloaking Bible.Thanks for the great value on this topic.
    Boris Qs recently posted…Tips on YouTube rankings for Affiliate Marketers (Part 1)My Profile

    1. Have to agree with you Boris Qs… There is definitely still a place for link shortening services. I also still use them a lot, I just don’t use them for Affiliate URL’s unless I really have to for some obscure reason or if they are old urls I’m still running from years ago. Appreciate your comment – Link Sharing Bible 🙂

  5. Great Article Duane,

    That is one thing I add to the client website, an ability to use a cloaked link redirect if they want it. Of course, I provide training on how to use the plugin, which is very simple with pretty link lite. I do not give them the pro-version, or try to sell them on it.

    I have been looking at the other one Wp Link Shield when it came out, and will have a closer look at it in the near future.
    Carlos Cortez recently posted…How To Register Your Domain NameMy Profile

    1. Hi Carlos – I usually include this redirection plugin to my client site in case they need to redirect users internally on their site. Any traffic that comes to the old URLs are seamlessly redirected to the new URL or the relevant page/post.

  6. Hey Duane

    There’s a lot of detailed information here, thanks for sharing.

    I get totally confused about link cloaking. Maybe it’s because I confuse it with the cloaking that Google used to object to (unless it’s the same thing?). From what you say here it seems that it is less complicated than I thought.

    One thing I’m still wondering about is why modified links often have “/go/” in the middle. Is this required for some reason, or is it just a common way of doing these links?

    All the best

    Keiran
    Keiran recently posted…My First $1,000 Day OnlineMy Profile

    1. Hi Keiran
      Link cloaking is what it is: A method to change a url and to redirect users to a page of your choice without using the original url. Google objects to deception and often unscrupulous marketers and hackers use redirect URLs (cloaked links) to con people to click and go to a page they would otherwise avoid. This is what Google objects to (dishonesty & deception).

      As for your question about the “/go/” folder…
      You don’t have to use such a directory string/folder, but it is often used to add another layer of protection to a cloaked link. You can setup a folder and call it anything you want (my affiliate links include “/likes/” instead of “/go/”). Basically, when a URL has such a folder, it means the links are being served using that folder. In my case this is a configuration option in the WP Link Shield Plugin and most other Link Cloaking plugins include this feature. There are cloaking plugins available that don’t use this method, but this is mostly the norm. Truth be told… I don’t like using the extra folder, but it does offer that extra protection if you add “Disallow: /foldername/” to your robots.txt file, which then prevents that folder from being indexed by the Search Engines.

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