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www and your domain name

January 21, 2005

It’s common knowledge that your site should come up for users both with and without the “www” on your domain name. Unfortunately, the way this is usually done may cause search engines to penalize you.


Testing for problems

Open another window or tab on your web browser, and type in your site name (“www.example.com”).  Now type it in without the “www” (“example.com”).  Did your site come up properly both times?

If so, great.

Or maybe not quite so great.

When your page loaded without the “www”, what address did the browser show you arrived at?

Chances are that it still showed “example.com” instead of “www.example.com”.

Which has become a major problem.

In this example, “example.com” is your domain name, or your “root domain name”.  The “www” is a “host name” — other possible host names you might find (for other purposes) might be “mail.example.com” or “news.example.com”.

What’s important here is that whether or not all of these different host names arrive at the same place, they are all seen by the world as likely to be separate and distinct entities.

At some point over the past 2 years, Google started paying attention to “duplicate” pages.

It had become common for “search engine spammers” to “stuff” the results by putting their content on many sites.  As a result, Google began to penalize sites for duplicate content.

A duplicate content penalty can cripple or kill your traffic from Google.

You’ve probably guessed where we’re going here — Google sees “example.com” and “www.example.com” as different sites.

If your web site comes up as both example.com and www.example.com, then you have duplicate content, and may potentially be penalized as a result.

If you’re not penalized now, then you stand to be in the future.

Fixing The Problem

What should you do?  You do want people to come to your site whether or not they type the “www”, but it’d be nice to get search engine traffic, too.

The proper way for this to be handled today is to pick one of the addresses as your “real” address, and have the others all permanently redirected to this address (more on this below).

You’d normally pick the “www” domain (“www.example.com”) as your “real” address, but before you decide, search on your site, and see whether Google shows more results showing with “www” or without.

I had a domain that Google found 132 pages on without the “www” — and none with.  On that site, I made the domain without the “www” (“example.com”) the “real” domain.

Once you’ve decided, contact your web host and explain that you want your domain without the “www” permanently redirected (this is also known as a “301 redirect”) to your domain with the “www” (or vice versa, if you decided Google likes the other better).

With some web hosts, this might increase your monthly fee slightly, but it’s worth it (well, it is if you want the traffic).

If your web host can’t or won’t do this for you, find a new host.

Testing The Fix

Once it’s done, you must double-check the results.

Try the test in the first paragraph again.  When you type in your name without the “www”, it should find your site AND change the address in the browser to show the “www”.  As an example, try going to this site without the “www” (just type “insanelygreatsites.com”). Your browser finds the site, and shows “www.insanelygreatsites.com” when the page loads.  This is the behavior you want.

We’re not quite in the clear yet, however. 

There are two kinds of redirect — a permanent redirect (301), which tells visitors (including search engines) that this site has moved, and is now at the new address, and a temporary redirect (302), which tells the visitor to go to the new address “for the moment”. 

You want to be sure that your host got the right one, as a temporary redirect (302) can also get you penalized.

To test, go to this status code checker and type in both addresses.  The redirected site should show:

HTTP Status Code: HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently

followed by another set of headers (the address you redirected to) with a normal (200) status code:

HTTP Status Code: HTTP/1.1 200 OK

If your test shows a 302 instead of a 301, contact your web host and get it fixed ASAP.

Other considerations

If you have additional domain names pointing at your site (sometimes referred to as “parking” them), they should be permanently redirected to your “real” site.  Otherwise, each of them may become seen as duplicate content.

One last point. When I discovered all of this, I began wondering why I’d gotten away with this on several sites without ever being penalized. 

The likely answer is because no one had made a link to one of my pages without the “www”. 

Pages that aren’t linked to are essentially never seen by the search engine. 

Unfortunately, all it takes is one link — accidentally or maliciously — to cause you some substantial grief. 

It pays to get it fixed before that happens.

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