5 Reasons Why Your Site Should Be Standards-Compliant
5 Reasons Why Your Site Should Be Standards-Compliant avatar

Web Standards: Test Before You Buy!

The last time you purchased a vehicle, it’s a safe bet you took it out for a test-drive first. After all, you’re not buying it just to have it look good sitting in your driveway!

In the early days of the Web, the only way to test-drive a website was to visit the site, look at it, and test the links to make sure they worked.

The Web has come a long way since then. Now it’s possible to test “what’s under the hood” of any site on the Web with a few mouse clicks. By visiting http://validator.w3.org you can quickly test any site on the Web for errors. Just type in a Web address and hit the “check” button.

If the site passes, you’ll see a bright green horizontal bar, and the message “This document was successfully checked…”. If the site has errors, the bar will be bright red and the message will read “Errors found while checking this document…”, followed by the number of errors. Don’t panic if there are errors! Obviously the green bar is ideal, but a website will work perfectly well even with errors. It’s the number of errors you want to pay attention to. The more errors found by the validator, the more likely the site will render inconsistently or fail to load or work properly on certain devices.

So what exactly is being tested here?

The test determines whether the site meets Web standards. What are Web standards? That will take some explaining.

If you peek “under the hood” of any website, you’ll see a bunch of English words mixed in with funny looking symbols. Most of that stuff is HTML — the building blocks of any website. Your computer uses a Web browser to interpret that HTML and display it on your monitor as a Web page.

In the early 1990’s when the Web was just starting out, Microsoft and Netscape produced competing Web browsers (Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator). Instead of working together to create a common standard for interpreting HTML, each company increasingly developed its own proprietary standards in their fight for market domination.

The result was a fractured patchwork of standards which meant that a site that looked and worked great in Internet Explorer might not work at all in Netscape Navigator and vice versa. To solve this problem, browsers were built with a safety mechanism known as “quirks mode”.

Quirks mode works by kicking in when a browser isn’t sure how to interpret something — by guessing what is supposed to be displayed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

This was a serious and growing problem that threatened the future viability of the Web.

In 1998, the Web Standards Project (WaSP) was formed by a group of professional Web designers to encourage browser companies to adopt a single set of Web standards. It just so happened that another organization, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) had already developed a comprehensive set of Web standards. These standards would allow HTML to be accessible to more than just Web browsers — they would enable printers, wireless devices and assistive technologies used by persons with disabilities to interpret HTML.

The efforts of WaSP and the W3C paid off. Now, 15 years later, all the major browsers use W3C Web standards to interpret HTML (with the notable exception of Internet Explorer, which still uses some proprietary Windows standards).

Sites that pass the validation test comply with W3C Web standards. As a result, they have many advantages over sites that don’t meet Web standards. What kind of advantages? Here are 5 great reasons for having a standards-compliant website.

5 Reasons Why Your Site Should Be Standards-Compliant

1. Your site will cost much less to maintain and redesign
The adoption of Web standards ushered in new and much improved tools for creating websites. In the old days, websites were built with HTML (the written content) and styles (colours, fonts, margins) mixed together in a series of tables (think Excel Spreadsheets). Editing these sites was (and still is) very cumbersome. Redesigning a site of this vintage really means starting over from scratch.

Web standards brought about Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which allow the content and style information to be kept separate. By using CSS it is possible to make a simple change in one place (a background colour, for example) and have it cascade throughout the whole site.

The old table-based designs have been replaced by less complicated HTML that is easier to write and edit. And modern table-less designs are more efficient and take up less file space, so they load faster.

All of this translates into reduced development and maintenance costs for you.

2. Your site will look and work the same in all Web browsers and operating systems
In case you weren’t aware, there are a number of free web browsers to choose from. Internet Explorer was by far the most popular because it’s included with the Windows operating system on virtually all new computers. In recent years the following  free standards-compliant browsers have replaced Internet Explorer as the browser-of-choice:

Many web developers used to build sites to work in Internet Explorer, and didn’t bother to test their designs in other browsers. This made perfect sense in 2002 when Windows Internet Explorer was the browser of choice by roughly 86% of Web users. Things have changed. Currently, just 12% of people use Internet Explorer (http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_stats.asp). By paying for a site that only works in Internet Explorer, a large percentage of the people who view your site will encounter a wide range of unpredictable errors such as missing or overlapping content and broken images.

Sites that adhere to W3C web standards will look and function the same regardless of the browser being used – as long as the designer makes the modifications necessary to address Internet Explorer’s incomplete adherence to the standards.

Web standards also ensure that sites will work properly and consistently in different operating systems, for example, Windows, Mac and Unix.

A standards-compliant site is the best way to ensure your site will work consistently regardless of the operating system and Web browser your visitors are using.

3. Your site will be accessible to persons with disabilities
A key benefit of standards-compliant development is that it ensures all visitors to your site can access the information. If the site isn’t standards-compliant, the assistive technology may not be able to read the site at all, or – as happens most often – it reads it in a way that makes no sense to the end-user.

For example, table-based designs which consist of a series of rows and columns of data, make little sense if interpreted by a screen reader. Images represent a huge barrier to assistive technologies, as do PDF files and Flash movies.

Web standards encourage designers to include alternate text to explain what images or movie clips mean, so disabled users aren’t left in the dark. Web standards also allow assistive technologies such as screen readers, to interpret HTML and process it by magnifying the screen, reading it aloud or converting it to Braille.

4. Your site will be accessible to other media such as handheld wireless devices and printers
Every year, more and more people in North America turn to wireless technology to meet their personal and business communication and computer needs. It’s expected that this trend will continue to mushroom given the improved computing power and reduced cost of handheld devices and the growth of wireless broadband networks.

Web-standards also brought about XHTML and HTML5, the next generation of HTML. XHTML and HTML5 works just like HTML, but has the added bonus of working in a variety of internet devices, such as cell phones.

Standards-compliant websites work well on handheld devices while sites that aren’t standards-compliant don’t. So, if your goal is to reach the growing number users accessing the Web via wireless technology, talk with your Web Developer about the importance of making your site Web Standards compliant.

5. Your site will stand the test of time
The growth of technology in our world brings rapid change, and the Web is no exception. Many sites developed 10 years ago look tired and are only partially functional.

Sites developed in accordance with modern Web standards will continue to work well regardless of other technological advances. And when it’s time for a fresh look, there’s no need to rebuild the entire site; all that’s required is a new style sheet to add a fresh look and feel to your existing content.

Remember to ask your Web Development company if their sites are built in accordance with W3C Web Standards, or better yet, run sites from their portfolio through the W3C validator and take note of the number of errors.

NOTE: bear in mind that sites are increasingly built in a way that allows website owners to do their own content updates (see “Can I Update My Own Website?“) – which can introduce Validation errors that have nothing to do with the initial build.  Additionally, third-party software for things like gallery and calendar plugins often introduces code that isn’t recognized by the W3C Validator which it interprets as errors.

All Black Cap Design sites are built in accordance with Web Standards and we do our best to limit the number of validation errors introduced by third party software.