Forward with masking is a kind of redirect that lets you display content from another web page to users but keeps the original URL in the address bar. Here’s an overview of how it works, its implications, and whether or not it’s a good idea for your website.
- What is Forwarding with Masking?
- How Forward with Masking Works
- Implementing Forward Masking with a Registrar
- Uses of Forward Masking
- Three Reasons to Avoid Forward Masking
What is Forwarding with Masking?
Let’s say you have a domain called abc.com, and when the user visits abc.com, you want to redirect them to xyz.com instead. Normally, this is called “forwarding” or “redirecting”. You see it all the time on even reputable sites when they send you to another page from the one you originally visited. In fact, we have several articles on NameHero showing you how to redirect your domain and even create redirects in WordPress for web pages that no longer exist.
In the above example, the URL on the top of the browser changes when the visitor is redirected. So the visitor knows they’re on a different page if they just look at the URL. Generally, it’s good practice to make it obvious that you’re redirecting the user elsewhere. However, when you forward with masking, your visitor doesn’t know they’ve gone to another page. The URL address at the top of your browser still remains “abc.com”, even though the user is viewing the content of “xyz.com”.
You can see why forwarding with masking has such a shady reputation. It doesn’t sound very “honest” – and indeed, there are hardly any good reasons why you would want to do this, even though many domain registrars provide you with the tools to do so.
How Forward with Masking Works
There are a couple of ways that you can implement forwarding with masking.
Using an iFrame
Taken to the extreme, you could embed an entirely different website in your page and increase the size of the iFrame to fit the whole browser space. When you do this, you can effectively display one website while maintaining the URL of another page in the address bar.
Disadvantages of Using an iFrame for Forward Masking
On a technical level, the biggest problem with using an iFrame is that when the user clicks a link in the iFrame that belongs to the target website, the URL of your address bar won’t change to match the new content. It’ll remain exactly the same as before.
So, for example, if your website abc.com contains an iFrame that displays xyz.com, and the user clicks a link xyz.com/some-link/, the content of the iFrame will change to match the newly clicked URL. But the address the browser displays in the URL bar will remain abc.com.
So for the purposes of forwarding with masking, using an iFrame is the simplest solution, but doesn’t lend itself to in-depth browsing. At the most, it’s good for showing a single page and doesn’t allow the user to bookmark the new content or copy the URL.
Fetching the HTML from the Target Site
A more sophisticated way to implement forwarding with masking is for your hosting domain abc.com to simply fetch the entire HTML content from xyz.com and then present that HTML to the user. While this might appear to be the same as using an iFrame, the key difference is that you can modify the content of the destination HTML to change the links to match the originating domain.
So, for example, if the page xyz.com contains the link xyz.com/test-link, your server can modify the HTML to change the link URL to abc.com/test-link. In this way, you can provide the full browsing experience to the user while changing the URL shown in the address bar with each link they click. It requires much more work than a vanilla iFrame, but the result is far more convincing.
Implementing Forward Masking with a Registrar
Many domain registrars like GoDaddy allow you to use forward masking with their domains. However, this has the following restrictions:
- You have to use the registrar’s nameservers. So if you want to integrate Cloudflare and use their DNS servers, you have to relinquish forward masking
- GoDaddy will not allow forward masking on HTTPS URLs. So if someone visits your site using the HTTPS protocol, it won’t work.
- You can’t use an SSL certificate on forward-masked domains.
These limitations make it hard to reliably implement forward masking on your domains without raising many security concerns. Most visitors’ browsers won’t even allow you to visit the site!
To implement forward masking on GoDaddy, do the following:
- Open your list of domains and go to the management section of the domain on which you want to implement forward masking
- Click the section on “Forwarding”
- Click “Add”
- Choose either HTTPS or HTTP
- Enter the URL to which you want to forward the domain
- From the dropdown menu, choose the “Forward with masking option”
Uses of Forward Masking
Forward masking is a very shady technique used by black hat SEOs for quick gains, but which don’t pay off in the long term. I’m unaware of any legitimate uses for forward masking other than deceiving search engines or visitors. So here are some reasons why black hat SEOs would use forward masking.
Creating Duplicate Content on a New Domain
Forward masking lets black hat SEOs steal existing websites’ content and display it on their own domains, thereby avoiding all the hassle of creating the content for themselves. It’s one way to quickly get your domain off the ground.
Hijacking Affiliate Link Clicks
If black hats implement forward masking on their site, they can intercept any affiliate links that the user clicks and redirect them to their own affiliate networks – probably a different account with the same brand name.
This is one of the reasons why forward masking is a form of theft and why search engines penalize it so hard.
Three Reasons to Avoid Forward Masking
If the ethical objections to forward masking aren’t convincing, here are two reasons to avoid it.
1. Search Engines will Penalize you Heavily
Forward masking is an old technique, and search engines like Google and Bing have had plenty of time to detect these techniques and drop you from their index. Even if it works, it’ll only stay up for a short time before all your traffic drops to zero, at which point you’ll have to start all over again.
Is it really worth it to keep doing this? Note that many domain registrars like GoDaddy look down on forward masking, so if you get a bad reputation, you’ll be kicked around from registrar to registrar.
2. You Might Land in Legal Trouble
Since forward masking is an outright copyright violation, don’t be surprised to see many copyright claims filed against you. These will first go to your domain registrar, who will do the easiest thing and kick you off their servers entirely. No one wants to be associated with an account that brings legal troubles, and big corporations certainly don’t need this kind of hassle.
So legal troubles, terrible search performance, and wary customers are three good reasons to stay clear of forward masking.
Forward with masking is an old black hat SEO technique that used to work but has no chance of passing modern search engines’ sophisticated spam management architectures. It can only bring you pain and isn’t sustainable, so I suggest you stay as far away from it as possible!
I’m a NameHero team member, and an expert on WordPress and web hosting. I’ve been in this industry since 2008. I’ve also developed apps on Android and have written extensive tutorials on managing Linux servers. You can contact me on my website WP-Tweaks.com!