What Is A Cloaked Link (+ Do They Impact SEO?)
Cloaked links are links or URLs that have been disguised with a redirect link. They are a way to shorten and rebrand a URL, masking otherwise long and messy links.
In this article, we’ll go over what cloaked links are, the benefits of using them, how to get started setting up cloaked links, and best practices for using them effectively to grow your business.
What Are Cloaked Links?
Cloaked links may sound sketchy, but their use is actually very common, especially in the world of affiliate marketing. You might come across them referred to as affiliate URL redirects or masked links: these are the same as cloaked links.
So, what is a cloaked link, exactly? Basically, it’s a link that is created to disguise a long, indecipherable outbound link—often an affiliate link—with one that is short, on-brand, and communicates what the person clicking the link can expect to find when they click.
Despite concealing, or “cloaking”, an original link, cloaked link URLs can actually provide more information and transparency than the link they’re cloaking. Let’s consider an example.
If you have a marketing blog and want to post an affiliate link, the link might look something like this made-up example:
exampleaffiliateprogram.com/products/?product_id=H821bc1K9938_ZDR78?;clickID=123457A cloaked link would look like this:
The second, cloaked link offers a much better user experience since it’s straightforward to read and users can easily understand where the link will take them. The first link may dissuade people from clicking if they don’t trust that their data will be safe.
Here’s another example from Lasso:
The letters and numbers in the original link don’t mean anything to a human trying to make sense of them, making it impossible to know where the link will lead.
Cloaked links and SEO
A common question marketers have is whether cloaked links will negatively impact their SEO rankings. Cloaked links are safe to use on your website, as long as you follow the best practices we’ll cover later in this article. They should have the attribute rel=”nofollow” so that Google’s bots know not to factor them in the page ranking of the external page you’re linking to.
Cloaked links may help your SEO rankings by enabling you to maintain a good balance of external and internal links since Google can reduce your site rank if you have too many external links.
Cloaked links vs. shortened links
It’s worth noting that cloaked links are distinct from shortened links, even though cloaked links are typically shorter than the original link they’re cloaking. Shortened links are created using a link shortener such as Bitly. They make links shorter, more pleasing to look at, and easier to share but aren’t as useful as cloaked links.
Rather than having your domain in the URL, a shortened link generated by Bitly might look like this:
This link is short, but it isn’t branded and lacks the additional benefits that come from using cloaked links. Let’s get into what those benefits are.
Benefits of Link Cloaking
There are lots of benefits to link cloaking beyond the convenience of making links much shorter. Here are some other ways in which cloaked links can help your marketing efforts.
If you use an uncloaked link like the one in the example above, visitors are likely to feel apprehensive about clicking it. Since it’s lengthy, indecipherable, and from a different domain, they may worry it’s not safe and secure to navigate. Shortened links do take care of the problem of length, but the destination of a shortened link is still unclear.
That’s where cloaked links come in handy. They appear much safer since they can be customized to include your domain name and an appropriate slug that is relevant to the link. In other words, cloaked links enable you to make your URLs more descriptive, which is a key factor in improving the click-through rate of your links.
Track outgoing traffic
Whether you’re using cloaked links as an affiliate marketer or for a different reason, you’ll probably want to have data regarding how much traffic is flowing through each link.
For example, you might have a piece of content with multiple affiliate links. Seeing the outgoing traffic through each link lets you easily identify which affiliate products are performing the best, so you can adjust your strategy and marketing efforts accordingly.
Most tools for creating cloaked links also make it easy to track the traffic flowing through each link, so you can see your data at a glance.
Capture and protect affiliate commissions
To earn commissions as an affiliate marketer clicks coming from your site need to be associated with your unique affiliate ID issued to you by an affiliate program. Unfortunately, malware attacks can sometimes interfere with this process, replacing affiliate IDs with those of the attacker so that the sales you generate lead to commissions for someone else.
Making your affiliate IDs as an affiliate marketer is a good practice to protect against these attacks, and link cloaking is an effective way to mask your ID.
Make your links shareable
If you want people to feel comfortable sharing your links online, link cloaking is a must. Just as uncloaked links can make visitors hesitant to trust and click a lengthy third-party link, they’ll also be far less likely to share that link with others.
It’s not just affiliate marketers who may want people to share their links. If you sell a product or service on a third-party marketplace, for example, you can use branded cloaked links to increase the shareability of a link to the product page.
Improve your email deliverability
Email marketing is a key component of any successful marketing campaign, so you don’t want your email to get blacklisted by email service providers. Unfortunately, affiliate links can be interpreted as spam, resulting in being blacklisted and never ending up in your audience’s inboxes.
