Affiliate Links - to Cloak or Not to Cloak
Let's first get the question of what is link cloaking out of the way.
Normally, an affiliate link is a cumbersome thing, and doesn't entice clicks. An Amazon affiliate link might look like the following little gem when a visitor hovers over the link's anchor text:
Rather than showing your site visitor such cumbersome link, you can elect to add a redirect to clean up the appearance of the link. When you do so, you are cloaking the original link. It's a simple procedure, and can be handled by a free WordPress plugin such as Pretty Link. When it's cloaked, your affiliate link would look like this instead:
Why would you want to go through the hassle though? Here are a few reasons.
Increase clickthroughs, conversions, and earnings
If your site gets 1,000 visitors a month, and only about 10 of those visitors click through on your affiliate link, your earnings are limited. If you could convince an extra 10 visitors to click through, your earnings would be doubled - with little or no additional work on your part. One way you can encourage more clicks from the same number of visitors is to make the link more informative. By confirming the link's target (a GoProHero4 camera in the example above), and by eliminating the gibberish shown in the Amazon link, you make the link far more attractive to your visitors.
In addition, some of your site visitors are put off simply knowing that the link is an affiliate link. Your cloaked link can help ease that concern.
Another advantage to cloaking your links is that you can easily change the vendor or seller that you are using. For example, suppose Amazon decided to cut their commission rate for the GoProHero4 from 4% to 2.5%. You may be inclined to find another supplier who offers a higher commission. It's a simple matter to change the cloaked link in one place, rather than having to change affiliate links everywhere you linked to Amazon's GoProHero4.
At some further point you may discover that your earnings have dropped because your new supplier doesn't convert as well as Amazon did. Once again, it's a simple matter to change all the links back to Amazon.
Spare your site's reputation & rank
Google doesn't particularly like seeing paid links on your site - whether an advertiser paid you to put them there or if a vendor will pay you if someone clicks on their link. Yes, there's a double standard here, given Google's principle source of revenue (AdSense), but let's ignore that conflict for the moment...
Google's dislike for paid links includes affiliate links. You can minimize the damage caused by those links by adding rel="nofollow" to each of your affiliate links - but that's a pain in the petute. Alternately, you can centralize inclusion of the nofollow attribute, making link administration simpler. For the ultimate simplification, you can have your cloaking plugin add rel="nofollow" to all cloaked links - automatically!
Use landing pages
To be perfectly clear, the search engines will recognize your cloaked affiliate links.It's best to funnel traffic to landing pages, and limit your affiliate links to those pages. Send your site visitors on to your vendor from those landing pages. That way, your other internal pages won't be penalized for having affiliate links on them, and you'll have an opportunity to build trust and "pre-sell" your visitors before sending them off the the vendor's site. If your monetization method includes building an email list, using intermediate pages also gives you the opportunity to collect email addresses for future marketing efforts before sending them on their way.
There are a few other advantages associated with the use of cloaked links. Do a bit of research to determine if they're worth your while!
The image at the top of the blog is licensed under Creative Commons by Drodeian