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November 7, 2009

Cutting Rank: How an Improper Domain Name Redirect Can Forfeit Your Top Rankings

Cutting Rank: Improper Domain Name Redirects
Cutting Rank: Improper Domain Name Redirects


Can my site rank better with a keyword-rich domain name? Sure.

Can my site rank better without a keyword in the domain name at all? Absolutely.

I get questions (or assumptions) like this regularly. Actually, there are many other things going on behind the scenes that impact rank, and the domain name is rarely a significant factor.

Let’s say your website has been out there for 6 months or more and you assume, for whatever reason, that you can get a higher search engine ranking if you were using a keyword in your domain name instead of the one you have. In addition to your company web domain, maindomain.com, you rush to purchase keyword1.com, keyword2.com and keyword3.com.

From Google’s perspective, there is both a good way and a detrimental way to assign these additional domain names to your site. This can cause a much greater problem in terms of organic ranking if you get it wrong in terms of duplicate content and trust. Have you ever heard of duplicate content? Which domain name does Google have more history and trust with, your current domain name or one you just bought?

Common methods webmasters use to point multiple domain names to your web server include:

  • Domain Mirroring/Masking
  • Domain Cloaking
  • Domain Alias/URL Alias
  • Domain Redirecting

Domain mirroring/masking is sometimes called a pointer domain. It looks like it is the domain name when it is used in a browser, but it is simply a mask overlaying the real domain name and its content. When someone types in www.domain.com, it’s really forwarding to domain.blogspot.com without the address changing in the address bar. The user continues to see www.domain.com in the address bar, although the site and its contents are really from domain.blogspot.com.

Domain cloaking uses an iframe or embedded frameset to display the content of another site.

Domain redirecting (also called URL redirecting) requires all traffic that is sent through the new domain name to be redirected to the main domain name. This can also be a domain redirected to a subdirectory of the main domain, or multiple domains redirected to a complex URL. This is different from domain mirroring/masking and domain cloaking because, when a user types in www.domain.com, they end up on www.maindomain.com and the address changes appropriately in the address bar.

But, let’s back up a second and look at the issues you must consider before making this decision.

1. To limit confusion, it’s better to change the brand (or company) name to better reflect the keyword-rich domain name. This could be as simple as recreating the company logo, but you might consult your customer base first.

2. The technical procedure of redirecting domain names must be done so that the search engines do not get confused about what you are trying to do. Otherwise, you risk tripping a duplicate content filter, which would force Google to accept only one domain with that content (explained below). But the biggest risk is setting off an alarm at Google that you are trying to trick them to get a better rank.

Just for fun, let’s say you’ve gone through the trouble of changing the company name to reflect your new keyword-rich domain. Now it’s time to get technical.

If you use any method other than domain redirecting, you are going to be disappointed with your search rank. Domain mirroring, masking, cloaking and aliases confuse search engines because they see the same content under a different domain name. Google then selects one of the domain names to display that content and leaves the others out of the search results. Google chooses for you – since you are not aware of how to manage your duplicate content issues – and no one knows which domain name Google will choose. You could be saying “bye-bye” to all the hard-earned link juice pointed at your main domain name.

The more serious issue with domain mirroring/masking is the probability that Google suspects you are trying to manipulate search rank by suddenly using keywords in additional domain names. The result is either loss of whatever good ranking you did have or your site is banned from Google altogether. Ouch!

This is precisely what happened with a client. Despite my warnings, but thinking they might change the company name eventually, they bought additional keyword-rich domain names and had the webmaster point them at their server (using domain masking). Within a couple weeks Google dropped their domain ranking across the board, but did not ban them.

Of course they came to me with their issue. I gently reminded them about how this should have been done, redirected the domain names properly (using a 301 redirect) and asked them to consult me next time they’re considering a marketing or technical decision regarding the website. It took about 6 weeks – a long and painful 6 weeks – for Google to restore their good rank again.

When a company acquires additional domain names, they should be permanently redirected to the main domain name – the one, central location on the web for all of the company’s or brand’s content.

Redirecting a domain name should be handled differently depending on the type of server hosting your site (Apache or Windows), how much control you have over that server (hosted on a shared or dedicated server) and the purpose of the redirected domain name.


Tom Shivers is an SEO consultant and president of Capture Commerce, Inc. – a professional SEO company focused on tailored Internet marketing.

11 Responses to “Cutting Rank: How an Improper Domain Name Redirect Can Forfeit Your Top Rankings

    avatar Steve Morris says:

    a 301 redirect in the htaccess file has the added benefit of transferring most of the link juice to the new domain as well.

    The correct way to implement a 301 is to add a line to your htaccess file (on an Apache server)
    redirect 301 / http://www.yournewdomain.com/

    It’s easy to fall into the technical holes of search engines without even know whats going on.

    Excellent article and many key points that I am sure will help your readers.

    I found the topics of this article so useful, that I quoted them in my SEO blog at the following URL:
    http://www.searchengineoptimizationjournal.com/2009/11/09/keyword-domain/

    avatar Tom Shivers says:

    Thanks for the comments. A couple of clarifications.

    I do recommend having a keyword rich domain name when possible – as in, when you are developing the website for the first time. Nick @ brick makes a good point that it can make sense to create a mini-site with unique content for this purpose.

    Considering all of the other factors involved in SEO, a keyword rich domain name is not significant. There are many other useful ways to increase search rank for a site without depending on the domain name. In addition, the lift a site receives from a keyword rich domain name usually affects only that keyword.

    I’d be careful not to base the majority of your SEO strategy on getting a keyword rich domain name.

    While 6 mo’s ago I would have agreed with the author, based on a recent domain redirect I did, (permanent 301 redirect), forwarding traffic from a several year old PR3 site to a site that was not 2 years old yet with a PR1, what occured was rather scary in that the search results for both sites went downhill quickly. After a month of seeing the search results decline, I removed the redirect and both sites went back to normal.

    avatar Irma says:

    If domain mirroring/masking tends to be prohibited, then why blogger.com facilitate us to use our own domain name (e.g. example.com), as the same time we can still have our own blog address (example.blogspot.com). It seems that Google and its subsidiary (blogger.com) have a contradiction. Any idea about this?

    There are so many factors involved in SEO that we normally don’t even discuss with your clients the issue of getting a new keyword-rich domain, particularly if they’ve already owned their site for a number of years. But, sometimes business circumstances make it a good time to consider a new domain name (change in the business or ownership), in which case focusing on keyword-rich names might make sense.

    avatar Frank Jovine says:

    It has been beaten to death about how Google looks at duplicate content across multiple domains and the jury is out. Google doesn’t penalize a domain for duplicate content. If this were the case, than all the news that comes from Press Releases that are re-published would cause a major issue, it doesn’t.

    Please visit Matt Cutts blog for validation.

    The actual keywords in a domain name may not have much effect on rankings, BUT having the keywords in the domain basically guarantees that every link (including a coveted DMOZ link) will have the keywords in the anchor text. And that is a big thing to consider. I rarely advise clients to change domains names if the site is established and has good links.

    avatar ibps says:

    great information thank you for sharing this information

    nice article thanks for sharing with us.

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