50+ Reasons To Cloak Links (& reasons not to)

I often hear people give reasons for cloaking links, but the reasons they give are frequently incomplete, suggesting they are cloaking links purely because they have been told by someone else they should do it.

I posted this on a couple of forums recently because I kept seeing questions related to it and very incomplete answers being given, so I did a brain dump of as many reasons as I could think of to cloak links or use some kind of affiliate redirect / tracking script / URL shortener.

  1. To shorten links so they look pretty/branded for your own brand
  2. To make a link look like it is a clean link to someone else’s brand (you need permission to register domains for other people’s trademark quite often, and always best to ask)
  3. To shorten links so they don’t get broken in emails due to the way some characters are handled
  4. To boost the number of citations of your domain (SEO benefit)
  5. To add in specific tracking code for clicks to determine popularity
  6. To add in specific tracking code for conversion tracking (think Prosper202)
  7. To gain social proof and boost viral impact (Tweetmeme buttons)
  8. To add in various javascript based tracking such as Google Analytics in situations where you can’t use onclick.
  9. To track activity from referrers that don’t pass on useful referral data such as Twitter clients
  10. To improve email delivery on your own behalf – you have built up a good sender score, so want to use it for your advantage
  11. To improve email deliver at the request of a vendor – often for product launches you are required not to use direct links.
  12. To split test landing pages
  13. To split test different products
  14. To be able to change the link at a later date
    1. Dead links
    2. Updated offer
    3. Fallen out with vendor
    4. Better convering offer
  15. As an affiliate tool for viral marketing (see Harvey’s Ultimate Super Tips for inspiration)
  16. To achieve deep linking to anything even when it is not supported by the affiliate system.
  17. To have a URL bar for branding aka hootsuite/prettylinks
  18. To have a URL bar for additional viral sharing buttons
  19. To have a url bar offering a search box or related content suggestions from your own site
  20. To have a url bar offering top rated content from your own site (think Stumbleupon su.pr)
  21. To mask the URL of the page
  22. To mask the title of the page
  23. To stuff cookies – I am not advocating stuffing affiliate cookies without network or vendor explicit permission, and there are “whitehat” scenarios
  24. To boost view counts for sites like Alexa
  25. Redirect page can be blocked with robots.txt
  26. Redirect page can link to further redirects that are blocked, but have links back to your own site
  27. Pretty URLs
  28. To hide referrer details from affiliate network
  29. To hide referrer details from ultimate destination (as affiliate)
  30. To hide referrer when you link to something from a private member site
  31. For load balancing
  32. To prevent SEO juice for affiliate network
  33. To prevent SEO juice for vendor/3rd party (not a vote)
  34. To get a framed page to rank
  35. When split testing a landing page on a site without php, you might use various shortened links as you can’t easily use dynamic subids for every visitor
  36. As a SEO safeguard especially for viral marketing when doing something pointing to a money site. e.g. you release lots of free themes with spammy footer links – Google decide to slap you, how do you repair the damage?
  37. To hide that a link was initially seeded by you – if you use a branded shortened link, it is obvious you had something to do with it.
  38. To include disclosure – say you direct link to an affiliate offer from Twitter – you could have an iframe with a disclosure statement, or a delayed meta refresh.
  39. To use some sneaky popunder advertising
  40. For geo-targeting
  41. For language targeting
  42. For behavioural targeting
  43. Because a “guru” told you to and you don’t want to look like a newbie
  44. To hide affiliate links from Googlebot (Search)
  45. To hide affiliate links fromMediapartners-Google (Adwords)
  46. To hide affiliate links from spy tools used by other affiliates – some really smart things can be done to block people sniffing out your various sites
  47. To block bots grabbing your content
  48. To Rickroll people
  49. To help you rank a frame for another geo-location
  50. To unify brand ownership of white label systems (Google Apps, Raven Tools etc) though this is more often cname than cloaking

This isn’t a comprehensive list, I just did a 30 minute brain dump

Can you think of any I have missed?

Reasons Not To Cloak Links

Here are some reasons not to cloak links

  1. Sometimes any form of url masking is banned by the affiliate program
  2. You may want people to be able to see that a link is going to a nice safe place on Amazon.com as people often don’t care if there is an aff in there or not
  3. Sometimes some forms of redirects/cloaks dont work with some affiliate programs
  4. Some methods as I mentioned require explicit permission or are almost universally frowned on
  5. Some vendors or networks want to know where your traffic is coming from, even down to monitoring what keywords you bid on. (they can go to hell or pay for it)
  6. Security – various tracking scripts can get hacked just as easily as WordPress
  7. Centralization is only a good idea if it is secure, backed up etc
  8. In some situations where you have a coupon, you might want to use a clean link
  9. Some methods of hiding links with javascript don’t work when the content is syndicated
  10. It places some small extra load on a server
  11. It is something else that needs to be migrated if you switch server
  12. If you switch tracking software, how easy is it to migrate links?
  13. As mentioned, you might not want people to know that a link being spread originates with you, so you might use bit.ly with no other tracking so it looks organic
  14. The more you get into it, the more complex it can become thus you need better systems and a better technical understanding. Lots of marketers don’t even split test their email campaigns on a big launch, though they might not do it suggesting they are trying to be more transparent
  15. The method you are using is incompatible with an advertising partner, such as Google Adwords requiring the back button to work.

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Comments

    • says

      Maybe.. though for mobile devices, at least with Twitter the shortening happened because of length or the desire to track clicks from 3rd party applications. Then other considerations such as brand have entered the equation.

      • says

        I was thinking in terms of having different, more concise, content and layout specifically for mobile users. But that blends heavily into behavioral targeting I suppose.

