A Case Against the ‘www’ [Updated 09 Dec 2012]

I must admit that ever since I learnt about hosting and the Internet, I have never understood one thing:

Why some websites work with the ‘www’ prefix, while some do not.

When I started using Apache, I learnt that there is essentially no difference between having the prefix or not. That was until I played around with Windows Servers. I noticed that it was a trend for most hosts to enable the redirect of www, eliminating the difference between www.nevi.me and nevi.me. One thing I noticed though was that a lot of websites at the time (this was 5 years back) still required the prefix. Some of these still do, and even more still pop up once in a while violating this (let’s call it a) principle.

Principle: a user should be able to access an URL with or without the ‘www’ prefix, except where the address is a custom sub-domain.

The main reason for the above is because that websites should be built with usability in mind. As a web developer you are constantly facing this issue, among others; what are users accessing my site with, and does the site render correctly?

One thing that I consider more important is whether users can access the site to start with. Not everyone is expected to be an expert in browsers to access a website. With that, there might be people out there who do not know that there is no difference between having and not having the prefix. This is similar to people who believe that there is a difference between Neville@email.com and neville@email.com.

The prefix is thus clearly a hindrance if it affects even 1% of the web population. After all, it is something that should have been ‘fixed’ a few years ago. Now, I am about to throw stones, and it is not with malice that I do that.

Not Fixing the www Problem is Amateur Web Development

I consider the prefix problem to be an amateur developer problem, for which a server should be configured correctly to deal with in the early stages of development.At a global level, web hosts should also set up the redirect automatically (I am unsure if this is possible in WIndows Server and other architectures, but I am certain it is possible in Linux-based servers [Apache, nginx]).

A few years ago I used to be frustrated with moneyweb.co.za, as they had the prefix issue. I noticed that at some point they ‘fixed’ it. Now when one goes to moneyweb.co.za they are redirected to www.moneyweb.co.za/ . There are quite a lot of websites that redirect to the www.*.*, while some redirect to remove the prefix, and some just work with or without the prefix. The problem is those websites that don’t do anything: I am only going to highlight South African websites with the hopes that the developers or their employees will someday notice my article and do something about it.

Here is my list of offenders:

1. Lifestore | lifestore.co.za | www.lifestore.co.za

The former opens up the IIS7 splash page while the latter opens the Liefstore website.

2. Ster Kinekor | sterkinekor.co.za | www.sterkinekor.co.za

This one is a special case, they moved to the .com domain, and have redirected their local domain names to the international one. The .com works as expected (ignoring prefixes), but there is a problem with the redirect from sterkinekor.co.za. Only www.sterkinekor.co.za redirects. Interesting though is that ster-kinekor.co.za works. For the screenshot below, I had to switch to Internet Explorer 10 as Chrome uses Web History to mitigate the prefix issue. I’ll touch on the browsers at a later point. Another one that has the same problem is http://ster-kinekor.comso Ster Kinekor devs should fix the two domain redirects 🙂

3. Eskom | eskom.co.za | www.eskom.co.za

At this point I should mention this behaviour: The reader might not be able to reproduce the error pages that I am getting. IE normally searches the domain with Bing or Google Search when it can’t access it, so do other browsers. So it is important that unless you click the above links, you type the address with http:// as a prefix.

So Eskom suffers from the same issue. When you add the prefix, you can reproduce the error in Chrome.

4. AfriGIS | afrigis.co.za | www.afrigis.co.za

WIth the little that I know, I might have to blame KonsoleH for reinventing the wheel here, but it might be the AfriGIS devs, I won’t know. The former redirects to a  control panel while the latter redirects to the AfriGIS website.

5. SABC & SABC 1 | sabc.co.za & sabc1.co.za | www.sabc.co.za & www.sabc1.co.za

Only these two have errors, SABC 2 and 3 are fine.

6. Metro Rail | metrorail.co.za | www.metrorail.co.za

Secure or not?

This one is a long shot, and as such likely happens less often. Sometimes redirects to secure websites don’t work. I must admit that this would happen less often than the whole www thing, but since I’m on the ‘list of things which Neville thinks should be fixed‘, here goes:

Standard Bank (Online Banking only)

I have become used to accessing online banking directly. The correct address is https://www.encrypt.standardbank.co.za, and yes I am used to typing it out (my browsers already remember it). The address will then redirect you to a random port (you can notice that in the https://www23.encrypt.standardbank.co.za).

WIth that said, I normally type it without the https:// prefix. That results in an error, which leads me to another (call it a) principle:

[UPDATE: bruce_the_loon in the MyBroadband forum had a valid point against the redirect of Standard Bank. I don’t know if that is the case, but it makes sense. Here is the comment made]

Principle: When you want your web page to be accessed securely, ensure that all means of accessing the page redirect to your encrypted address.

I only posted the sites that I could remember, so the list is neither exhaustive, nor do I have any issues with the above websites. My aim was to highlight an usability problem which should be fixed and avoided.

Arguments and Counter-Arguments

  1. Nobody types the http://, so your ‘error’ will not occur.
    If I have encountered the problem, it is likely that other people have too. I use a lot of browsers on a few devices, and some browsers do not hint well.
  2. Browsers prevent the problem from happening, so why is it a problem?
    It is a problem because that most of the browser implementations are recent from the past few years. I used to test websites using all the major browsers (this was about 4 years back), and I remember this problem being prevalent. It is better today, which is likely why some developers (i.e. of the above sites) have not noticed that the problem still persists.
  3. Why only South African sites? Do you have an issue with them?
    No, but someone who reads this is likely to either be a developer of one of the sites, or know the individuals/entity responsible for the development thereof. It doesn’t help anyone if I go find some website in Tonga and complain about it 🙂

I hope that the developers ‘fix’ the prefix error, and that other developers check their websites and add proper redirects where necessary. Feel free to add any other websites on the comments, and I’ll add them to the list.
I am not intent on holding the above sites ransom, so as and when the sites are fixed, I will update this article to reflect the fact.

Feel free to contact me at neville@nevi.me

  • I’ll give you a case for www, which I use personally. If you access my website with the prefix, it routes via CloudFlare which is great for uptime. If you access it without www it is direct, which is great for testing. If you site goes down then I look like one of your bad cases (www works but non doesn’t).

    • Nevi_me

      See that’s the same way as some people would use ww1.domain.com, and your use of the www is interesting (I could experiment with that in future when using a CDN, thanks). That’s a valid case for www, as at the end people still have access to your site. It gets frustrating when trying to go to a website, and you’re unsure of whether it’s down or not.

      The one thing I don’t get is why the developers of the websites don’t add a redirect to the right site, or do anything really about the error pages. I still think that’s inexperienced and (ahem) childish lol. Try remembering Ster Kinekor’s url, fun times I tell you, they seem to change it every few months/years