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.
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.
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.
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.