Using web address (URL) redirects is a common online practice to send visitors from one URL to another. Redirects are often used to fix broken links or migrate to a new website. Website owners can also use redirects for URL masking.
While there are some benefits to URL masking, the consequences can be significant. So, should you use URL masking on your website?
Keep reading to learn:
- What URL masking is
- The advantages and disadvantages of URL masking
What URL Masking Is
URL masking, also known as link cloaking, falls under the umbrella of URL redirects.
What URL Redirects Are
URL redirection sends your domain visitors to another, alternate, destination URL. URL redirects are categorized according to HTTP protocol, which makes up the framework of any data transferred on the internet.
There are three main types of URL redirects:
- 301 (permanent)
- 302 (found/moved temporarily)
- URL frame (masked)
A 301 permanent redirect is used when the destination URL of any webpage has changed. It’s often used when URL structure changes or a website needs to be migrated to a new domain.
A 302 temporary redirect directs traffic to a new URL for a brief period. Developers use the 302 redirects for A/B testing or to maintain a consistent website experience while pages are being fixed.
When you migrate a website to a new domain, the new domain doesn’t have search engine optimization (SEO) authority. A 301 permanent redirect will give 90% of the old website authority to the new domain eventually.
Google needs to verify the new website, which causes a delay as the new domain is reranked. Some webmasters use 302 redirects for migration in hopes of avoiding Google’s aging delay.
However, the 301 redirect is the correct method to use if the new destination URL is permanent.
What URL Masking Is
Both 301 and 302 redirects display the new destination URL in the address bar. A masked redirect empowers you to use content from another domain while keeping your original domain name in the address bar.
You use the URL of your homepage (your domain name) as the URL for every page of your website. A masked redirect is also called URL cloaking or domain masking.
The mask (or cloak) refers to how the URL in the address bar isn’t the actual URL of the content on the page. So, your user thinks they are on one domain when they’re really on another.
While using a URL mask offers some benefits, it’s not always the best experience for your users. Link masking can be used for various reasons, including to hide referral links and even for website migration.
However, as you’ll learn, it’s rarely your best option.
Alternatives to URL Masking
URL masking presents several user experience (UX) and SEO problems.
The good news?
There are several options you can take advantage of to increase your website’s ranking and performance, including:
- Manage separate domains and create links between them
- Combine content onto one domain and permanently redirect old links
- Use canonical links to avoid being penalized for duplicate content
- Use a URL shortening service provider to beautify long URLs
When to Mask a URL
There are situations when a website owner or developer might want to mask a link, including:
- Masking affiliate links. Some website visitors don’t trust affiliate links because they know you will make money off their purchase. So, some people use link cloaking to hide their affiliate links.
- Link shortening/beautification. Long, complicated links aren’t appealing. Some website owners shorten their links with URL masking instead of changing their domain name or URL schema.
- Hiding free web hosting URLs. When you use free web hosting services, your website lives on the company’s subdomain. You don’t get to use your own domain. Some free web hosting customers use domain masking to make it appear as if their website has its own domain.
- Increased tracking. Some link tracking software uses URL masking to conceal tracking tags in the original URL.
Advantages of URL Masking
The main reason to use URL masking is to hide an undesirable destination URL. In the above examples, you can see that affiliate links, long URLs, and subdomains aren’t the best URLs to have in an address bar.
So, URL masking is used to hide elements such as affiliate IDs and tracking tags that could potentially turn off users. By masking the URL, website owners hope to increase visits, engagement, and conversions.
However, when it comes to overall user experience, the disadvantages of URL masking often outweigh the benefits.
Disadvantages of URL Masking
URL masking creates UX issues that can harm your website authority and SEO ranking.
URL Masking Can Create a Poor User Experience
If you conceal the true destination URL, you create a poor user experience that can erode your visitors’ trust.
When the URL in the address bar doesn’t change as users navigate your website, it’s easy to get lost. Even worse, users that notice this might distrust you.
Online spammers often cloak URLs to hide malicious content. When visitors realize that you’re cloaking links, they’ll wonder what you have to hide.
Masked URLs make it impossible for users to share or save your content. Instead, when someone copies or bookmarks the URL, they’ll end up saving your homepage only.
You should avoid URL masking if you want your visitors to trust your content and share it.
URL Masking Negatively Impacts SEO
In addition to disrupting your website’s user experience, URL masking causes problems that lower your SEO ranking.
First, for the best SEO results, a website page should have a relevant URL. If you use your homepage URL for every website page, you’ll likely rank lower in search engines for lack of relevance.
The second, and perhaps most serious issue, is duplicate content. Duplicate content is any large block of content that’s virtually the same across two or more domains.
Duplicate content — even if it’s not malicious — hurts your SEO ranking.
When you use URL masking, search engines see two domains with the same content. Search engines don’t know which domain to include in the results page, so they usually reject both.
If Google believes you’re cloaking URLs to be deceptive, you might be removed from its results completely.
To avoid creating duplicate content issues, we recommend you use URL redirects as your alternative to URL masking.
For those that want to shorten or beautify long URLs, you can use a URL shortening service. These links are treated as 301 redirects and don’t have a negative impact on SEO.
How to Mask a URL
- Login to your cPanel
- Click on File Manager
- Locate the index.html file (you can also type index.html into your search bar to find the file)
- If there is no index.html file, create a new file and name it index.html
- Right-click the index.html file and select Edit
- Copy and paste the code below to your index.html file
- Save your changes
- Test the redirect by visiting your original domain
URL Masking Code Snippet
Copy and paste this code into your index.html file. Make sure you replace yournewdomain.com with the new destination URL.
The steps above outline how to set up a framed redirect from your cPanel admin dashboard. This method uses a full-page iframe to bring content from another document while keeping your domain name in the URL.
An iframe is an inline content page that populates with content from another HTML source. Iframes are commonly used to load embedded content from websites like YouTube. When you set up a masked redirect, the iframe takes up the entire content of the website page.
Alternatively, you can use the .htaccess file for URL masking. Your .htaccess (hypertext access) file contains the server settings for your website directory.
For URL masking, you need to use the RewriteEngine function.
Here is what the sample code might look like:
RewriteRule ^displayedpath/?$ /filepath/original/
When you enter the code, replace displayedpath with the text you want to appear in the URL. Then, replace filepath/original/ with the actual destination URL of the content that should appear.
Typos and small mistakes in your index.html or .htaccess files can break your website. If you don’t feel comfortable making changes to these files on your own, you should ask your developer (or hire one) to edit the files for you.
Marketers and developers use URL redirects for several reasons. Redirects maintain a consistent website experience when you migrate to a new domain or change your URL schema.
You can use masked redirects, or URL masking, for short-term marketing benefits, like to beautify domain names and hide affiliate links. However, given the UX and SEO disadvantages, it’s best to avoid cloaking links.
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