UK government and domain redirection

Here's a quick quiz question: is there any earthly reason why many UK central government sites aren't redirecting their root domains to www. sub-domains?

I needed to check the HMRC website today for some information about VAT, so I typed hmrc.gov.uk into Firefox's address field, hit return and promptly got a server not found response.

<sigh>

A quick check shows that the same is true for dfes.gov.uk, dti.gov.uk, number-10.gov.uk, dft.gov.uk and many others.

But homeoffice.gov.uk, mod.uk (why it's not .gov.uk is another rant for another day) and doh.gov.uk (but not dh.gov.uk) get it right. While dwp.gov.uk and direct.gov.uk serve their sites from the root domain as well as the www. domain.

Standards? What are standards?

Comments

Being greeted with a server error is not a good first impression. Having every page of your site available at two URLs is also a bad idea: one form should be canonical, ideally.

But which standard states websites must always be served from the server's www. subdomain?

As I understand it, the www. dates when the Web was young and WWW was just another service a server might serve. Adding www. became a widespread convention to keep the URLs to each service separate. This was sometimes continued on severs where the only service was WWW.

AFAIK, there is no technical need to include www. in a website's URL. Just like there's no technical need to include :80 in it.

They could all use http://foo.gov.uk. That would be fewer keystrokes, less space on adverts and so on. Their adverts usually leave out the whole http://www. start anyway. :)

(AFAIK, the http:// is technically required. Browsers just have a convention of guessing a user wants to make their request via the Hypertext Transfer Protocol if they don't specify a protocol explicitly.)

Posted by: Ben 'Cerbera' Millard at June 4, 2007 3:21 AM

AFAIK there is no standard that states www should or shouldn't be used the www is pure convention.

I guess the confusion comes in is with mixed protocols. As you say you wouldn't put the :80 into the URI however since the well known port is in the application layer the application deals with that. The foo.gov.uk however does tie into the underlying DNS protocol that only acknowledges ( AFAIK ) one application that being e-mail through MX routes.

I can think of a few examples where dropping the www would be troublesome, probably the most common would be on Active Directory domains that use FQDN of the company domain name, but host elsewhere. On the flip side I can't think of an instance where a website would work without www, but not with. The easiest think to do I guess is to serve from www and 301 from main domain.

I've seen various arguments against use of www ( http://no-www.org/ ), and in our company we tend to be split 50:50. The one thing I to tend to come across is how far www has embedded itself with people; when we use a site without it ( a few demo sites etc.), I tend to put the http:// before stating the address to emphasis the no www otherwise people instinctively type it in.

Posted by: Richard Conyard at June 4, 2007 8:19 AM

I laughed when I read that, not because it's particularly hilarious... but because it's so sad and true.

When we relaunched our local gov site, I requested that we allow the site to be available at a root domain level without the www. and it became readily apparent that they simply just didn't know how to make it happen.

Plus they were concerned about it 'from a security point of view' I was going to ask them to elaborate... but felt I wouldn't be able to contain myself.

It seems to me that IT departments in Local Gov are simply barely scraping by at understanding the web at any kind of technical level. They usually have no time nor inclination to consider the benefits or reasoning behind things like URL redirects, open source, code standards or accessibility. Trying to explain the benefits (and see them through to execution) usually requires heavenly intervention, forcefulness and the patience of a Zen Monk. Also, I'm sure when you worked for Clacks, you had direct access to your server... I've never even seen our boxes, they're behind a wall of procedures, politics and ICT personnel. I'm not so sure that I'm alone in this situation too... and people like me who want to make small yet important changes such as you've discussed, basically have larger seas of frustration to swim.

Never mind URL redirects, I'm still waiting for bloody FTP access for our Intranet server (and have been for 3 months, 1 week and two days)! They're concerned about it 'from a security point of view'... now where have I heard that before?

Posted by: Paul at June 4, 2007 10:32 AM

Forgetting the www / non-www argument I wish that a central naming convension for types of government sites could be set-up. Before this goes further I'm not having a moan here, it's just it would be a good thing to do.

For example down here in Kent:
www.maidstone.gov.uk
www.dartford.gov.uk

Absolutely perfect, two large towns in Kent and their websites come up, now:
www.rochester.gov.uk
www.margate.gov.uk

Nothing, now I know because I am local to the area that Rochester falls under the Medway unitary authority, and Margate is part of Thanet District Council; however from further afield what would be my chances?

I know geographic registering of all names would be a pain (and how small do you go?), but... I seem to remember Internic doing a search redirect of failed domain names a while back, perhaps the same could be done and tied into a gazetteer of place names to bring back the appropriate sites?

Posted by: Richard Conyard at June 4, 2007 2:09 PM

I believe mod.uk is a special 'protected' top level domain, akin to nhs.uk, but they did oughto to use www.mod.gov.uk & www.nhs.gov.uk IMHO...

...rant away!

Posted by: jim at June 4, 2007 5:26 PM

At least we can all agree that a website should just work, whether you type in http:// or www. or both. :)

Posted by: Ben 'Cerbera' Millard at June 4, 2007 7:54 PM

> At least we can all agree that a website should just work,
> whether you type in http:// or www. or both. :)

Indeed - all I want is a little bit of consistency and consideration for the user! The fact that it's a 2-minute fix shows that Paul may be right - those in technical roles in government web teams seem to have little depth of understanding of the issue.

My personal favourite is doh.gov.uk - The Department of Homer? It redirects to www.dh.gov.uk (was doh! a bit too close to the truth?) but dh.gov.uk....

Posted by: Dan at June 5, 2007 7:12 AM

I used to Manage Domain names for DWP, and it wasn't even internally consistent until I forced the issue myself. The problem is that you have external contractors doing the bare minimum, and unless someone internal cares, there are precious few checks and measures.

Posted by: Ian Sparham at June 12, 2007 10:56 AM

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