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This is a practice that simply baffles me. For example just today I got my water bill, which tells me to pay at www.water.website.com. This page exists only as a redirect to www2.website.com/water/. Since this is NOT the address I was asked to enter or the one I used, I was immediately suspicious, but it does appear to be their genuine website. Why would this be done?

I understand that typing www.words.com feels a bit more natural to most users, but I know for a fact that one can serve their web page directly as water.website.com. Why would one not simply do that, or failing that simply ask the user to type www.website.com/water? This seems very confusing and untrustworthy, especially for non-technical users as well. Is this an old, bad practice or is there any good reason (technical or usability related) this would still be in place today?

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5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I agree that it is bad practice - because, as others have said, it is similar to phishing, and users or tools that identify this will raise an issue.

I think the reason that they don't want to point you to a sub page, because a simple address is easier to remember and type. I think this is probably right, but the process then of directing you to somewhere else should be done better. My power company makes me login, which is better, but at least they should take you to a home page on the url you type, and then direct you to other places.

So I am with you, and I don't know of any good technical reason why they are doing this. Send them an email and tell them to do it properly.

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I don't think it's strictly bad practice. It's annoying, looks a bit sloppy, and as you say it can look suspect (some browsers stop following after too many redirects), but if someone ends up where they want to go I think it's ok, just not ideal.

This is often not a planned thing and I have a bit of sympathy for it. Sometimes as websites end up with a technical legacy that gets solved provisionally and cheaply with a redirect, and might be addressed with a bigger rebuild down the road.

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It might be a bit unfair, but generally I would say that annoying and looking sloppy IS bad practice for any site that wants my credit card information. It's certainly harmed my trust and respect for the organization, personally. –  Ben Brocka Aug 28 '11 at 1:24
One nice side effect also is, that you can change the redirect much easier than all corporate printings when you change an application. –  Cadoc Aug 28 '11 at 9:26
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If the redirect confused you, and made you suspicious, they have clearly made a mistake with the subdomain redirect.

The reason for the redirect is purely technical. Each subdomain can have a different IP in the DNS setting, allowing that portion of the site to run from a different server, in a different physical location. In addition, the pages can use a different programming language from their www counterparts (one could be PHP, the other Java). Getting that flexibility without redirecting is a lot more difficult, and most programmers and admins will not want to deal with it.

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Do you mean about the WWW2 domain? While I find that annoying too I see less a problem with that than rerouting me from domain.place.com to www.place.com/domain. I haven't worked with subdomains myself but I can't imagine why that part of the URL would have to change, especially since the DNS is already directing to a different server...Can't it simply direct to the /domain/ folder (or simply use a base folder) since it's already routing? Using Apache I've found it quite easy to use rewrite rules to hide complex directory structures from users. –  Ben Brocka Aug 28 '11 at 22:48
@SirTapTap, DNS settings allow one ip address per subdomain. The probably have one server for that standard website (www) and a different for the secured part of the site. Routing a folder (www.site.com/folder) to a remote server is not very easy. I have personally used a subdomain to run portion of a site on a remotely hosted server with wordpress on it, while the rest of the site was on .NET, and was hosted in-house. –  Emil Aug 29 '11 at 5:36
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For many types of webpages a redirect like this won't do any harm, but a redirect for a place where you are going to pay a bill certainly looks suspicious. The general public is slowly starting to learn to watch out for phishing and check if the address in their browser's address bar is from the correct website.

If, for whatever reason, it's not possible to place the content directly at the address that was printed on the bill (www.water.website.com) a viable alternative (to consider and/or test) is to add in an extra step: "You can pay at our secure payment environment at https://www2.website.com/water", click to continue.

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I can certainly understand a direct in the case of a physically printed, out of date bill to keep such links "permanent," but this is printed on the latest bill and they have been using the system for at least one billing cycle (and if I had to guess I would assume they have been doing this for months/years). Considering the majority of the bill's content is dynamic per-user it seems like changing the printed URL should be a perfectly understandable step. –  Ben Brocka Aug 28 '11 at 17:25
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The reason this is done is usually a combination of technical and cost.

The primary address www.website.com is a primitive load balancer. The site is actually hosted on multiple servers: www2.website.com, www3.website.com, www4.website.com

The www.website.com server picks one of the others servers to redirect the user to. This allows the company or organization hosting the site to have multiple servers which is usually cheaper and more reliable that a single server capable handling the traffic.

A usually better (but more expensive) method is to have a transparent load balancer. Instead of redirecting the use to another server, the load balancer acts as a web proxy and makes the request to the secondary server for the user. So while all the requests are being handled by multiple servers, the users don't see anything but www.website.com. They may actually be communicating with www2.website.com, but only the load balancer and www2.website.com know.

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I doubt that they are using it for load balancing, since the redirect depends on the www (single machine), which is a single point of failure. –  Emil Aug 28 '11 at 18:36
Although they are usually used together, load balancing isn't the same thing as high availability. You can get benefits from load balancing even with a single point of failure. Doing high availability and load balancing right is hard and expensive. I've seen several managers try to take short cuts similar to what I described. But this might not be case here. –  jColeson Aug 28 '11 at 19:12
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