Why it’s OK to get naked on the internet

Here’s one from the mailbag:

What’s the deal with the “www” in a web address? Sometimes I see a link that looks like https://wendycholbi.com/ and other times I see links that look like https://www.wendycholbi.com/. What’s the difference? Are these always the same thing? Why do some sites include it and some leave it out? Can I leave out the w’s when I’m typing a web address?

OK, great topic! Let’s start by breaking this this nebulous area of confusion down into some specific questions:

What does the “www” mean?

The simple answer is that it stands for “world wide web.” In the Internet’s olden days, “Web” wasn’t synonymous with “Internet” (technically, it still isn’t, but these days the terms are used so interchangeably that it would be futile to protest). There were other ways of using the Internet: Email, file transfer (FTP), usenet, and more. So the “www” simply meant that the address pointed to a website and not some other type of Internet resource.

What do you call the “www” part of a web address?

A domain name comes in the form yourdomain.com (or yourdomain.org, or yourdomain.name, or many other variations). WendyCholbi.com and ebay.com are both domain names, for instance.

Anything before the domain name, separated with a dot, is called a subdomain. So the “www” in www.WendyCholbi.com is a subdomain. The “tickets” in tickets.ebay.com is a subdomain. If you have a blog on Blogger.com and you have an address like yourdomain.blogspot.com, the “yourdomain” part is a subdomain.

A domain name without any subdomains is called a naked domain (ooh, racy, am I right?)

Those of you using Blogger may be interested to know that the prudes folks who run Blogger won’t let you use a naked domain to host your blog. Yes, you can use your own domain name, but it has to be non-naked (it must have a subdomain, whether it’s “www” or something else). This leads to a complication when using your own domain name with Blogger: You have to figure out a way to point the naked domain to your “www” subdomain. The easiest way to do this is to forward the naked domain to the “www” subdomain (here are instructions for doing it with a GoDaddy account).

Why do some sites have a “www” and some leave it out?

Now that we’ve left the olden days behind, the vast majority of URLs do point to websites, whether or not they contain a “www.” That subdomain became ubiquitous and therefore nearly meaningless. Although “www” is still probably the most common subdomain, and many websites still use it, it’s becoming more and more common to just drop it entirely.

Yes, that’s right: More and more website owners are getting naked with their domain names. Rowr!

So it’s merely a choice made by the site owner, whether to use the “www” subdomain or get naked.

Are “www.yourdomain.com” and “yourdomain.com” always the same thing? Can I safely leave out the www when typing a web address?

I would love to give you a simple answer to this question, but because it’s up to the individual website owner whether to include “www” or not, different websites are going to act differently. Usually, the www-containing version and the naked version of a domain point to the same page, but sometimes they don’t.

The simplest rule of thumb I can give is that if a naked version of the domain doesn’t work, just try typing “www” before the naked domain and that should probably work.

Bonus question that wasn’t asked, but I’ll answer it anyway: If I’m a website owner, should I use “www” or not?

Definitely go naked!

Let me clarify:

  • As a site owner, you should always make sure that people can get to your site whether they type the “www” or not. This means pointing the “www” subdomain and your naked domain to the same place. Most web hosts have a setting that lets you do this with a few clicks.
  • But when you mention your site (in conversation, when linking to it, in your advertising, on your business cards, etc.) just drop the w’s. They’re cumbersome to pronounce, they take up space, and the “.com” (or “.org” or whatever) is enough to identify your web address as a web address.

Whew, that’s enough nakedness for today, thankyouverymuch!

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