In this step by step guide, SEO expert Nikola Roza explains why it is crucial for affiliate marketers to mask their paid links, and shows you (step by step) how to cloak affiliate links effectively.
Link cloaking. It sounds a bit sinister, definitely mysterious and like something directly out of a James Bond movie. However it ain’t like that at all and you aren’t reading one of Ian Fleming’s unpublished works of spy fiction.
Instead, in this guide you’ll learn how to cloak affiliate links effectively. You’ll also learn why it’s crucial for affiliate marketers to mask their paid links.
Finally, I’ll talk about the benefits you can get and mistakes you need to avoid when cloaking.
Without wasting your time, let’s get started.
What is Link Cloaking and How Does it Work?
Link cloaking is the process of masking an affiliate link given to you by the merchant so as to make it shorter, hide your affiliate id and obscure the website destination’s URL.
For example, this is Pedro’s affiliate links leading to Semrush.com, the best all-in-one SEO tool on the market.
Pretty ugly, no? No one in their right state of mind would click on such a monstrosity.
I mean, the link is long, ugly and looks intimidating. Most normal (normal= clueless about affiliate marketing) web users would expect some kind of computer virus and malware to lurk behind that gibberish link.
So they won’t risk it and they won’t click it.
And this is the cloaked version of the same link..
Like the difference between night and day, don’t you think ?
Cloaked link is a pleasure to behold, especially compared to the unsavory thing from the above. And most importantly, this one actually gets clicks and makes sales.
Affiliate links on the web are unavoidable.
With over 84% of web publishers engaging in affiliate marketing and with ever increasing banner ad blindness, partnership marketing as a monetization method is only going to grow and so will the use of cloaked affiliate links.
Now’s the right time to learn all about it so you don’t get left behind.
How Does Link Cloaking Work?
Cloaking links works by your affiliate links sending your site’s visitors to your merchant via a redirect.
These redirects (set up by your WordPress plugin of choice) are actually dummy URLs that don’t exist on your site, and whose purpose is to forward your visitor to the target page.
Here’ the process:
- When you click on this Semrush affiliate link your browser asks Pedro’s site for the content of that page.
- Next, Pedro’s site responds by saying such a page doesn’t exist and that they should go offsite to fetch the content.
- Finally, your browser “gets the message” and proceeds to load that new page which is usually your merchant’s landing page.
All of this happens almost instantaneously after you’ve clicked and most people on the web are completely clueless about the process.
Now that you know how link cloaking works, it’s time to learn why you need to do it starting today.
6 Excellent Reasons Why You Need to Cloak Affiliate Links on Your WordPress Website
There are actually more than 6, probably 10+. But the reasons below are critical to understand. And also, I want to be respectful of your time. I know you didn’t come here to read novels.
Instead, you want to quickly learn how to cloak links so you can start doing it, and that is exactly what you’ll get in my beginners guide.
#1- Clean Up Ugly URLs; Boost User Trust; Explode Link CTR
Here’s that same ugly Semrush affiliate link again.
As mentioned no one will click on it except by accident.
Users simply don’t trust nonsensical long URLs.
And to drive my point home, here’s the cloaked version again:
It’s short, pretty, descriptive and hyper relevant because Pedro only uses it in his posts about Semrush; or when talking about this superb SEO tool-set.
This cloaked link has a very high CTR compared to the raw version because users see it, can read and understand it and thus trust it more.
They feel in control and can guess what will happen if they click.
#2- Cloaked Link are Easily Shareable
Raw affiliate links are impossible to share on social networks.
They’re ugly, overly long, impossible to fit inside a tweet and also scream suspicious.
For example, this doesn’t look too palatable, no?
Cloaked affiliate links on the other hand are short, descriptive and perfectly shareable on any network that allows for direct affiliate link sharing.
For example here’s how I promote Bluehost on my Twitter profile.
You can see that I didn’t use a link shortener like bit.ly, which is a common practice when sharing links on Twitter where every character counts.
That was on purpose. I wanted people that come across this link to see the word “Bluehost” in the URL slug.
The link’s transparent, looks nice, builds trust and it works!
Note: I also added a small affiliate disclaimer inside the brackets. This is a trust factor as well, but also a requirement by the FTC.
#3- Easy Link Management
There’s no way around this:
If you want to be a successful affiliate marketer you need to join and promote a lot of products.
You simply cannot run a one-product affiliate shop and hope to be successful.
The days when there was little competition and the internet was wide open to savvy marketers are long gone.
Now, you have to dig deep inside your niche and write review after review after review promoting (quality) product after product after product.
This means that at some point you’ll inevitably have dozens, if not hundreds of different merchant’s links on your site.
And if you don’t establish a tight grip on your affiliate links, then you’re in for a nightmare in broad daylight.
