One of the most confusing things about building an online business is affiliate link cloaking. I have to admit that I’ve been behind the times myself in setting this up, mostly because I was worried about the reaction of Google if I were to engage in this business. However, the fact is that affiliate link cloaking isn’t quite what I thought it was. Here’s what you need to know:
Hiding Out From Google
The original version of affiliate link cloaking involved hiding your links from Google and other search engines. This was based on the theory that Google would penalize web sites which used affiliate links. What Google actually says is that they don’t want to see affiliate links without substantial content included together with it.
Effectively, that means that if I were to include an affiliate link here, this article would not get penalized by Google because of the fact that it includes plenty of quality content other than the affiliate link. If I were to set up a page which showed just the affiliate link with some very light content however, or worse, scraped content, then it would not do well in the SERPs.
Because of this issue, many people started to cloak their affiliate links by giving the Google bot one version of a link and human visitors another version. The thing is, Google’s engineers aren’t stupid and they learned how to detect this. It is this kind of link cloaking which they specifically frown upon and which will get you sandboxed or de-indexed.
Why Else You May Want to Cloak Links
There are four other reasons to cloak links however, all of which are legitimate in Google’s eyes and which will still help you to increase sales.
Link Length – Long Links Look Scary
The first reason is simply link length. If you are dealing with a customer who doesn’t know much about affiliate marketing, seeing a link like this one: http://824e5-u3mo912rehs4jatcv-3h.hop.clickbank.net/, is scary because the long URL looks weird and makes people think it may be a scam. On the other hand, if I were to show you this: http://dolr.tk/linkcloak, it seems pretty straightforward.
For many customers on your website, seeing a simple link like the second one is simply much more appealing. It cuts down on the concerns about scams and makes people more likely to click the link. Since the links are not set up with redirects for Google, they are not going to get me into trouble with them and it makes people more likely to click the link.
Another issue is that when someone finds a product on your website, they may decide that they’d rather make the money for the commission themselves than give it to you. By putting out the link in an unprotected format, it’s often easy for the person to simply replace your commission ID with their own.
For example, here is a link to a random book on SEO from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0470452641/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=theperfinhelc-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399349&creativeASIN=0470452641. Not only is the link ridiculously long, but you can see clearly that my affiliate ID is there (theperfinhelpc) which can be replaced if you happen to be an affiliate of Amazon.
If I replace that crazy long link with this: http://dolr.tk/20, my ID is hidden until you visit the site and make your purchase, thus limiting the chances of commission theft.
Yet another great reason to use cloaked links is that it gives you a way to independently verify how many people clicked your links. Since I use a custom short URL, I can easily log into my admin panel and see how many people have clicked through to a product I’m promoting.
Not only does it help keep your affiliate partners honest, but it also helps you to do split testing so that you could try two different versions of an ad, both of which go to the same affiliate site and then see which one works best at getting people to click on it, thus increasing your sales.
Keep Them On Your Site
Finally, here’s one more reason to use link cloaking: if you set up your link cloaks correctly, you can set it up so that every time someone clicks a link and goes elsewhere, it appears as if they are still on your site.
The effect is something like this, from About.com: http://google.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=google&cdn=compute&tm=23&f=20&su=p284.9.336.ip_p504.1.336.ip_&tt=3&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//www.google.com/dmca.html%23notification. That’s just a random page I found there, but About.com actually adds a frame to every one of their external links so that it appears as if you have stayed on their site.
Many WordPress plugins and other products which let you create cloaked affiliate links will do something similar. This leads your users to be more likely to fill out the form that they have clicked on since they feel as if they’ve stayed on your site instead of leaving it completely.
Cloaking affiliate links, if you do it correctly just makes good business sense. Doing it in a black hat way however is likely to get you banned from Google.