www. is not deprecated

Ever since the first traditional media ads began to appear with Web site addresses in them some 15 years ago, people have been screwing them up. And unless you just got on the Internet yesterday, you’ve almost certainly done the same, and know many people who have as well.

Almost no one knew what http://www.pepsi.com/ meant at the bottom of that TV ad. Those who did almost certainly had mixed feelings about it. Until 1994 commercial activity on the Internet had been prohibited; when this prohibition was lifted many people feared the inevitable commercialization of the net. In hindsight, they were right. Now commerce runs rampant. Overall, though, this isn’t a bad thing. Sure, there are banner ads and spam, but the Internet also brought us Linux and eBay.

The thing is, in 1996 almost everyone on the Internet knew how to type in a URL. Now, in 2013, almost no one knows. They guess, and the browser makes its best attempt to find what the user had intended. Back then, virtually everyone dutifully typed http://www.pepsi.com/ into Mosaic or Netscape to see just what it was that Pepsi had put online. These days, many people will just type in www.pepsi.com or even pepsi.com or, believe it or not, just pepsi.

More people than you realize will take a URL, go to their favorite search engine, and type the URL into the search engine’s search field, never realizing they can actually edit the contents of the address bar above, or perhaps not even noticing it. I’ve even seen a few pathological cases where, given a URL, they will type www.google.com or another search engine into the address bar, and then type the URL they actually want to go to into Google’s search field!

I paint this bleak picture primarily for the benefit of Internet veterans who have been around the block a few times and actually understand a fairly good deal about how the technology underlying the Internet works, and who don’t deal with “normal” users on a regular basis. If my description of “normal” users above surprised, shocked or disappointed you, you’re the target audience.

What does all this have to do with www. in URLs?

Remember that some people always use it, some don’t, and some only use it if it was in the URL they were given. The source of this confusion is the simple fact that users today don’t understand two things. First, they don’t understand why the www. is (or isn’t) there, and second, they don’t understand that the Web is not the whole of the Internet.

The main non-technical reason I argue for leaving the www. in URLs is that it serves as a gentle reminder that there are other services than the Web on the Internet. Some of these, such as FTP and DNS, users typically use transparently without even realizing it. Others, such as e-mail, users access through separate applications. Even so, I know of many users who will claim with a straight face that e-mail is not part of the Internet.

The ultimate goal here is to reach at least a few of these people and turn some of the lights on in their heads.

(Technical reasons to use www are available as well.)

Please note that I am in complete agreement with the no-www people that a domain’s main Web site should be accessible through both example.com and www.example.com. I argue, however, that www.example.com is the preferred form and that users going to example.com should be redirected to www.example.com.