[This post is part of a series on Exploring Affiliate Marketing.]
I’ll get straight to the point: cloak your affiliate links and you’ll maximize their earning potential and save time managing your links. In my research, I came across seven important points that convinced me bloggers should cloak their affiliate links.
What is cloaking?
Link cloaking is when you make a link to a third-party website appear to point to another page on your blog. So when a reader hovers their cursor over the affiliate link, they see something like:
in their browser’s status bar instead of
1. Increase clickthroughs
Affiliate URLs are usually quite ugly. If someone hovers over an uncloaked affiliate link to StudioPress, they see something like this in their browser’s status bar (note not a real link):
It doesn’t look very elegant, and the fact that it goes to a seemingly unrelated site might prevent a wary reader from clicking on the affiliate link.
However, I can (and do) cloak my StudioPress and other affiliate links by creating an internal link that redirects to the affiliate link. Doesn’t this URL look more inviting?
It appears to go a page on my own site, so the trustworthiness of the link is much higher than the naked ShareASale link.
2. Higher email delivery rates
If you put affiliate links in an email to your subscribers, cloaked links are less likely to trigger spam filters than bare affiliate links. Overzealous affiliate email marketers can cause the domain of an affiliate program to get blacklisted by spam filters. So any email you send containing a blacklisted link might never reach your subscribers.
If you send text-only emails, cloaked URLs which tend to be shorter are also less likely to improperly formatted by email clients than long affiliate URLs.
3. Easier link management
What if your affiliate program changed the links to its products or closed business? Unless you’re comfortable with database editing, it’d be a big chore to go back through all your posts and change the links.
If you use a plugin like Simple URLs to cloak your links, you only have to change the link in one place—very convenient.
4. Reduced commission loss
A lot of affiliate marketing websites (usually ones that push cloaking software) warn of malware on your visitor’s computers that can replace your affiliate code with another affiliate code, stealing your commission. The thing is, I can’t find any hard data on how prevalent this might be. There’s really nothing you can do about it, anyway, except partner with networks such as ShareASale or Commission Junction that actively discourage these “parasite” affiliates.
Another form of hijacking is when someone arrives at a product page, and then replaces your affiliate code in the address bar with his own code. However, this is only an issue with programs like ClickBank that allow affiliates to make purchases through their own links. If you belong to one of these programs, then cloaking will help.
Cloaking will also help against bypassers, who, when they notice they’re about to click on an affiliate link, will just chop off the affiliate ID and go straight to the product page. Though if someone really wants to deny you a commission, all they have to do is delete their cookies, so it’s better not to obsess over thwarting bypassers.
Many of the cloaking or link shortening WordPress plugins out there like Simple URLs or Pretty Link will also keep track of how often your links are clicked. This is very useful for finding which posts, pages, and/or parts of your blog’s layout are driving your commissions.
6. Beat ad blockers
Many of your readers might be using browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus that will prevent them from seeing your ads. Among other techniques, ad blockers look for affiliate links to determine if an image is an ad banner. By cloaking your links, ad blockers will usually let the banner appear as long as it is not hotlinked from the merchant’s domain. So you should also download the banner ad graphic file and host it on your server.
7. Easier to nofollow your affiliate links
In my last post, I talked about nofollowing your affiliate links to make sure Google doesn’t penalize your blog’s search ranking. However, manually adding the
rel=nofollow attribute by hand every time you create an affiliate link is a pain.
However, once you make sure your cloaked link is nofollow, you can easily use that link over and over again throughout your blog. Some plugins, like Pretty Link, give you an option to nofollow the cloaked links from within the plugin interface.
I use StudioPress’s Simple URLs because, just as the name says, it’s simple and doesn’t add a lot of extra overhead to my blog. It works by using WordPress’s custom post types and 301 redirects.
Unfortunately, Simple URLs doesn’t have a nofollow option like Pretty Link, but Yoast shows how to block search engines by simply adding one line to your site’s robots.txt file. If you don’t yet have a robots.txt file, all you have to do is create a text file named robots.txt with these two lines:
User-Agent: * Disallow: /go/
Assuming you’re using the Simple URLs’s default
/go/ slug, this code effectively nofollows your affiliate links by preventing search engines from crawling any link that contains
On a side note, if you’re not fond of the
/go/ slug, I discovered from trotterWay that you can change it to anything you like by editing the plugin.php file in the
simple-urls/ plugin folder. You can easily edit this file from your WordPress Dashboard by going to the Installed Plugins panel and clicking on the Edit link for Simple URLs.
In the editor, search for the word “slug” and replace the word “go” with your own word, maybe “recommends” or “affiliate”. Make sure you don’t erase the single quotes around the word.
Also remember to change your robots.txt file to reflect the new slug.
But what about honesty?
Some might argue that link cloaking is a deceptive practice. But which of these two links do you think most people would say more accurately tells the reader that the link goes to a StudioPress page:
I’d say the cloaked link is more “honest” than the naked affiliate link. If you’re still concerned, there are a couple of steps you can take to make sure you stay in your readers’ good graces:
- You should have a good disclosure policy in place that discloses all of your affiliations.
- You could also edit the title attribute of your affiliate links to show something like “Affiliate Link” whenever your readers mouse over the links.
You won’t be able to please everybody, but the benefits of cloaking far outweigh the few readers you might put off using this technique.
For well-known merchants such as Amazon, some say that bare affiliate links are good because the reader sees the merchant’s domain (amazon.com) in the link. While that’s a good point, I feel the same can be accomplished with a cloaked link like
and you still get all the other benefits of cloaking.
Finally, if you’re interested in using Simple URLs, Corrupted Development has a good run-through on how to set it up.
How do you handle your affiliate links? Do you think it’s shady to cloak your affiliate links?