Today’s post was inspired by a question from our friend Paul Goldstone over at co.com. Paul asked which is better: to set your preferred domain to www.yourdomain.com, or just yourdomain.com?
This is a question we hear a lot from business owners. On most sites, the www and non-www versions both go to the same page, so people wonder: what’s the difference? Which should you use? Is one better for SEO purposes than the other?
Strictly speaking, neither www nor non-www addresses are any “better” than the other. But you do need to choose one and use it consistently—and depending on how people link to you, one or the other may be a stronger choice.
To see why, let’s look at what happens if you don’t choose either one. If you haven’t set a “preferred” URL, both versions are likely loading side by side. That causes two major problems:
- Google may see the two versions as duplicate content. This can lead to problems indexing your site (bad for SEO) or in extreme cases even penalties from Google (very bad for SEO).
- Your link authority and PageRank are likely being split between the two versions. That means the overall SEO power of your site is lower than it should be.
This second problem is particularly common and can happen without you ever realizing it. It occurs when different people link to your site differently—for example, one blogger may link to you with a www while another doesn’t use the www at all. Major websites like Yelp may do the same thing. The result is that these great backlinks are going to two different versions of your site, and neither version gets 100% of the link power. It’s like half of your website is stealing from the other half.
That’s not where it ends. Many sites have even more versions floating around, like:
… plus www versions of all of the above. A single website can have 20 or more versions competing for attention—and SEO. These addresses may all load what looks like the same web page, but Google knows you could have different content on all of them so it indexes each one separately. It’s as if your company is at war with itself.
Which Should You Choose?
The solution to this problem is easy: choose one version and make it the official one. But which version you should choose varies from one site to another. Finding out which one you should appoint takes some basic research, in three simple steps:
- Check to see how your site loads. If you type www.yourdomain.com into the search bar, does it load your site? How about if you type in the non-www version? Check all versions and see how many exist.
- Next, find out which version other people link to the most. This involves running a link analysis, which you can do with two free tools: AHREFS.com and Majestic.com. The analysis will show you how many people link to each version of your URL.
- Run a crawl of your site to spot internal linking problems, using a tool like Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider. This isn’t free but it’s worth it—the Spider can show you if you’re feeding your own linking problem by being inconsistent in how you link to yourself (and exactly where you use each version, so you can fix them easily). This is one of the tools we use at EverSpark.
Now that we’ve done our homework we can finally solve the problem and make sure everything points at one strong, unified URL. Here’s how:
- Pick the most powerful URL. This is the one that the most backlinks point to, whether it’s www or non-www.
- Set all other versions to redirect to the one you’ve chosen. Use a 301 redirect, which is a permanent redirect code, telling Google to always follow (for example) yourdomain.com as www.yourdomain.com. Your web staff can do this for you or, if you feel comfortable on the back end of your website, you can do it yourself.
- Change all internal links to the strong URL you’ve chosen. The site crawl you ran earlier can show you exactly where you use each version of the URL, making them easy to change (although time-consuming on a larger website).
- Finally—and most importantly—you should set your preferred URL in Google Webmaster Tools. This is sometimes called canonicalization and Google explains how it works here. If you don’t already have Google Webmaster Tools, they are a must that you can get for free.
Once you’ve taken these steps, your home URL is strong on all fronts: you’ve chosen the one that gets the most links, you’ve made sure the other versions all go back to that one strong version, and you’ve notified Google so there are no indexing problems. In other words, the problem is solved.