Link Cloaking, What is it?

I hear a lot about "link cloaking" and that I should be hiding my affiliate links to keep them from getting hijacked. Is this true?
-- Joe S.

What is Link Cloaking?

Link Cloaking is the technical practice of hiding an actual URL through a link on the local domain, or a through a benign third party domain.

URL shorteners, which we've all become so familiar with thanks to services like Twitter, is probably the most commonly seen link cloaking. When you use a service like bit.ly, tinyurl.com, is.gd, etc., you're technically cloaking links.

Why Would You Want to Cloak Links?

Most people use URL shorteners so that they simply make long URLs more manageable. If you've got a big long URL to a product on an ecommerce website and you want to put it in an email, a nice short URL that redirects to it is much easier to manage. URL shorteners become mandatory when using a service like Twitter where you've only got a very small number of characters to write a message.

Affiliate Marketing is sort of a special case where there are several other reasons that people want to cloak their affiliate links.

  • Hiding links from users -- there is a belief that consumers are becoming sensitive to the existence of affiliate codes in links and therefore a fear that they will work to bypass the affiliate tracking link by going directly to the merchant site manually. There may be some truth to this.
  • Hiding links from search engines -- some believe that search engines will look for fingerprints of affiliate links on websites to identify them as affiliates. Cloaking links can remove these fingerprints and hide them behind what looks like a local URL. It's a good idea to put these links in the robots.txt file so that search engines won't even try to follow them.
  • Prevent passing of "Link Juice" -- this works; URL shorteners use 302 redirects which are "temporary" redirects. Search engines generally discount any weight associated with these links.
  • Hiding links from "hijackers" -- this is bunk, and generally used as a fear technique to sell software. Any spyware or other software that is designed to "hijack" clicks isn't looking for affiliate links to replace the ID in. They'll be looking at where the click ends up and will do the hijacking there. Cloaking links will not stop this activity.

How do you cloak affiliate links?

If you're just cloaking a single link, the easiest thing to do is use a URL shortening service. TinyURL is the first service like this, but it has been overtaken by newer services fueled by the high demand for these services fueled by twitter. There are many, many services that add great features like custom URLs, click stats, header frames, etc.

If you're routinely cloaking links on your own websites, you're probably going to want to either set up a procedure on your own server, or even do something to automate this.

You can set up redirects manually in your .htaccess file, get a redirector or cloaking Wordpress plugin (if you're using Wordpress), get a third party URL shortener that you can host on your own server (like Shorty), or build something custom.

Most of our links are run through our own custom redirector for the purpose of tracking clicks. This has the secondary benefit of cloaking the link as well.

The technical details on how to cloak links is too much for this post, but I'll follow up with a post on a few methods of cloaking that you can easily do yourself.

Posted on Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 11:04:43 AM in Affiliate Marketing
Tags: affiliate,  link cloaking
Scott Jangro

By Scott Jangro

Scott Jangro is a co-founder of Shareist. He's an entrepreneur, an old school affiliate marketer, web developer, a dad, a cyclist, and golfer.

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