Tales From the Dark Side: Link Cloaking
There's a lot of mystery behind black hat SEO. Most techniques tend to be delegated to the hushed whispers or become quite public when a large company gets caught using them (see the JC Penney fiasco).
This being said, there are many reasons that you should be familiar with the various approaches that are considered to be the "Black Hat" techniques of the SEO world. One of the reasons for understanding these techniques is that it allows you to identify SEO firms that might be trying to trick you into paying for services that are frowned upon. One of the most popular techniques is link cloaking.
How Black Hat SEO Link Cloaking Works
In the old days of search engine marketing, a popular black hat SEO technique was using hidden text to trick the search engine robots as they crawled your site. This hidden text would be visible to search engines, but not to the human readers that came to your site. The basic idea was to make some text the same color as the background (usually a keyword repeated many times). This would keyword stuff the text and make it seem more relevant than it really was.
Link cloaking works in the same way. The idea is to make it seem like you are internally linking on your site, when you are actually linking to an affiliate. Website users tend to trust internal links much more than external links, and making an affiliate link seem internal helps click-through rates. This technique also gained more use when web developers suspected that Google was penalizing affiliate lead generation sites in the SERPs.
There are many ways to cloak a link - we'll use an Amazon link as an example. Let's suppose you would like to link to an Amazon product as an affiliate, but want the link to look internal. Open your .htaccess file and write the code:
- RewriteEngine on
- RewriteRule ^show/(.*)$ http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/$1/INSERT-AMAZON-ID [L]
Now, replace "INSERT-AMAZON-ID" with your actual Amazon ID code.
Finally, create a link as: http://www.DOMAIN-NAME.com/show/0873647041 but replace "DOMAIN-NAME" with your domain name. You have created a cloaked link that, when plugged into your content, will appear as an internal link, but actually links to your affiliate.
Why You Should Never Use Link Cloaking
There's no better reason to avoid link cloaking than it's against Google's Webmaster Guidelines. Using link cloaking on your site could spell disaster if, or rather when, the search engine catches on. While link cloaking was huge in the past, Google has largely automated the process of detecting these links on your site - they don't even need a human anymore to tell that you're doing it.
But the real danger in this technique is that it's not always a purposeful technique meant to game search engines. Any time you use a redirect, you risk watching your search engine rankings plummet. While 301 redirects still pass link juice, 302 redirects do not (a good reason to be wary of any form of redirect in your backlinks).
You might even see link cloaking creep up in advertising at major sites. For example, you might purchase a site wide link on a site like MSNBC, and see the links coming in looking something like: yoursite.com/?source=msnbc. This is entirely innocent, but can be mistaken by Google as canonical, and be penalized.
Link cloaking is a sometimes clever, always dangerous technique that, for the most part, has gone out of usage in SEO. It does creep up from time to time, however, especially with inexperienced SEO freelancers. Always be careful with redirects on your site, and carefully check links coming back to you (even the natural ones). Even though one instance might not even earn you a warning from Google, it's best to be prepared to deal with black hat SEO before it becomes a serious issue.