  1. says

    Excellent post, Andy.

    Another reason not to cloak links is: if you’re relying on the affiliate program’s platform (network or in-house based) to track your CTR (or impressions converted into clicks), it simply won’t work, because cloaked links won’t register impressions. It may not be a big deal for you as an affiliate if you have a good technology of your own to track this, but be prepared to be questioned by the merchant (when they see zero impressions, but clicks, and sales/leads).

    Is a Link Cloaking Best Practices post coming any time soon? It seems to be the only logical continuation of what you’ve started here.

    • says

      The biggest problem with a best practices post is that there would have to be recommended tools.

      I have Prosper for instance set up on on a domain and am even using it for something, but the interface is far from ideal.

      I have used Adtrackz for years but I have worries about lack of updates and script security.

      I have been playing with a hacked version of PrettyLinks recently with some modified functionality though I might be better off adding the functions I need to Yourls instead as a centralized system – I need to look at how clean the code is to then modify.

    • Vlad Zablotskyy says

      Geno,

      I did not realize merchants may question you if you produce clicks but not impressions. Don’t you generally can see the referring page (I am talking about the merchant side of things)?

      • says

        If you don’t want an affiliate manager to know where clicks are coming from, there are ways to prevent it, or make it very difficult for them to work it out.

        Using double meta refresh is just a start – the DP guys for instance were GEO-locating their traffic to hide stuff from affiliate managers.

        • says

          I really don’t see the point of hiding things from your affiliate manager…. Unless of course if one engages in cookie stuffing. But that gets you in all sort of trouble from what I hear :)

          • says

            I suppose it depends on which markets you are involved with. I would think markets where the affiliate managers might also run their own offers such as with some CPA networks, there would be an inherent risk in providing CPA networks with too much data, and in the case of the affiliate tax, if an affiliate program owns more data of where their traffic is coming from, they might be more likely to abandon their affiliates.

      • says

        Vlad,

        In some cases you do see the referring page, while in others you don’t.

        Also in the CJ interface, for example, in the program performance report merchants see such columns as Imps and CTR (I’m sure you have them in your affiliate interface too). As I look at the top 10 (read: producing real well) performers in one of the programs I manage, only 2 show impressions and CTR value. The rest cloak their links, which results in their Imps value = 0 (and consequently CTR = 0 as well). Good affiliate manager will see that, and know exactly what’s going on (and monitor the affiliate’s activity closely, double-checking with them on what exactly they’re doing that results in these zero stats). Bad affiliate manager won’t even care. A mediocre affiliate manager, however, may think this is too suspicious, and just ban you from their program (without even giving you a chance to explain)…

  2. says

    I cloak my links for a couple of reasons.

    The primary reason I do this is to discourage people from signing up to something without using my affiliate link. I know some affiliate sites don’t like this but I do it because people would often just cut me out and sign up without using my referral.

    I also find it comes in handy when posting on Twitter or Facebook as sometimes the original links are too long.

    Out of the 50 you mentioned in the first list I think #3 is one that I have never thought about before but have suffered from it a lot. Especially when I send links out in my newsletter.

  3. says

    This was a post that I thought was going to be kind of bland but ended up really opening my eyes.

    In the past I cloaked them just to make it harder for other affiliates to hijack my shizit and lately for branding purposes. However, now I know of at least 20 other reasons why I should be doing it and when and when NOT to also.

    • says

      I try not to be too meh

      I am not a huge fan of list posts because most of them just don’t deliver a complete picture, often because the person writing the list post hasn’t got in-depth knowledge of the topic, and is purely compiling links to others.

      To get lots of tweets I should however possibly have included 20-30 resource links, but lots of the solutions you find don’t cover every aspect of what is needed.

  4. Steve Phipps says

    Awesome article. I have never really been one to cloak my affiliate links really for fear of losing commissions.

    Although I have read about affiliate commissions being hijacked I don’t think it is as big a problem as most would indicate. However, I guess I may not know if it was happening to me.

    • says

      From what I can see on your site you do cloak links, for instance I sa you use a CName for a Starcraft 2 affiliate link, and might end up losing it because you used a registered trademark. The Blizzard guys have lawyers… lots of them.

  5. Jasmina says

    Hey, amazing article!
    It really puts you in a thinking mode.

    I doubt that Google will drop you’re ranking if you’re pages are great quality and use affiliate linking. I think it’s more for websites that have like rarely have any pages.
    But then also disclosing as Matt Cutt was suggesting, is a good way. To like say that you will get paid from a affiliate link, to put it on the article. But the thing is, there might still be people that won’t care and pay for the product but get themselves commission through there click bank ID.

    Then comes in also, how you’re article said, cloaking them will make the merchant think and analyze to exactly discover how and where the traffic is bouncing in from.. As well as to see whether you’re masking there links.

    And I’m still confused!!!!
    To stay safe and just use a normal anchor text with normal link?
    or to be waiting one day to get penalized from google or even the merchant, for masking links..
    I mean cloaking is heaps good for people not to steal you’re commissions, but I don’t see why this really impacts on SEO.. especially if they find out.

    And greaat.. I never knew I have to go through so much stuff, just for affiliate links >__<

    Do you recommend, it's better to contact each merchant and ask them first whether you can mask their link? or is it better to try and put them in a puzzle, to try and put like other methods, for them not to easily notice that the link is been masked?

    I'm soo… lost now, it's unbelievable. Since I have no clue what is better to do.

    • says

      I think in most situations as long as the cloaking method you use gets recorded by the affiliate tracking, you are ok, and in many situations a cloaked link is effectively required (such as big product launches)
      As far as SEO, I think the presence of affiliate links might have an effect on page or site quality rating.