URL masking – An overview
URL masking is not the ideal way to handle redirects. Hiding the actual URL address and masking it with yet another is URL masking. Through this practice the actual address of the URL remains unknown to users. The primary reason to perform this is to maintain branding across web pages or simply because they are short and catchy. For the pages the user visits, the URL remains unchanged and maintains the same name. It is actually like donning a mask and displaying a face marketers want their visitors to see.
Let us consider the case of an eCommerce website www.ecommerce.com. The visitor clicks on yet another link and finds that the URL in the address bar remains the same. Technically, the link address should change with every click and page like if the visitor navigates through the products page, the URL would be www.ecommerce.com/products /.
Why do marketers opt for URL masking?
- To hide affiliate links: Online users hesitate to click and browse through affiliated links with the impression that somebody may make money out of it.
- To cut-short URLs: URLs may be too long and mundane to remember or even to copy-paste on the address bar. This concern is solved by masking it with eye-catchy phrases which are easy to retain in the minds of the users.
- To track details: masking can also be included in the processes of tracking the users and their browsing patterns for analytical purposes.
Why shouldn’t you adopt URL masking?
- It is a significant threat to SEO as the masked address is entirely different from the actual address. The website is crawled and indexed based on a different server which it is unrelated to. This may cause heavy damage to the SERP ranking of the web page.
- Visitors may never know about the actual URL address. If they are on the lookout for information, it may become tough for them to locate the URL address.
- Again, URL masked websites are susceptible to fraudulence and malpractice which could cause irreversible damage on the online presence of the organization.
Concerns during implementation of URL masking:
- The major concern is the customer experience. URL masking bypasses central error documents and prompts two kinds of errors “Apache error message” and “doc not found”. Web page owners will need to work on this and scope the error document command accordingly to ensure a better customer experience.
- Masked URLs contain a cgi-bin subdirectory but do not have a php script. This cgi-bin subdirectory is different from other cgi-bin URLs and they are not treated similar to CGI binary. To have them treated like CGI binaries, Set Handler cgi-script should be added to .htaccess file in the particular directory.
- The document root changes in URL masking. The document root is the users’ web directory or a suitable sub directory. Links which are coded with regard to document roots break when accessed by a masked URL.
Let us understand the above concerns through the following instances:
- X.html is a link which will function when it is being accessed by both the masked URL and the destination URL.
- /x.html is a link which can be accessed and will work through the masked URL but not the destination URL.
- /user/x.html is a link which can be accessed from the destination URL but will not work from the masked URL.
Websites with masked URLs should have links in the form of http:// or …/…/file .html and the files corresponding to these links should be from source files of different directories.
Other recommended approaches for redirects:
- Maintaining different domains with unique content may do the job. This way the web page is not blacklisted for duplicate content.
- Combining valid content from varying links and giving it a suitable URL link is yet another way. However, this may result in losing on favorable ranking individual URLs have earned.
- Adding a noindex directive to the Meta tag in the source code will suggest the search engines not to include the web page in the search results. Again, a robots.txt noindex will help in no indexing based on the URL patterns.
- Deploying canonical URLs is also an effective manner to deal URL masking. Through this method, search engines are given a choice to choose amongst the better of two similar URLs on the basis of their search engine optimization.
- A suitable 301 redirect can also serve the purpose as it tells the visitors about where to find the content they are looking for without the risk of duplicating or misleading the visitors.
Digital marketers need to checkout for the best URL redirect plan for your website and strike a productive balance between your SERP ranking and customer experience!