Cloaking Affiliate Links, How and Why

Today’s topic is one that gets asked about pretty regularly, should I cloak my affiliate links to search engines, why or why not, and what are some of the best ways to do it.

First of all we need a little clarification, a good working definition of cloaking is, serving one set of content to the search engine spiders, and then serving different content to “human” visitors. There are lots of subtleties to this process such as serving different content based on IP, Geo-location, or logged in user status, while these may be related to cloaking they aren’t cloaking per say, as long as a spider from an specific geo-location gets the same content as human from that location, that’s generally OK . Cloaking however has the implied intent of trying to hide something from or deceive a search engine, and is usually a violation of guidelines.

When most people talk about cloaking affiliate links, what they really mean is masking links, or passing them through a non spiderable redirects or bounce pages.  Normally a link from an affiliate company looks something like this:

In this case the domain is owned by Commission Junction, the first number lets them know who to credit the sale/link to, the second tell them where to redirect. Over time search engines, see enough of these types of links and they “figure out” (with a little help from some humans) that these are affiliate links. In some cases Anti-Virus and spyware software will recognize these links as well, and overwrite or block them out.

So why would you want to hide that you are using affiliate links from search engines? Over the years I’ve seen a lot of people try and prove that google has it out for affiliates, and they want to remove affiliate websites from the web. I’ve never seen that conclusively proven, and there are still plenty of affiliate websites that currently rank. That said, Google doesn’t like too much affiliate marketing, and they especially hate thin affiliate websites. So there is something to be said for doing as much as you can to leave as few obvious affiliate markers as possible.

Originally one of the more popular ways to implement affiliate links was through Javascript redirects. However in recent months Google has gotten much better at crawling Javascript, and at this point I’d say that’s an implementation that I’d strongly recommend you stay away from. The second most common method is to pass the links through a redirection script. For maximum effectiveness you want to block the page/directory with the redirection script from the search engines in robots.txt. I’d also recommend using a meta noindex,nofollow as well … let’s just say I like to be extra careful.

Since I’m a big fan of wordpress, a plugin with an ACID management screen is a good thing, I’ve used the Go Codes Plugin for a number of years with no complaints. The reason you want to use a separate script and not the same one you are using for any URL Shortner functions is crawling. You want to spiders to crawl the shortened URL’s and correctly attribute any link juice, you don’t want them to crawl your affiliate links. When you use the go code plugin you link to the “go” directory under your main domain and then any set of characters you put in the shortcut, here’s an example:

Even if you aren’t concerned about masking things from search engines, there’s a maintenance factor, that makes this technique attractive. Let’s say I run a cell phone website and I have a link to a merchant who gives me a commission for every cell phone I sell. Every time I mention the word cell phone I could link to the merchant’s site like this:

Over the years I could easily have several hundred or thousand of these links on the site. What happens if that merchant goes out of business … or starts shaving sales off the backend, and I want to send my traffic somewhere else. What if a competing merchant comes along and offers me a private label deal with significantly higher commissions. Even if I use a “search and replace” and put a link to the new merchant in, chances are I’ll miss a few, and I’ll be cheating myself out of some commissions. However if instead of linking to directly to the merchant I linked to a redirection page like this I’d be in better shape:

Instead of changing hundreds or thousands of links, I don’t have to change any, I only have to change the redirection target, and everything falls into place.

Some merchants won’t like this technique, especially if they are using their affiliate program as a link building scheme (yeah I went there). Those merchants require you to link directly to them without using a redirection script. Some merchants also require a tracking image/bug. These solutions defeat the purpose of masking affiliate links so if you get a merchant who won’t budge, decide how important the affiliate program is, how big a fish you are in the pond, and decide if you want to play hardball of not.

Of course sometimes this implementation can work against you as it says you are “hiding” your links. If you play in a space that has a distrusting user base, you’ll want to put up a custom solution. You’ll want to pass all your links through a redirect and redirect conditionally based on parameters. So if you wanted to link to Macy’s it would look like this:


if you wanted to link to macys using an affiliate link it would look like this:


Your redirect page would have to have some programing that checked for the “lid” (link id) parameter first and if so redirected using the aff link, only if no “lid” parameter was present it would use the URL parameter. Most users aren’t sophisticated and will assume you are just tracking outlinks when they see “” in the URL string, especially if it’s first (wink).

So is all of this really neccesary, because this can all turn out to be huge PIA to keep up with and increases the amount of time you spend maintaining your website. Like I said, I haven’t seen it proven google tries to remove affilaite sites, but you do come across some odd things now and then in google. IMHO a little extra time spent being extra prepared in case google does decide to change is a good thing. Think of it as a bit of insurance and like carrying an umbrella when it looks cloudy but isn’t raining yet. You may have carried it for nothing, but if it does start to rain, or google changes the algo, you’ll be glad you did.

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