From time to time, I get messages from visitors who, after reading about the importance of getting their own domain names for their websites, want to know if there are any downsides to simply buying a domain name, and using the registrar's free web redirection services to point it to their existing website.
This article discusses some of the issues involved in using the free URL redirection services, even if the registrar promises that your web address ("URL") will be "cloaked" or a "stealth URL".
Very often, when webmasters want to use a cloaked or stealth redirection for their own domain, it's because they have already set up a website on a free web host that does not provide domain name hosting. That is, the webmasters are not able to point their domain name to their site the way, say, thesitewizard.com does with its website. When you type a URL like, say, http://www.thesitewizard.com/wizards/index.shtml, you will go to that exact page on thesitewizard.com with no redirection or any other gimmickry (assuming that page exists). On a free web host that doesn't allow you to host your own domain name, there is no direct way to "attach" your domain name to your site.
To overcome this problem, many domain name registrars provide an option where they will redirect your visitors to your real URL when they type in your domain name. "Cloaked", "stealth" or "masked" URL redirection occurs when the visitor won't be able to tell from their browser's address bar that they have been sent to a different URL. If your domain is, say, "http://www.example.com", they will be redirected to your real site at, say, "http://www.your-web-host-name.invalid/your-actual-web-address/", but their address bar will still read "http://www.example.com/".
Cloaked redirection is usually implemented by registrars and free URL redirection services by creating a dummy web page with a feature known as "frames". When your visitors type in your domain name, that dummy web page loads. The dummy web page is basically an empty page, with only the title of your site, supplied by you, possibly some meta tag information (also supplied by you), and either a "frame" or "iframe" (inline frame) that loads the real page from your website.
In general, frames are problematic beasts laden with usability, linking and search engine issues.
Depending on how the registrar has implemented the redirection facility, and how you have coded your own website, it is possible that by using cloaked redirection, your visitors may no longer be able to bookmark individual pages on your website. Even if they navigate to a page they like, and try to put the link into their "Favourites" ("favorites" in US English), all they will be doing is bookmarking your main domain address.
No doubt some of you are thinking that it doesn't really matter, since they have bookmarked your site anyway. Think again. One month down the line, when they click the bookmark and end up at your main page, they won't remember why they put it in their favourites in the first place since the page will not have the familiar content that led them to bookmark it. They'll simply delete the bookmark and move on. Driving users to a page they don't want to go is pointless.
Connected with the problem of bookmarking is the issue of how other sites are going to link to your pages. If you have compelling content on your site, many websites will want to link to the exact page that they found useful. Webmasters are more resourceful than your average user, so they will not be satisfied with the address they see in their browser address bar: one look and they will realise that your site has frames. They will then look for the real, correct URL to the specific page they want to link to and use that instead.
If your internal links to other pages on your site are coded so that they point to your actual address at your free web host, then websites that link to those pages will also point their links in the same way, that is, not at your domain name, but with your real URL.
This is a problem because when you change web hosts, you will lose all those links pointing at your site.
Your site is also unlikely to perform as well as it could in the search engines. Part of the problem is that even if there are links from other sites pointing directly to your domain, driving the search engine robots to your site, those links will point to the dummy web page set up by your domain name registrar. This is a problem, because, if you will recall, that dummy web page has no content for search engines to index.
As I mentioned in another article on search engine ranking, in order for your site to rank well for particular words or phrases, those words or phrases need to be present on your website.
When you use cloaked domain redirection, all your content is associated with your free web host's URL, not your own.
There are at least two ways to deal with the above problems.
The best solution is of course to move to a web host that allows you to host your own domain name. All commercial web hosts allow this, and there are also a few free web hosts that allow domain name hosting (assuming there are any left in that list that have not closed down by the time you read this).
This solution is the preferred solution because it allows you to change web hosts with impunity. Any time a web host turns bad, just move your site to another one. You will not lose your visitors, your inbound links nor your search engine ranking as you might with the other solutions.
The next best solution, if you cannot find a web host you like (or cannot afford one), is to enable something known as "path forwarding" in your domain name registrar's cloaked web redirection facilities. It's possible that this is automatically done by your registrar, or, it may be that your registrar does not even provide this facility.
With path forwarding enabled, when visitors type in a filename like some-name-or-other.html together with your domain name, they will be redirected to some-name-or-other.html at your real web host's URL. For example, if they were to type http://www.example.com/songs/beatles.html, where example.com is your domain name, they will be sent to http://www.your-web-host-name.invalid/your-actual-web-address/songs/beatles.html, where http://www.your-web-host-name.invalid/your-actual-web-address/ is your site at your free web host.
After you do this, make sure you change ALL the internal links on your site to use full URLs with your domain name. For example, don't link to "http://www.your-web-host-name.invalid/your-actual-web-address/some-name-or-other.html" or just "some-name-or-other.html" anywhere on your site. Link to "http://www.example.com/some-name-or-other.html" (with your domain name) instead. If your registrar implements the facility well, and you linked to your internal pages correctly, your visitors will be able to bookmark the specific page they want instead of your main domain URL.
However, this solution is still a last resort because when search engine spiders visit your http://www.example.com/some-name-or-other.html page, they will only find an empty dummy page with no usable content to index. But at least you've set the stage for a future move to a better web host when you can afford it in the future.
(Incidentally, in case you think I'm endorsing this alternative, I'm not. It's a half-baked solution that solves very little. If you can, you should move to a web host with domain hosting instead. Even if you're poverty-striken and cannot afford a cheap web host, at least check out the domain-hosting free hosts. Otherwise you're losing a lot of the benefits that a domain name gives you.)
Some of my visitors tell me they don't want to move their website because their current web host has an easy-to-use website builder that they have used to create their site. The latest visitor to tell me this mentioned that he read my review of Google Page Creator and wondered if using cloaked domains solved the major problem I mentioned in that article. I gathered that he liked the ease of creating his site with the online editor.
If this is something that is holding you back from going with a different web host, please read my article Is It Better to Use an Online Site Builder or a Standalone Web Editor? for a full discussion of the issue.
I will only add that it's best to move your site now when it's still not well-established than later, when the losses from moving your site will be very much worse. As time progresses, as long as you don't properly host your domain name, you will continue to acquire more links to your free web host's URL rather than your own. Moving your site at that later time will cause even greater grief than it will now. I speak from experience from my early years with another of my sites, thefreecountry.com.
Don't waste the value that having your own domain name gives to your site by using web redirection for your domain name. Even configured optimally, you will still lose many things, including the portability of your website, the inbound links and its search engine ranking. Do it right by getting a web host that supports domain name hosting, be it free or commercial.
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