We say.

Tim Berners-Lee

What’s in a name?

According to Paolo Palazzi who worked at CERN along with Tim Berners-Lee, the popular use of 'www' was accidental; the World Wide Web project page was intended to be published at www.cern.ch while info.cern.ch was intended to be the CERN home page, however the DNS records were never switched, and the practice of prepending 'www' to an institution's website domain name was subsequently copied.

Oddly the abbreviation of World Wide Web takes longer to say than the original phrase, and yet it continues to be used, often without question, by site owners and webmasters throughout the world for no reason other than “that’s the way it’s always been”.

When you purchase a domain name you are buying the ‘naked’ domain – that’s the domain name without any prefix. For example, google.com (naked) instead of www.google.com. There is no magic rule of DNS that says you have to put “www” in front of it. It’s just that everybody does.

There are two schools of thought in the technical world of DNS regarding the use of naked domains for websites.

The “Yes to www” camp will cite 2 technical reasons:

  • A naked domain cannot have a DNS CNAME record. This is only really a problem for VERY large volume/complex websites with multiple sub domains.
  • Serving static content from sub domains (which is a site optimization technique for large websites) can give some issues with cookies and caching.

These reasons only apply to large websites or those that will grow large eventually, such as the BBC or Twitter. Importantly they also only apply where you specifically want the website to appear using the naked domain in the address bar and on search engine indexes.

The “Yes to www” camp recommendation is that you redirect traffic from the naked domain to the “www” version.

The "No to www" camp message is simpler.  It's silly. We don't need it. Stop using it.

The reality is whether you use the naked domain or not, you can still present your domain without the www in the offline world.

We see domains represented offline in a number of ways:

http://www.google.com
www.google.com
google.com

When it is used online, it is usually presented as a link, perhaps in an email footer or as a back link from another website. It will be presented or styled as a link, either in the default blue underline style or in a more ‘brand compliant’ manner, but either way it is unnecessary to include the “www”.

When it is used offline it seems that the most important issue to consider is whether the reader will intuitively know that it is a domain name and not simply some strange words or letters.

We would argue that the reader/visitor these days is reasonably savvy and most of the time the .com or .co.uk TLD suffix is a big enough signal. You really don’t need to be printing (or saying) www anymore.

The bigger challenge will come when we see the first release of branded top level domains. The initial licences for companies and organisations to have their own version of “.com” were sold some time ago and pretty soon you’ll be visiting coca.cola rather than cocacola.com.

If we’re struggling to shake off the need to put “www” in front of a domain name to indicate that it’s a domain name, how on earth will we migrate the online community away from the use of .com and .co.uk?

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