Suppose your merchant changes the network that hosts their affiliate program? Suddenly all your links are invalid and pointing to dead ends.
Suppose they change the product and introduce a new affiliate link. Again, count your links useless.
You’d be losing money left right and center and the worst part of it all is that you wouldn’t know about it until you noticed a sharp decline in commissions.
And then it’d be time to turn your site upside down clicking on every affiliate link on every post to find those links that aren’t working.
Have I said the word “nightmare” before?
The solution to this is to manage your affiliate links centrally from one dashboard.
And with affiliate link plugins which I’ll talk about below you can, and easily so.
Let’s move on to…
#4- Easy Link Insertion
When you use WordPress plugins to cloak your affiliate links, it means that all your links are inside your WP dashboard.
So, when you want to add them you don’t need to leave your WordPress dashboard and blog post editor.
That’s a huge timesaver.
#5- Helpful Reporting
As an affiliate marketer you need to track your affiliate links so you don’t don’t shoot in the dark and so you can make data-driven decisions.
Which link is a winner? And which one is a dud?
You must know that because that’s how your money’s made.
For example, if you see your visitors never click on your FastComet hosting affiliate link, but they often click on your links promoting ConvertKit, Get Response and MailChimp, then you know you should write more about email marketing and various ESP’s (Email Service Providers).
And you need to put hosting topics on a back burner.
#6- Commission Theft
When a web user visiting your site has a rogue malware or plugin installed in their browser, that malicious program can detect your affiliate links and replace them (actually just the code ) with someone else’s affiliate code
This is serious stuff, stealing the commission you worked so hard on earning.
So why did I put it last here?
Because, even though it’s a serious issue, it’s also not not that common. I’ve been in affiliate marketing for 5 years and never had my commissions stolen. And I don’t know anyone who had that happen to them.
I mean, it happens, but it’s rare and not something you should ever worry about too much.
Especially since cloaked links effectively shield you from commission theft 🙂
2 Ways To Cloak Affiliate Links In Your WordPress Site – Pretty Links vs Thirstyaffiliates
2 ways are actually 2 plugins, ThirstyAffiliates and Pretty Links. I purposefully chose not to show you how to cloak links manually because it’s a waste of your time and is extremely inefficient.
1. Pretty Links vs Thirstyaffiliates – Thirsty Affiliates
ThirstyAffiliates is a popular WordPress plugin for cloaking affiliate links.
With it you can mask, manage and keep track of all your affiliates links from within one dashboard.
TA has a premium modul too, but the good news is that you don’t need it. Everything you need to manage affiliate links effectively is to be found in the free tier.
Here’s how to set up ThirstyAffiliates.
First, inside your WordPress dashboard go Plugins>Add new and type “Thirsty Affiliates” in the search bar.
TA will be the first result that shows up.
Click on the plugin’s listing, install and activate.
Next, within your WP dashboard in the left sidebar go ThirstyAffiliates>Settings
Now, ThirstyAffiliates has plenty of options to tinker with, but only those from “Modules” and “Link Appearance” are important to you.
So, click on “Modules” and there you’ll see several checkboxes to check or uncheck.
- Statistics– Let Thirsty Affiliates record clicks on your affiliate link. Very important.
- Link Fixer– Enable this as this feature lets you manage all links from one location.
- Uncloak links– Enable if you’re working with affiliate programs that don’t allow for link cloaking (for example Amazon Associates).
Now go to “Link Appearance”
- Link prefix– the word that comes before your link’s slug. Write something descriptive, for example “recommend” or “go”.
- Link category in URL- don’t enable this because it unnecessarily makes your link longer and your visitor doesn’t need that info.
- Link Redirect Type- I usually go for 301 (permanent) redirect.
- Use nofollow on links- yes- all paid links need to come attached with a nofollow attribute.
- Open link in new window– yes.
- Additions rel attribute tags– I like to add “sponsored” which is a new attribute recently introduced by Google.
Ant that is it.
How to Cloak and Insert Affiliate Links With ThirstyAffiliates (Tutorial)?
Let’s say you installed TA and you set it up following the instructions from the above.
Now it’s time to start using this plugin on your money pages.
First, get an affiliate links of your choice.
Second, in your WordPresss dashboard go ThirstyAffiliates>New Affiliate Link
Next, add a link title and your affiliate link.
Link title is important because that’s what the user will see reflected in the URL slug when they hover over the link with their mouse.
Let’s say I wanted to promote ConvertKit.
I’d take the link, paste it in and give it a title.
I’d also create a ConvertKit category for affiliate links. This is useful if an affiliate program lets you deep link because then you can group all your links under one category for even easier management.
Next, click “Save” and the link is saved in your plugin’s internal system.
Finally, go to one of your posts where you promote ConvertKit.
