Kevin Yank

    Last week saw the launch of 99designs.com. SitePoint’s first spin-off company, 99designs will shepherd SitePoint’s Design Contests section into its new life as a separate site. One particularly geeky detail on this new site is the fact that its hostname doesn’t start with ‘www’.

    While we have certainly launched non-‘www’ subdomains before (reference.sitepoint.com being the most recent), the main homepage for SitePoint has always been located at www.sitepoint.com. The launch of 99designs.com without a ‘www’ represents a change in approach and, to some degree, a nod to web fashion.

    In the past, it was expected that companies would have different servers (and thus different hostnames) for each of the Internet services they would provide. www.example.com for their web sites, ftp.example.com for their file transfer services, and mail.example.com for their email services.

    As things turned out, many small companies can’t afford to have a separate server for each of their services, so they run many of them on the same box. As a result, the above naming convention doesn’t really make much sense in most cases.

    There are other reasons to do away with the ‘www’ prefix—the fact that it takes forever to say, for instance. As a result, fashion has shifted such that many new sites—especially those created for tech-savvy audiences—are now launching without ‘www’ prefixes (e.g. Twitter).

    There is even an advocacy group campaigning against continued use of the ‘www’ prefix (although the site hasn’t been active since 2005). An update posted in July 2008 confirms that the site is still being maintained; there just isn’t much new to say! And of course, because every advocacy group needs its detractors, there is a pro-‘www’ group.

    Whichever side of the argument you fall on—whether you prefer to stick with original spirit of the Web, or would rather succumb to recent fashion—the important thing is to be decisive. Choose one version of your site’s address—either with or without a ‘www’—and use it everywhere.

    Whichever one you don’t use should redirect to the one you do use (e.g. https://www.sitepoint.com/ redirects to https://www.sitepoint.com/). The FAQ section on the no-www site provides instructions on how to set up your server to do this.

    Putting this redirect in place ensures that Google only sees one verison of your site (rather than splitting things like page rank across the two ‘versions’ of your site). It also prevents browsers that offer to remember your users’ login details from getting confused and storing two separate sets of credentials for your site.

    Of course, there are always exceptions. digg.com (and www.digg.com) and flickr.com (and www.flickr.com) are high-profile examples of sites that refuse to redirect to a single canonical hostname. Why they choose to do this I couldn’t say, but at any rate I don’t suggest following their example. Since this post was originally written, Digg have made www.digg.com redirect to digg.com. As of this writing, however, Flickr continues to support two hostnames separately.

    All that said, if you do nothing else, you should at least make sure your site is accessible with or without a ‘www.’ on the hostname. In the absence of a globally-embraced standard for top-level web site hostnames, users can be understandably confused if one version or the other fails to work. SitePoint contributor Roger Johansson recently wrote about this on his blog at www.456bereastreet.com.