There was once a time when telling someone to visit your website sounded a little something like this:
“Go to double-you double-you double-you dot my site dot com.”
Or, if you wanted to keep things short and sweet, you might have said:
“Go to dub dub dub dot my site dot com.”
Thankfully, over time we’ve managed to rid ourselves of this three second annoyance (hey, that time adds up). Try to think of the last time someone told you a domain name and mentioned the www. part. Can’t think of one? Me neither.
Just because we don’t say www. anymore, however, doesn’t mean that it no longer exists. While most websites will work without the initial www., they will typically also load with the www. as well. So what gives? What’s the point of including www. if most sites will load without it?
Is the www. in a domain name necessary?
In short, no. Having www. in your domain name is not necessary, and your website be served just fine without it.
That being said, it’s in your site’s best interest to ensure that your domain works with or without it. There are also a few scenarios where it would be beneficial to include the www. in your domain. Before we get to that, though, let’s take a look at why www. used to be so commonplace and what happened to it.
The origins of www. in domains
When you see a domain name, you probably assume that entering it into your browser’s address bar will take you to a website. You’d be right in thinking so, because that’s how domains most often get used online; however, that is not the only way for a domain to be used.
The www. in a domain name was originally used to distinguish the website of a domain from any other elements of that domain. For example, a website administrator would set up ftp. for an FTP server or mail. for an email server, which were useful for the domain owner but of no use for the general public. By entering the subdomain www., visitors on the World Wide Web would be taken to the public page for the site that was intended for them to visit, rather than one of the alternative subdomains intended to be a utility for the site owner’s personal purposes.
Why using www. used to be popular
As commonplace as the Internet and websites are now, not too long ago these were new things that many of us had a hard time wrapping our heads around. As Rich Adams writes, seeing .com beside a word was not enough to signify that a word or phrase was a domain name that could be accessed on the Internet:
“In the early days of the internet if you’d seen something like ‘jurassicpark.com’ on the bottom of a movie poster, it wouldn’t have been obvious what it was. Is it the name of the production company?, something that got printed by accident? Adding the “www.” to the beginning made it immediately obvious to everyone that this was something to do with the internet or World Wide Web.”
As people became more accustomed to typing and clicking on URLs, seeing .com, .net or any other top-level domain became enough to indicate that something was a domain name on the Internet. Just seeing example.com, people understood that there was an implied www. at the beginning of it, or they left the www. out altogether and were still able to access the intended website they wished to visit.
Redirecting your domains
Whatever your personal preference is towards www., you need to ensure that your website is configured properly for those who type it and those who don’t. This means that both www.yoursite.com and yoursite.com need to work.
To make sure your domain brings people to the correct site, you’ll need to set up a 301 redirect. If your intended main homepage is www.yoursite.com and someone types yoursite.com, a 301 redirect will forward them along to www.yoursite.com instead.
For those who type www. to get to your website, it can be very easy to accidentally miss a w or two. To account for these scenarios, it’s best practice to also use 301 redirects to send people who enter w.yoursite.com or ww.yoursite.com to your main site as well.
301 redirects are perhaps even more crucial for search engines. Without a 301 redirect, search engines will crawl both yoursite.com and www.yoursite.com as two distinct websites. Since all of the content is the same, it will penalize both sites in search results — something you definitely don’t want! A 301 redirect will tell search engines to ignore one of the sites and to give all of the ranking authority to the intended website.
Using www. for cookies
When using www., you can apply a unique cookie to that subdomain as well as any other subdomains that your website has. This means that you can track whether a person has viewed your main page, pricing page, contact page and so on, giving you a much more specific picture of how they have interacted with your site. If this is important to you, then you’ll want to set up a 301 redirect so that yoursite.com forwards to www.yoursite.com in order to have more accurate tracking.
So do you really need to use www.?
Technically no, you do not need to use www. in your domain in order for your site to load properly. That being said, if any of the scenarios mentioned in this article apply to you, then there are times where you will definitely want to use www. in the domain. Whatever you choose, at least you don’t have to say “double-you double-you double-you” every time you tell someone your domain name!