By using cloaked links, you can avoid this common spam filter trigger and boost your email deliverability.
Limit ad blockers
Ad blocking extensions can sometimes identify if an image is an affiliate link, and not load pictures that are seen as ad banners. Cloaked links often bypass this problem, and enable images that are linked with your cloaked link to appear even if a visitor has an ad blocker turned on.
How To Get Started With Link Cloaking
Getting started with link cloaking is pretty easy, thanks to the many tools and plugins you can use to make quick work of cloaking your links.
You can technically cloak your links without third-party plugins by adding custom code to your server, but for most people, using a tool will be easier, more efficient, and simpler to manage long-term, especially if you have lots of cloaked links.
Cloaked link plugins
Most plugins offer similar functionality when it comes to cloaked links. Here are some popular ones to consider
- Pretty Links – if you’re running a WordPress website, this is a great easy-to-use option that enables you to see both the total number of clicks and the number of unique clicks for all of your links. While there is a free plan that you can use to set up redirects, cloaked links are only available on the paid plans.
- Thirsty Affiliates – you can start setting up your cloaked links in a few clicks with this plugin, which doesn’t require any complicated setup after installation. Use it within your visual editor for easy addition or editing of cloaked links. There is a pro version, but you can create cloaked links even on the free plan.
- URL Shortener – this is a good option if you’re looking for a simple, lightweight plugin for creating cloaked links. It’s completely free and claims to load links faster than any other third-party plugin. If you plan to create a large number of cloaked plugins, you might prefer something like Thirsty Affiliates, since URL shortener can’t be used directly in the visual editor.
- Amazon Auto Links – as we’ll go over in a moment, Amazon doesn’t allow cloaked links. If you want to share Amazon affiliate links, this is an excellent plugin that creates links for products you choose or even automatically generated products based on data about your website.
Whichever plugin you choose, look for the type of redirect settings. In most cases, choosing a 307 redirect is the best choice. This is a temporary redirect (as opposed to 301, a permanent redirect), and indicates to Google that you think the destination URL can potentially change in the future.
This should be taken care of by your plugin, but make sure that any cloaked links you create are “nofollow” links. This means that Google’s bots shouldn’t boost the page rank of the target page based on the fact that you linked to it.
Cloaked Links Best Practices
While cloaked links are very widely used and are considered acceptable by Google when used correctly, it’s important to know what you should and shouldn’t do when using cloaked links. Failing to follow these best practices can damage your SEO rankings, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with them before you start adding cloaked links to your site.
- Use “nofollow” – this is one of the most important things to remember when setting up your cloaked links. Most plugins will take care of it for you, but make sure that your cloaked links have the “nofollow” tag. This lets Google’s crawlers know that the cloaked link is monetized, so it shouldn’t be considered in calculating SEO rankings. A newer tag, “sponsored”, can also be used and functions the same way as “nofollow”
- Turn on tracking – make sure any tracking toggles are turned on in your cloaked link plugin dashboard so that you can capture how many clicks you’re getting on each link.
- Read your affiliate program policies – while many affiliate programs allow cloaked links, it’s important to be familiar with each program’s policy. The biggest example of an affiliate program that doesn’t allow cloaked links is Amazon. Using cloaked links can result in getting kicked out of their affiliate marketing program. Amazon Auto Links can be used instead.
- Disclose your use of affiliate links – even if individual links are cloaked, affiliate disclosure laws are in effect in the US, Canada, and elsewhere. This means you should disclose that there are affiliate links on any page where they appear, above the links.
Does Google allow cloaked links?
As long as you follow these best practices, link cloaking will not damage your Google SEO rankings. There is a common misconception to the contrary, but cloaked links are safe to use, provided that they have the appropriate “nofollow” tag.
Not sure if your existing links might be hurting your rankings? An SEO audit can identify them, along with any other factors that may be holding your business back.
Visitors to your website make decisions quickly and unconsciously, and so much of website optimization is about making tweaks that ensure visitors take desired actions. Cloaked links are one of these important tweaks.
By replacing lengthy third-party links with clear, decipherable, branded, and short links, you can increase the click-through rate of these links on your site. Cloaked links offer a better user experience and convey more information in a way that is decipherable to humans. Plus, they make the management of large numbers of affiliate links easy.
Ready to create content that gets your cloaked links in front of the right audience? Let Loganix develop a content strategy for your site, or enlist our blog writing service and let us do the heavy lifting for you. A great content strategy coupled with on-brand cloaked links can get more eyes on your product or service.