On the Internet, not everything is as it appears. Sometimes the domain you see in the address bar of your browser isn’t the address of the site you’re visiting. This practice is called masking or cloaking. While there are some legitimate uses for domain masking, it’s also a common tool of spammers and other black hats (bad guys).
It can be tempting for try domain masking to boost your business's reach on the Internet, but there are notable risks and potential SEO consequences of using masking as well.
A Tale of Two Domains
Let’s say you’ve been in business for a few years with the domain shoesandotherthingsforyourfeet.com. You’ve created marketing materials around it, put it on your business card and established yourself with that domain. But, you’ve discovered that you can get a new shorter, better domain, so you snap up shoesandsocks.com.
That’s a better fit for your new business and you want to use it as your new website's URL. But, you’ve got existing customers who are used to going to shoesandotherthingsforyourfeet.com, not to mention all of the money you spent marketing it. You’ve done pretty well with SEO on the site too and the search engines are visiting and indexing your site regularly. So, what do you do?
Domain Forwarding and Masking
Your domain registrar probably offers a service called redirecting or forwarding. Basic forwarding simply means that if someone types shoesandotherthingsforyourfeet.com into their browser, they’re redirected to your new site, shoesandsocks.com. They see the new domain (shoesandsocks.com) in the address bar of their browser.
Masked forwarding keeps the original domain visible in the address bar even though you’re on a different site. With a masked domain, the user will type in shoesandotherthingsforyourfeet.com, be redirected (seamlessly) to shoesandocks.com, and never know it.
You might want to have multiple redirects from some keyword-rich domains you’ve bought. Or, you might have an established site on a free host, but don’t want visitors to see mysite.thisfreesite.com. You want them to see mysite.com. Whatever the reason for the masking, there’s a price to be paid. Deception, even an innocent one, is never a good idea on the Web.
Masking and SEO
One of the biggest drawbacks to using masked forwarding is the potential for the infamous “duplicate content” SEO penalty. Here’s what happens.
Search engine spiders read Web pages. When a spider comes to your redirected site it's reading all of the content on that site and indexing it. It sees that content resides on examplesite1.com since that is what is showing in the address bar.
Later, when the spider hits examplesite2.com through another (non-redirected link), it sees the same content, but this time on a different domain. Google reads that as duplicate content and will either choose one site (you don’t know which) as the real site and ignore the other or bury both of them.
Using masking for redirects just isn’t a good idea. It takes a bit longer and involves a little more work, but you can move your site to the new domain following Google’s best practices. If you try to trick your visitors or the search engines, the joke will ultimately be on you.