Why You Must Cloak Your Affiliate Links

Disclosure: I may be compensated via the links clicked in this article. The opinions expressed are my own and stand by my recommendations. Please read my disclaimer for more info.

If you’re just starting out with affiliate marketing, you probably haven’t heard the term “link cloaking.” It sounds like something out of a James Bond movie. But this isn’t some cloak-and-dagger spy thriller.

If you’re not cloaking your links, you’re not serious about affiliate marketing. You’re missing out on the huge advantages of link cloaking and should start immediately. Want to find out why? Keep reading…

First off, let’s define what “link cloaking” means.

Quite simply, link cloaking is masking a link to hide the destination website’s URL. When a site visitor clicks the cloaked link, it redirects to the intended merchant.

Here are the reasons to cloak affiliate links:

  1. You want clean URLs
  2. To make the links easier to share
  3. To better manage the links
  4. For tracking and reporting

I’ve read on other sites that you should use link cloaking to prevent other affiliates from stealing your link. The only potential situation in which this would occur would be if a visitor had malware or some rogue web browser plugin on their computer.

In my opinion, while this can happen, this is rarely the case and isn’t a valid reason why you should perform link cloaking.

Clean Affiliate Links

The function of affiliate links is to track the traffic that your website sends to a merchant. They usually consist of codes that identify key information about the program.

Typically, affiliate links look like a convoluted mess. Even most affiliate marketing people would describe an affiliate link as a long URL with nonsensical information. If a professional thinks it ‘s confusing, what does someone without a technical background think when they look at the link?

You want commerce to be as frictionless as possible. Trust is a critical factor in e-commerce. Trust applies not only to you and your website, but also to the destination links you place within your website. You don’t want to instill any doubt in a reader before they click on an affiliate link.

This is especially important when it comes to affiliate marketing.

By presenting a clean, understandable affiliate link, you’ll inspire trust in your visitors and make them more likely to click.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should cloak the link to fake out the visitor. If anything, it’s quite the opposite.

Here’s an example from my own website. This is an affiliate link for the hosting provider Bluehost. Which of these URLs looks better and more trustworthy to you?

https://www.anrdoezrs.net/ch103tenkem1AA597681325AA799

OR

https://larryludwig.com/go/bluehost-cloak

The first URL doesn’t state anything about Bluehost. The second URL gives more visual cues to the reader about the destination.

Easier to Share

Because the cloaked links are cleaner, they’re easier to share.

I’m constantly asked about the various services I use. Instead of having to look each one up individually and cutting and pasting a long string of code, I can tell you offhand what the link would be.

All of my cloaked affiliate links look like this:

https://larryludwig.com/go/[merchantname]

Using a system like this makes it very easy to give out impromptu affiliate links. And in turn this yields more revenue from the merchants I have relationships with.

Affiliate Link Management

Managing affiliate links can be a pain. Not only can they be found on your website, but you should also include them in emails and social media posts. To make the links easier to manage – and to also have the ability to use the same links across different media — it makes sense to manage them in one central location.

This is where an affiliate link management service comes into play.

Affiliate link-cloaking software comes in two forms:

  • WordPress plugins
  • Software as a service (SaaS)

WordPress plugins tend to easier to use, since they are part of WordPress. However, they offer less functionality.

The affiliate link management SaaS products have much more functionality for a “super affiliate,” but they’re more complex to implement.

Using either form streamlines link management. If the merchant changes the offer, you have to change it in only one place. If the merchant changes affiliate networks (a common occurrence), again, you have only one link to change.

You can reuse the same merchant link for all of your campaigns. The only reason to use a different link is for a different offer.

I’m very anal about managing affiliate links, and you should be too! After all, they’re the lifeblood of any affiliate-based business.

Nothing is worse than clicking on an affiliate link that’s no longer valid. It leads to a poor user experience. Using a direct link supplied by the merchant leads to a lot of work anytime you are required to update a link. That’s why it’s critical you use a link management system.

Tracking and Reporting Affiliate Links

This is the most critical, but often overlooked reason to cloak your affiliate links.

A good affiliate link management system should at least track clicks. You should be able to generate a report telling you merchant XYZ saw 14 clicks last month.

However, the better services track conversions.

Why do you want to do this?

If you want to become a “super affiliate,” you must track conversions.

Most affiliates are happy with a monthly report that states only how many conversions you’ve seen in a month.

I’ve always wanted more than that, and you should too!

There’s technology available that can let you treat merchant conversions as if they were your own. You can report not only the number of conversions, but the source of each conversion, as well.

Most affiliate marketers rely on SEO for website traffic. This is fine if you’re building an audience only via organic search. After all, you aren’t paying for it. Tracking isn’t as critical with search.

If you get as advanced as I am, you can track not only which web pages convert better for your merchant, but which traffic source (see my UTM parameters guide). You can answer questions such as: Which had a better conversion rate email: your web post or that paid social media traffic?

