No matter how trivial it might sound, the affiliate industry is known for its cutthroat competition. Marketers always seek new traffic sources and technological solutions to increase clicks, conversions, and sales.
But there is a downside of affiliate business – some people use dirty tricks to appropriate other marketers’ commissions. Here is how this happens: the malware is installed on an unwitting affiliate’s computer to monitor pages and affiliate links. Then, original affiliate links are replaced with other links, where a unique affiliate code is replaced with the other one. Thus, traffic, clicks, and sales are counted for a cheater who earns somebody else’s commissions.
Luckily, the majority of affiliate marketers out there are absolutely legitimate. In fact, the affiliate industry has quickly adapted to frauds and offered a protective method – link cloaking.
In some other cases, link cloaking is used to avoid strict moderation on some platforms, for example, Facebook. As everyone is well aware, Facebook is one of the best sites in terms of advertising: a huge audience, detailed targeting for ad campaigns, a wide range of ad instruments (images, carousel, video, etc.), and as a cherry on top – extremely strict moderation. Well, the list of products and services that cannot be advertised on Facebook is very long. So, you cannot promote drugs, weapons, tobacco (and related products), adult products and content, some kinds of loans, alcohol, gambling, and even some types of food supplements. Hence, marketers face the dilemma of whether to use other traffic sources or to use cloaking for affiliate links to get access to the Facebook audience. It is all about morals. Through all the hustle of tough measures and bans, many marketers take the risk and use cloaking.
“Cloaking” might sound shady and sinister to new marketers. But this is just misinformation. As the term “cloaking” implies, link cloaking means the process of hiding (or disguising) a unique URL of an affiliate link received from an advertiser. Some marketers believe that the term “cloaking” sounds a bit shady and prefer using the term “affiliate redirect”. In fact, both terms represent a common technique of directing users/visitors to external platforms (advertisers). The fact is, link cloaking is a standard practice in the online marketing industry.
Most commonly, a link becomes shorter and prettier, and, not the least, the affiliate ID becomes less visible. If it’s not your first day in affiliate marketing you are well aware of how affiliate links usually look: two-line long, messy, and bulky. To let them look better, marketers use cloaking to shorten links making them more user-friendly. In this case, cloaking kills two birds with one stone. Links become shorter and easier to deal with. And it is equally important that short, pretty links do not contain your affiliate ID and thus protect you from stealing your unique identifier and commissions.
Another application of cloaking is URL masking. This type of cloaking is used to camouflage the target URL for verifiers or moderators to avoid existing restrictions. Marketers intend to outsmart such platforms as Facebook and promote products or services prohibited on the platform. Hence, they use cloaking to pass reviewing procedures successfully. Thus, moderators are redirected to a page fully compliant with all platform’s standards, while users see the true product page.
To put it simply, link cloaking is based on URL redirection. Actually, a dummy URL is used to point the visitor’s browser to a specific page, which can be just a placeholder. Then, from this page, the browser will be redirected to the target destination.
When you implement link cloaking to avoid moderation you have a challenging task to identify moderators. Actually, platforms don’t ease the quest and do not publish lists of IPs of their moderators. Even so, somehow information leaks. That’s exactly what cloaking gurus need. The process looks as follows: a server checks incoming requests from various IPs, discovers one of the IPs from the list, and opens a legitimate page (“cloak”) that is fully compliant with the platform’s requirements. Requests from all other IPs are redirected to the page with the promoted content.
Based on the goals and implementation methods, we can define three major types of link cloaking: White Hat, Grey Hat, and Black Hat. We discussed these methods previously in more detail concerning Facebook ads, but let’s describe them briefly.
White Hat. Shortening or prettifying links is considered a white hat cloaking as you do not break any existing regulations and make your links look more appealing to users while protecting your affiliate commissions by hiding your affiliate ID code. Another example of white hat cloaking is the division of users by interests and GEOs. Search engines implement this type of cloaking to redirect users to localized platforms. Many e-commerce platforms adjust displayed products following the user's previous experience. The white hat cloaking also includes filtering any kind of irrelevant traffic, such as spy bots or VPN servers, to save your ad budget. The basic concept is that the same content is shown to moderators and users.
Grey Hat. This type of cloaking isn’t illegal but is still considered fraud. In this case, marketers do not violate any existing rules but intend to benefit from using some tricks. For instance, SEO specialists create two pages, one of them with ordinary content for regular users, and the second one, filled with tons of keywords, for search engine bots. Well, no prohibited content is shown, but the technique itself is tricky, thus, search engines might consider it as fraud and ban it.
Black Hat. Ok, it is quite clear from the name of the method that it implies “black” techniques or prohibited content promotion. Marketers are well aware that platforms forbid ads related to gambling, crypto, adult, or some suspicious food supplements; however, advertisers offer pretty high stakes for promoting their offers, so marketers accept the risk of getting banned. This type of cloaking affiliate links is used mainly to trick moderators.
As we mentioned above, link cloaking is “disguising a URL by setting up a URL redirect”. As a result, the link's URL becomes shorter and prettier, thus the link appears more trustworthy to users.
Actually, almost any service specialized in managing affiliate links is capable of cloaking links too. There are easy-to-use free online services like bit.ly for shortening links. They allow shortening a link but they don’t make it look professional. For instance, instead of a messy long link, you’ll get something like “bit.ly/4GHTYKJ5”. This type of link still looks shady and doesn’t give any idea about the expected content. Definitely, you would prefer your links to look as follows: “example.com/product-name”. This subtle difference in the link’s appearance is definitely a game-changer. Why? Because professionally-looking links can include and show your brand becoming a constituent part of the “linking strategy”.
So, let’s list and describe several tools you can use to cloak and beautify your links.
There are multiple link cloaking services to fit every taste. For those lost in the ocean of cloaking services, give a look at the following services:
Note: Some links you’d better leave uncloaked, particularly if you are a member of the Amazon Associate program. Amazon states clearly that affiliates cannot use cloaked links and redirects to drive traffic to the platform. Thus, you need to use the direct link provided by the program, otherwise, you can be banned.
Again, marketing communities are usually friendly and helpful. Do not hesitate to join marketing forums, such as BlackHatWorld or Warrior Forum, to ask about cloaking services other marketers use. Besides, you can find several helpful Reddit communities, such as r/Affiliatemarketing with discussion threads dedicated to link cloaking.
In fact, the purpose of cloaking affiliate links explains everything — cloaking helps webmasters and marketers protect their commission. However, there are other benefits.
Cons: Actually, the only disadvantage of cloaking is the risk of getting banned for those who use link cloaking to deceive verifiers and moderators. In other words, you can get banned if you use black hat cloaking.
Now that you know what link cloaking is and what types of cloaking exist, you can finally put it into practice and stop worrying about the safety of your affiliate commissions. As you see, there are weighty arguments in favor of link cloaking. This also explains why cloaking links has become a standard practice in affiliate marketing — because it really works. With the right cloaking services, you can hide your affiliate ID and create pretty and memorable links that give readers an idea about the content on the page.