Select the words you want to turn into a link and within your WordPress Editor find the ThirstyAffiliates icon.
Click on it, start typing “Convertkit” and the plugin will automatically suggest your newly created link to you.
And that’s it. See how easy that was?
And If that link were ever to change all you’d need to do is update it inside TA and the plugin will automatically push the change throughout your site.
Pro tip: If you use any type of Chrome extension that blocks intrusive ads, you need to turn it off for your site.
Because if you don’t your Ublock or AdBlock will block TA icons from appearing in your WP post editor.
See what I mean below.
Pro tip 2- when naming your affiliate links always start with the name of the program you’re promoting. This is so you can find them easily in TA search bar.
For example, I promote HostGator a lot. And HostGator affiliate program is served over Impact platform which lets you create deep links to point to any page on your merchant’s site.
So at the time of me writing this link cloaking guide I have more than 10 HG links;
and I can easily find and distinguish among them because every HG link starts with the word “HostGator ”.
Pretty Links vs Thirstyaffiliates – Pretty Links
I admit it. I put ThirstyAffiliates first because I’m biased. I love that plugin and use it on my site, NikolaRoza.Com.
However, Pretty Links is equally good and much more popular than TA. It is what actually what Pedro uses on this site, AstuteCopyBlogging.Com 🙂 And if you like to try Pretty Links Pro, Pedro has negotiated a super deal for you which you can access by clicking on the link below
Here’s how to set it up correctly.
First, go to your WordPress depository, find and install Pretty Links.
Next, inside your WP dashboard go PrettyLinks>Options
- Redirection– set it to 307 (temporary);
- Enable nofollow– yes. All paid links MUST come with a nofollow attribute attached to them.
- Enable sponsored– yes;
- Enable permalink fix– no.
How to Cloak and Insert Affiliate Links With Pretty Links (Tutorial)?
First, you need to create your first affiliate link.
Inside your WordPress dashboard go Pretty Links>Add New
- Add title– name your link;
- Redirection– 307 (Temporary);
- Target URL– paste your affiliate link;
- Pretty Link– enter the URL slug of your new masked link;
- Notes– either leave blank or write something to help you memorize that particular aff link better.
Next, click on the ”Advanced” tab
- Nofollow– yes;
- Sponsored– yes;
- Parameter forwarding– no;
- Tracking– yes.
Next, go to one of your posts and again highlight the phrase you wish to turn into a link.
Click on the “star”icon in your WP post editor and a new popup window will show up.
Scroll to the bottom and click on “Use existing Pretty Link”
Search for your newly create link select it and click “Insert Pretty Link”
The process is a bit more involved than with TA but it’s still simple and easy, no?
Pretty Links vs Thirstyaffiliates – Which Plugin is Better? Which One Should I Use On My Site?
Both plugins are easy to use and get the job done. But I’d always go with ThirstyAffiliates.
Because the process of making the cloaked link is much more streamlined.
Namely, with TA you only need to do it once and the rules you set in the backend are automatically applied to all affiliate links managed by TA.
And in Pretty Links you have to set nofollow, sponsored and tracking parameters for each link individually, and after a while it gets seriously tedious.
It’s a complete waste of time because your settings are almost always going to be the same for every link.
Finally, Pretty Links don’t have an option to selectively uncloak affiliate links which is something TA does well and you need it if you’re an Amazon affiliate.
Link Cloaking FAQ- All Your Questions Answered
As it turns out, Quora is brimming with questions pertaining to affiliate link cloaking. Newbies are mighty confused about it and it’s an evergreen topic over there.
But why go to Quora when you can find your answers here? Especially since here you are reading my link cloaking guide and on Pedro’s awesome blog too.
So stay with me and let me quickly answer your questions below…
#1- Do I Absolutely Need to Cloak Affiliate Links?
No and yes.
NO. If you don’t care whether or not you make any money off your links; or if someone steals your commissions, then don’t cloak them.
Why would you bother?
YES. But if you care about monetizing your blog, if you want to keep what you earn and not have it stolen, then cloak them.
It’s both easy and free. Why wouldn’t you put in that little bit of extra effort in exchange for security and peace of mind?
#2- What is The Best WordPress Plugin for Cloaking Affiliate Links?
When you type “link cloaking” in WordPress plugin depository you get plenty of results. And I’m sure all of them do the job well.
However the plugins that stand out are ThirstyAffiliates and Pretty Links. And I advise you to go with either of them.
Because these plugins are popular and profitable (both have premium versions).
Profitability gives the developers a strong incentive to keep their free plugins up to date, and this makes it safe for you to install and use on your WordPress site.
Never use an outdated plugin on your blog. Or one that has very few active installations. If something breaks or the plugin isn’t compatible with the newest WordPress version- you’ll be on your own.
