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Be Careful When Your Affiliates Practice Link Cloaking

If you run an affiliate program you may have noticed that some of your affiliates use a practice known as “link cloaking.” Link cloaking is a method used to make a long affiliate URL link into a shorter and prettier one—often to the detriment of a brand.

One of the most common forms of link cloaking occurs when an affiliate doesn’t use its own URL at all, but rather just appropriates a brand’s URL without any disclosure. Look at these two links:

“http://affiliatename.hop.affiliateprogram.com”
“http://affiliateprogram.com/?clickid=abc1234567”

Neither tells the consumer anything about where their click is ultimately directed. So a link cloaker might change the link to something like these:

“http://affiliate.com/merchant.php”
“http://tinyurl.com/n1abc”

The first URL clearly identifies the merchant, whereas the second is simply a shorter URL seen more frequently as more and more people use link shortening services.

Affiliates practice link cloaking for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a consumer-friendly practice. A URL that contains the merchant’s name makes it more comfortable for consumers to click on the link.
  • To hide the affiliate’s identity. Cloaked links can hide unsavory search marketing tactics and keywords from you, the merchant.
  • To protect against commission hijacking. Some affiliates worry that spyware running on a consumer’s machine will replace their affiliate ID with the ID of another affiliate, thus hijacking their commissions.
  • To boost quality score. Google doesn’t seem to like affiliates very much which is very apparent in the low quality scores of many affiliate ads. Think about a landing page with nothing but ads and affiliate links that take the consumer from an AdWords listing to a landing page and then immediately through an affiliate link. Cloaking the affiliate link is a method used to beef up the quality score in this scenario.
  • Tracking: It is easier for the affiliate to track clicks and visitors when using its own URL.

Cloaking creates compliance roadblocks

When affiliates cloak their URLs a problem can arise for merchants who are trying to keep tabs on where and how their affiliates are advertising. Cloaking makes it harder to determine the source of the traffic, and to view the affiliate’s ID in the URL string.

There are a couple of things you can do to gain better insight when cloaking is deployed.First, you can provide your own cloaking software to your affiliates, allowing you to easily identify a cloaked URL and match it to the actual affiliate URL stored in your database.

Another method is to request that your engineering team grab the affiliate ID when the consumer is passed to your website from an affiliate ad, and include the affiliate ID in the landing page URL. Then you can track these links through your analytics package.

If you notice that your affiliates are cloaking their URLs, it’s best to reach out and to find out why. Then work with your affiliates to help solve their problems while at the same time being able to readily track and monitor what they are doing. If you don’t have a policy in place regarding link cloaking, you may consider appending your affiliate policy with explicit rules about what is and is not acceptable.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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