Vanity in Your Address Bar – WWW or no-WWW

Natural Search Engine Optimization, Search Engine Marketing, Tips and Tricks, Web Design on February 20th, 2008 3 Comments

This is one of those elliptical conversations that seems to never really go away, it just keeps coming back again and again. This time around it is SitePoint that tossed the boomerang in one of their blogs. As they say this is really a rather geeky topic that stays mid-brain with most designers and developers, but is not something most business owners would even care to think about. However this is a top-of-mind topic for most SEO experts and can carry big implications if not handled correctly. First I will touch on the vanity aspect and then move on to the SEO concerns.

Is the WWW Necessary in Today’s Internet?

The answer – it depends.

It depends on a lot of things including the psychology, demographics and the users’ comfort level with computers among many other things. In the SitePoint article they note the launch of their own site, 99designs.com, as well as the social networking service Twitter.com as two examples without the WWW prefix. However, these two sites are targeted at a younger, more technically savvy, demographic that most likely will not even bother typing the WWW prefix in the first place.

With an older demographic on the other hand I would argue it is a requirement to include the WWW. When I used to do computer training courses for a public entity with a large percentage of older employees, instinctively I would speak domain names without the WWW and inevitably someone would ask if they needed to type WWW before that. Their limited knowledge in this area dictated how they interacted with websites. No amount of explaining the how’s and why’s of the internet would make them more comfortable in their interaction.

Any Ol’ Domain Will Do

While browsing through the comments on the SitePoint blog I noticed an overwhelming majority of people stating they didn’t care either way, but they set up domains to work with both the prefix and without it. They do this by changing the setup of their domain records. Few of the respondents indicate whether they use 301 redirects. While I am a proponent of having WWW and no-WWW take the user to a working website I also understand that if you fail to set up a redirect to one or the other it is possible to create a real search marketing snafu. More and more we are finding this to be one of the most overlooked aspects of web design and development. As an example we just took on a client who has had a website for over 7 years and yet their was no domain preference set via a 301 redirect.

The problem with this is referred to as canonicalization errors or canonical problems. It is a huge ugly name for something very simple. Basically search engines will count www.domain.com and domain.com as two separate pages. It doesn’t end there either. They will also see all of the variations below as separate pages.

  • www.domain.com
  • www.domain.com/
  • www.domain.com/index.html (or index.php, index.asp, index.cfm, etc.)
  • domain.com
  • domain.com/
  • domain.com/index.html (or index.php, index.asp, index.cfm, etc.)

Having multiple instances recorded by the search engines is a bad thing. Your website will suffer in the SERPs. One quick way to find out if your site is suffering from this problem is to use the site: and link: commands in Google and look at the total number of results returned.

So for example, type in site:www.domain.com and then try site:domain.com

If the numbers vary then you may have a canonicalization problem.

Which One Should You Use?

From an SEO standpoint I analyze all of the potential versions floating around that may or may not have links to them or may or may not be indexed by the search engines before I just hop on board with one or the other. If the non-WWW version has more backlinks and is generally performing better, I might redirect the WWW version there. However, coming back around to my first point in this article, current SEO performance should only be one piece of the puzzle. Usability and understanding your demographic should also play a role, because your domain name will be on everything (remember Integrated Marketing) from business cards to outdoor billboards to email marketing and PPC campaigns and should always look the same. Right down to how it appears in your address bar.

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3 Responses to “Vanity in Your Address Bar – WWW or no-WWW”

  1. Regardless of whether you include the trailing slash on a domain when linking or typing it into your browser, the first line of the HTTP request will be ‘GET / HTTP/1.1′. So there’s really only four, not six, different URLs that search engines etc will see. Of course, that’s still three too many, and the web server should certainly normalize them to a single canonical URL.

    In my opinion, the add/remove www prefix should be handled by a 301 permanent redirect, and a request to e.g. /index.html instead of / should be a 404.

    Some people would argue with the second point (404), but really there’s no reason fo anybody to type it in, and even if they tried, there’s a myriad of possible “defaults” like index.html, index.htm, default.htm, index.php, index.asp etc. If most of them will produce a 404, then you may as well make all of them the same.

  2. Chris says:

    I have to disagree with the 404 part of your answer.
    You never have control over what a user might do. You also do not have control over how other websites might link to yours. There may not be a reason for anyone to type it in, but that will not stop some people from doing it.

    If they are searching for the default content you should direct them to the default content, not a 404 page. It just makes for better usability.

  3. [...] How 3 Lines of Code Can Improve Your Rankings     Our Post from February 20, 2008 – Vanity in Your Address Bar – WWW or no-WWW [...]

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