#3- What is The Difference Between Link Cloaking and Link Shortening?
When you shorten a link you do it so as to be able to post it somewhere where there’s a strict character count limit. This also protects your affiliate id.
But when you cloak a link you protect sensitive data while also controlling the link’s slug/URL.
So you’re able to get a bit of branding going + making the link sensical and descriptive makes it understandable to humans too, and not just bots 🙂
#4- Can I Use Cloaked Links on Facebook and Other Social Media Platforms?
If the platform in question allows you to post affiliate links, then you can post masked links without a problem.
In fact, you better post them cloaked if you intend anyone to click on them 🙂
#5- Can I See the Cloaked URL in Source Code?
You cannot see the raw affiliate link with your affiliate code.
Which is good because what’s the use in cloaking if someone can still see your affiliate code?
#6- Can I Cloak Affiliate Links Manually?
Yes you can. But I wouldn’t recommend it.
Manual link cloaking is best for situations when you work with only one merchant and have one affiliate link and that link is never going to change.
Then you can cloak by hand and make it work. But when you introduce new affiliate links it quickly becomes messy, unwieldy and more trouble than it’s worth.
Finally, the biggest drawback is that you can’t manage your links easily.
Merchants change networks and products all the time and when they do you’ll have to update your links by hand across all pages and instances of that link.
Here’s the resource if you want to dig deeper into this, but I strongly suggest you learn to cloak with a plugin and then focus on growing your affiliate revenue.
#7- Can I Cloak Amazon Affiliate Links?
No you cannot.
What’s the solution?
You can set ThirstyAffiliates to selectively uncloak affiliate links from specified merchants.
Simply, go WordPress dashboard>Thirsty Affiliates>Link Appearance and scroll to the bottom of the page where you’ll see an option to unblock a category of affiliate links.
Choose your Amazon link category!
#8- Can I Cloak Affiliate Links Without a Website?
You cannot cloak them in the strict sense of the term.
But you can shorten them which is a good substitute (not ideal) to cloaking.
Let’s use Bit.ly as a free link shortener.
First, take your affiliate link you want to shorten. Second, go to Bit.ly and click on “Get Started for Free”
Third, scroll below and find “Interested in our free plan? Sign up for free here”
Fourth, open up a new free account
Fifth, now you’re inside Bit.ly dashboard, click on “Create New”
Sixth (final step), paste your affiliate link and Bitly will automatically create a short link for you. Take that link and paste it wherever you want.
Here’s the link I got:
As you can see, that link is definitely shorter than the raw affiliate version. But it’s also equally ugly. I wouldn’t click on it except maybe on Twitter where every link is shortened and it’s the norm.
#9- Is It Free To Cloak Affiliate Links in WordPress?
Yes it is.
Both ThirstyAffiliates and Pretty Links offer free versions of their plugin which have everything you need to get started.
And you probably won’t ever have to upgrade to premium.
#10- Does Link Cloaking Negatively Affect SEO?
No it does not.
But not cloaking affiliate links can hurt you because links to your merchants are paid links and if you link to them without a ‘nofollow’ attribute Google could penalize you for selling links.
#11- Can You include Too Many Links on The Page?
Yes you can. Unbalanced content:affiliate links ratio can hurt you and bring forth some sort of algorithm penalty.
I never had it happen to me, but Spencer Haws wrote about his experience in this case study.
#12- Should I Have My Affiliate Links Set To Open In A New Tab?
There are 2 schools of thought in regards to this.
One side says that you need to set your affiliate links to open in the same tab because your ultimate goal as an affiliate marketer is to send people off to your merchant so they can buy.
The other side says that you should set it to open in a new tab because it’s a better user experience for them, and better SEO for you.
The logic behind this is that the more people stay on your pages, the stronger user experience signals Google gets and computes into your higher rankings.
Both are interesting theories to maul over but you need to do what best serves your marketing goals.
Do you only care about making sales and nothing more?
Then open in the same tab.
Do you care about the long term SEO effect on your blog? Then open in a new tab and give them a chance to buy while still staying on your site in a different tab.
Concluding My Link Cloaking Guide for 2021…
As an affiliate marketer who wants to earn money online and be wildly successful you owe it to yourself to cloak affiliate links.
The benefits are obvious.
You’ll get the data you need to make correct decisions. You’ll get higher CTR and more sales. You’ll be protected from commision thieves. And you’ll get the ease of centralized affiliate link management.
You’ll get everything except those coveted affiliate sales.
You have to get those by yourself, so go out and do it! But not before installing and setting up ThirstyAffiliates or Pretty Links.
It’s a 5 minute job and the benefits are numerous, huge and compounding.
Thank you for reading, let’s talk in the comment section below.
Disclosure of material connection