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What is a Preferred Domain?

A preferred domain is the version (www or non-www) of your domain that you want to show in search results. A preferred domain is also the domain that you want your users to be redirected to whether they type in www or not.

What is the SEO impact of setting a preferred domain?

The fact that Google sees www.example.com and example.com as two separate websites is at the heart of preferred domains' SEO impact. Setting a preferred domain for your websites optimizes its appearance in search results, helps prevent duplicate content and consolidates link juice.

Optimize your site's index status

If your site is www.xyz.com but it is also available when someone types or links to xyz.com, search engines may crawl both domains or only one or the other of them. This means that sometimes search engines will crawl and index the domain that is not preferred.

If this happens, you may think that your site has not been indexed by search engines when actually the non-preferred URL has been indexed, due to search engines considering the www and the non-www domains as separate web addresses.

Avoid duplicate content issues

You must make preferred domains known to search engines to avoid duplicate content issues. If search engines crawl and index both versions of your domain, they will notice that they have identical content. This may cause your site to face duplicate content issues.

Control the flow of link juice

Sadly, you can't control how other people link back to your website, even when you ask nicely. However, Google will take your preferred domain into account when encountering links to your website. In short, after setting a preferred domain, Google will view links to www.example.com and example.com as the same.

Since links are how search engines find, crawl and assign link juice to pages, setting a preferred domain will ensure Google will automatically go straight to that version of the domain.

Which Should be your Preferred Domain: WWW or Non-WWW?

This depends on your individual preference. You could choose based on which one is most often bookmarked by your users, or which one is most often used to link to your website. There are some technical reasons for using the www version but there are some logical reasons to use the non-www. No matter which version you use, the bottom line is to use only the preferred version and redirect the other version to the preferred domain. Don't forget to update all of your internal links to point to the correct version!

Some reasons to use the www version as your preferred domain are as follows:

  • To differentiate the main site from other subdomains used, for example, to a blog. (In WooRank’s case, www.woorank.com is the main site and lingo.woorank.com is the vocabulary subdomain.

  • To restrict cookies when using multiple subdomains. Cookies of the main domain are sent to subdomains, so if you are using subdomains for a blog it is easier to differentiate the sites with the www prefix in it.

  • It is easier to organize your folders where the one for the live site is in the www folder at the www.yoursite.com domain, while the development folder is at the dev.yoursite.com for development purposes.

Popular websites that use www domains are:

  • www.wikipedia.org
  • www.facebook.com
  • www.yahoo.com
  • www.google.com

Some reasons to use the non-www version as your preferred domain are as follows:

  • To shorten the length of your website URL.
  • User experience; many users type the URL without the www.

Popular websites that do not use www domains are:

  • Digg.com
  • Twitter.com
  • Mashable.com

Ways to Set a Preferred Domain:

There are two main ways to set a preferred domain. The first one is for Google via Google Search Console and the other is for other search engines and users of your website via 301 redirects.

Google:

  1. Create an account on Google Search Console if you do not already have one. You can use the www version of your site to create the account.

  2. Click on the red 'ADD A PROPERTY' button at the top right-hand corner of your screen. To group properties, click the 'Create a set' button, then name the set and add 'Members'.

Adding a property to Google Search Console

  1. Verify the site using your Google Analytics account by placing the tracking code provided in the section of your page. Refer to the screenshot below for this step, as well as the other alternate methods.

Verifying Google Search Console account via Google Analytics

In exceptional cases where you do not have a Google Analytics account you can upload an HTML file to your site, add a meta tag to your site’s homepage or sign in to your Domain Name provider.

Verifying Google Search Console account via HTML file

  1. Add the non-www version of your site to your Google Search Console account.

  2. You need to verify the non-www version of your site using the same steps mentioned in step 3.

  3. Once both of these versions are verified you need to set your preferred domain in your Google Search Console Account by clicking on each of these accounts individually.

  4. Click the settings icon > Site Settings > Preferred Domain.

  5. Click on the radio button on the domain that is to be your preferred domain.

Setting a preferred domain: Google Search Console

  1. You will receive a message in your Google Webmaster Tools account that your preferred domain is changed.

301 Redirect:

It is necessary to add 301 redirects to all domains that are not your preferred domain (also known as canonical URLs). This redirect permanently moves a site to a new domain. To do this you can add the following code to your .htacess file:

RewriteEngine On RewriteBase / RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^www.domainname.com [NC] RewriteRule ^(.*)$ 
http://domainname.com/$1 [L,R=301]

You can read more about this in the Google Search Console Help Center under the Change page URLs with 301 redirects section.