So Wwwhat's the Point?
Published at 9:32pm on 14 Sep 2006
No-www.org have taken a stand against the largely redundant requirement of many websites that you prefix their domain with www. While I applaud their efforts to save us all several characters worth of typing every day, I believe that they have missed out on some more subtle benefits of the www prefix...
No-www.org stands opposed to the www subdomain. They advocate the abolition of www, and on their site they define a transitional path through which its usage can be slowly phased out, along with a rating system for judging sites on compliance to this process.
The rating system they use is as follows (taken from their FAQ page):
- Fail - Traffic to example.net is either blocked or redirected to a different domain.
- Class A is the most common no-www compliance level. With class A domains, example.net and www.example.net are both valid methods of reaching this web site. Many servers default to this.
- Class B is currently the optimal no-www compliance level. This classification helps remind users that, while the www subdomain is accepted, it is not necessary. In Class B, www.example.net is a valid address, but it redirects all traffic to example.net.
- Class C is the most stringent compliance level. According to no-www, www.example.net is an invalid subdomain. All traffic must go to example.net in order to view the site. Very few sites currently hold this classification, partially because many internet users are not yet savvy enough to drop the www every time. For that reason, this classification is not recommended for sites that serve the general public.
So what have they got against this particular three-letter acronym? The reasoning given on the site is essentially that the purpose of the www prefix is to define...
The complete set of documents residing on all Internet servers that use the HTTP protocol
Since this set is clearly, almost by its own definition also defined by the http prefix, the usage of www is entirely unnecessary. In fact, with most browsers it is now possible to omit the "http://" and the browser will insert it for you. However, should you omit the www on a page that requires it, you will get a 404.
So presumably I must agree then this sporadic requirement for www on some sites is simply a menace to the user, and I should support the efforts of no-www.org to have it officially deprecated?
Well I don't. As far as machines are concerned, http:// may be equivalent to www, but for a human user, particularly novice internet users, there is a big distinction, and www has several advantages over http://;
- It is a simple acronym for an easy-to-remember phrase. How many people will have heard of the World Wide Web, as opposed to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol? And even if the majority of users can remember HTTP, and don't confuse it with HTML, or get the order muddled, then there's the "://" bit to worry about. People are expected to remember if it is a colon then a slash, or a slash then a colon, and if it's one slash or two, and if the slash goes forward or backward are they?
- It's much easier to type without making a mistake. About the worst you're likely to do is type two or four w's by mistake, and even that is easy to spot as being wrong.
- It looks tidier when printed - the letters are all equal height and with regular spacing, and with no unusual (non alphanumeric) characters, so it looks good in print.
And so here we have the major issue. Ignoring the fact that most people click links rather than typing them in - rendering either point of view moot for those cases - on the rare occasion that one is required to type a URL instead of clicking it it is usually because it has appeared on some non internet medium, whether it be print, video or spoken. In such cases it is necessary to have an unambiguous prefix to make it obvious that what is being seen (or heard) is a web site address.
If it ends in .com then no problem, everybody knows what a dot com is, but what about .tv or one of the more obscure domains? In these cases, prefixing www to the URL makes it totally obvious what it is, with the added benefit that the user can easily remember it and type it correctly when the opportunity arrives to enter it into a browser.
Compare this with http://, which is uglier to look at and harder to remember, and the user is more likely to type it wrong. Sure, you can omit it and let the browser put it in for you, but if you print it then the novice user is likely to assume it's required and have a go at typing it. But then if you don't print it then they may fail to recognise the URL altogether.
Using www avoids all of these problems.
To reinforce their point, no-www.org draw a comparison to email addresses, pointing out that we don't expect to have to use "email@example.com", but this is a specious comparison for two reasons:
- email addresses don't use HTTP protocol - they aren't web addresses, so why would you expect to use a prefix that is specific to the web? The whole point is that www is only for web sites.
- email addresses already have a common prefix (actually, an infix technically) that allows us to recognise them immediately for what they are - the @ symbol. This is so widely recognised that web crawlers are often programmed to identify email addresses purely by finding words that straddle an @ symbol on the page, and 90% of such bots can be foiled by simply replacing @ with "at" when writing your address on a web page.
So to say we don't use a redundant prefix for email domains is false - we could quite easily have adopted a policy of writing emails as "someone.example.com" and let the context of writing the address in an email client be enough to tell the computer what sort of address we're talking about - exactly as no-www.org are suggesting we do with domains - and yet it is easy to see how the @ makes an email stand out for the observer - just as www does for a url.
So whilst I agree with the spirit of the no-www.org site, I would be inclined to turn their rating system on its head:
- Class A (site accepts either the www prefix or nothing). From a user perspective I would say that this is optimal, but there are disadvantages to having two entry points to your site, such as a negative impact on visitor stats/pagerank, and branding issues.
- Class B (pass traffic to www.example.com is redirected to example.com). This is fine, but my preference would be to redirect from example.com to www.example.com instead. I am not suggesting we deprecate support for not using www, that would be silly, but I think reinforcing the www through a redirect helps reinforce the connection between www and the web page in the user's mind. And yet this perfectly reasonable and user-friendly variant on the "B" concept would be considered a "fail" by no-www standards.
- Class C is the most stringent compliance level - complete rejection of urls beginning with www. According to no-www, this is some kind of ideal of perfection that sadly cannot yet be adopted until people wake up to the fact that www is dead. To my mind this is nonsense - Class C is just as bad if not worse than sites which make the www mandatory, since by their own confession many users expect www to work. I'd call this a fail - Only A and B classed sites can be considered non-user-hostile in my opinion.
In conclusion: Redundancy is not always disadvantageous. In the case of the www prefix, the redundancy has very little effect on user productivity since its use is optional, however it offers a benefit in its role as an alternative, more intuitive indicator that a URI is a web site than the protocol prefix.
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