How to Track Affiliate Conversions

You have two options when it comes to affiliate conversion tracking:

  • Postbacks
  • Tracking pixels

Postbacks

You might see these tracking options also referred to as “trackbacks,” “webhooks,” or “server-to-server conversions.” In our discussion, I’ll just refer to them as “postbacks.”

This is the most reliable method for tracking a conversion. It should be your first choice when setting up affiliate conversion tracking.

A postback communicates an event via two servers using the HTTP protocol. This is the very same protocol used to send webpages you see on the internet.

Postbacks can “fire” (send a signal) for any type of event, including those that aren’t tied to a visitor’s web browser session. By its very nature, a postback is more flexible than a tracking pixel, but it’s also more complex to implement.

Tracking Pixels

If you’ve used Facebook’s ad platform, it’s more than likely you’re already familiar with using pixels.

The term “tracking pixel” refers to a barely perceptible 1×1 dot placed on a webpage. A tracking pixel “fires” when the web page loads, alerting whomever placed the pixel.

Today, JavaScript is the primary method for placing tracking pixels. Typically, a tracking pixel is placed on the “your order is complete” page, but it can be used for any webpage event – visiting an article, a shopping cart page, or an email sign-up confirmation.

The tracking pixel’s biggest limitation is that it’s web based. The internet doesn’t exist only on web browsers – we have email and smartphone apps. Not to mention the fact that user-installed ad blockers (and some web browsers by default) can block the firing of a pixel.

Tracking pixels are unreliable at best. In my opinion, you should use them only if a postback isn’t available.

Unfortunately, many merchants don’t support either system with the software they use to track affiliate conversions.

What If Your Merchant Doesn’t Support Conversion Tracking?

Not all merchant affiliate software supports the ability to send information about individual conversions. In many cases, you’re lucky to get a report with a grand total of the conversions for the previous month.

If the merchant doesn’t support conversion tracking, you should push for tracking one way or another.

The easiest option is to supply your merchant with a tracking pixel.

There are a few ways to do this. The one I use and recommend is ClickMeter. With this service, you supply the merchant with a conversion pixel. This will then allow you to track and measure your conversions.

However, some merchants are weary of installing a pixel on their site. Rightfully so. There are possible security risks involved in installing a third-party pixel. Plus, working with many affiliates will mean multiple pixels installed. This can be a nightmare to maintain.

So what other options are available?

You have two options:

  1. Work with an affiliate network like Commission Junction or Impact
  2. Use an in-house system like TUNE (formerly HasOffers) or Cake

Both options support the postback option.

Lastly, you can suggest that the merchant’s decision prevents you from better promoting the service via paid ads and alike. They might change their minds.

Pretty much any service that allows you to manage your affiliate links can cloak them as well. However, most of these services don’t support conversion tracking.

The most popular affiliate marketing blogging tool is WordPress. I assume you’re using it too.

Not all affiliate management and link-cloaking services have a WordPress plugin. At the same time, if they do have a WordPress plugin, they can’t do conversion tracking.

Take a look:

Link Cloaking SoftwareWordPress PluginConversion TrackingStarting Price
ClickMagickNoYes$27/mo
ClickMeterNoYes$19/mo
ImprovelyNoYes$29/mo
LassoYesNo$19/mo
LinkTrackrNoYes$17/mo
Pretty Links ProYesNo$59/yr
ThirstyAffiliates ProYesNo$49/yr
VoluumNoYes$69/mo

Of all these tools, I recommend using ClickMeter. ClickMeter powered my previous website Investor Junkie and currently powers this website. It allows for not only trackbacks but pixel support as well.

Whether you’re just starting out or are already a “super affiliate,” ClickMeter is the best option on the list.

Unfortunately, ClickMeter does not have a WordPress plugin to insert links into your blog posts. Fortunately, I’ve created a free, yet simple, shortcode to insert affiliate links: My Affiliate Tracker.

My plugin allows you to create affiliate links regardless of which affiliate system you use. In addition, it creates affiliate links in a standardized way. That allows you to manage affiliate links so they’re compliant with Google and won’t affect your SEO. Check it out.

URL Cloaking FAQs

Should you ‘nofollow’ affiliate links?

Any link that is paid for (which includes affiliate links), should use the rel=”nofollow” HTML attribute. With recent updates by Google, it is recommended you also add “sponsored” your rel tag. So you should use rel=”sponsored nofollow” for any affiliate link since not every search engine uses of the ‘sponsored’ tag.

What is Pretty Links?

Pretty Links is a WordPress plugin to manage redirection links. It is primarily used for managing affiliate links. It allows you to manage and cloak your links all in one place.

Is URL masking bad for SEO?

No. If you are using URL masking for an affiliate link you must use the rel=”sponsored nofollow” HTML attribute. Otherwise affiliate links can affect SEO negatively.

If the masked URL isn’t paid, then Google will determine the destination URL. Though if you can use a direct link, you should always first.
Larry Ludwig

About Larry Ludwig

Larry Ludwig is an entrepreneur, financial expert, tech & marketing guru with over 25 years of industry experience.

In July 2018, Larry successfully sold Investor Junkie for $6 million.

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