Taking the www out of the web

Despite the phrase “World-Wide Web” being as dated and passรฉ as claims of Al Gore “inventing the Internet”, the term persists today as the most popular and unnecessary subdomain for websites. Should it really be necessary to type “www” before every domain name? Furthermore, does it even have any more relevance?

Since the major use of Internet is for accessing websites, the “www” prefix shouldn’t be needed anymore. It is an archaic holdover from a previous era, one where browser wars meant IE vs. Netscape and where Geocities was the place to be. Thankfully, the folks over at no-www have been aiming to improve this for some time.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, it’s not such a big deal, more just a pet peeve of mine. Most sites out there are thankfully configured well enough so that navigating to “domain.com” just redirects you to “www.domain.com” with no damage done. However, some servers are setup so that navigating to “domain.com” doesn’t work, and this forces you to type in the “www” subdomain before. This really doesn’t make sense in today’s world.

In my opinion, all websites should be set up with the no-www version as the default. Using the “www” subdomain should redirect you to the no-www version, with no harm done. This is known as Class-B compliance, according to the no-www folks, and it’s probably going to be the best way to go for some time, since many people still use the “www”, after having the phrase drilled into their heads during the late 90’s.

So, how to fix it?

If you’ve signed up for hosting from a provider, chances are they’ve already implemented some sort of compliance, but not the optimal type. For example, most hosting providers will automatically redirect the no-www request to the www one. So, under this configuration, someone entering “domain.com” would be redirected to “www.domain.com”. No big deal, but things could be better. After all, the no-www version is shorter and thus requires less typing and less space. Good if you want to save a few cents on your business cards.

Fixing it is a simple effort that takes a minute or so. All you have to do is edit the .htaccess file in the root of your website, if you’re using Apache. Here’s the following directive I’m using.

# BEGIN no-www
<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^www\.unitstep\.net$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://unitstep.net/$1 [R=301,L]
# END no-www

The RewriteRule uses a 301 – this is a special HTTP code used to tell of a permanent redirection. Browsers and search engines crawling your site will interpret this as an instruction that your website has permanently moved to the non-www address. This is most important for search engines, so that they know that the no-www version is not just a duplicate or different website than the previous www version. The 301 instruction tells them that the old www version doesn’t exist anymore, and it has been moved to the no-www address.

Taking it a step further, you could also redirect any subdomain to just the root. For example, I also own the domain “peterchng.com”, and wanted to redirect any request to that address, subdomains included, to my main site. Here’s the directives I used.

# BEGIN peterchng.com FORWARD
<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^(([a-zA-Z0-9]+)\.)*peterchng\.com$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://unitstep.net/$1 [R=301,L]
# END peterchng.com FORWARD

Go ahead, try typing in “who.the.heck.is.peterchng.com” into your browser, and you’ll see it redirects right back to this site.

You’ll want to be careful when using these directives – if you actually do have separate websites on different subdomains, they’ll be inaccessible if you do this! I’ve been using it until I find a use for peterchng.com – or a different use for unitstep.net.

Why all the trouble then?

With all the trouble of going of removing the “www” you may wonder why it was ever used in the first place. Well, IIRC, in the early years of the Internet, websites or HTTP wasn’t the main use. Other services/protocols such as gopher, FTP and telnet were probably a lot more dominant. So, it made sense to set up a separate subdomain that would be used to accept HTTP connections. This would make it easier for users to distinguish between the services offered from a particular domain. However, since HTTP has grown to eclipse those traditional services, the use of www is almost superfluous nowadays.

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