Why Web Standards?
If you ever get me running my mouth about the Web, you’ll probably hear something about Web Standards, standards compliance, the W3C, and a few other things that sound awfully bureaucratic for a freelancer. That’s a fair assessment, so I’ve written up a short introduction to Web Standards and why they’re so crucial when developing effective business websites.
The Pros and Cons
There are five key benefits to building your site to standards:
- Compatibility with web browsers today and in the future
- Accessibility to all people and web browsing devices
- Friendliness to search engines like Google and Yahoo!
- Shorter page load times (for your visitors) and reduced bandwidth (for you, since you pay for bandwidth)
- Faster aesthetic redesigns down the road
Sounds great, right? It is! But you know there’s a trade-off, so in this article, I’ll attempt to explain in layman’s terms the situation with Web Standards and how I like to handle it.
An Analogy without Cars
Imagine you’re in the business of making electrical appliances: coffee makers, food processors, turkey knives, that sort of thing (I must be hungry). Your appliances depend on the electricity coming out of the wall in order to operate, and the Electricity Coalition — our make-believe governing body that regulates production of electricity in the U.S. — has recommended that energy companies stream electricity into homes at 120 volts. So naturally, your electrical components are all designed and built around that specification. Well, in theory, anyway.
Sadly, and contrary to most U.S. government organizations, the EC’s specifications are technically only recommendations. Nobody enforces the specs, and there is no direct punishment for ignoring or contradicting them. This has led to MacroTricity, the dominant energy provider in the U.S., producing electricity at 160 volts in some homes and 120 volts in others (and in still others, something unpredictably in between). They claim that their equipment is more efficient that way. Luckily, most of the 160-volt homes are gradually being renovated, but they still make up nearly 30% of your U.S. market, and MacroTricity customers as a whole claim nearly 80%!
So what’s an appliance maker to do? You certainly don’t want to lose 30% of your customers right off the bat, so you have to test your components at 160 volts. And there are a lot of homes running on 120 volts, plus a good number that might claim to be 120 volts but aren’t. Sounds like a real pain — and it is — but there’s a way to deal with it.
The best way to deal with MacroTricity is to design your products to spec anyway. It turns out there are several up-and-coming energy companies following the spec and gaining a huge following, and even MacroTricity is starting to recognize the error of their ways. And of course, the beauty of a spec is that it’s “future-proof.” As the spec is developed, old versions are used as a foundation on which newer technology can be built, so you don’t have to worry about your old appliances liquifying when the EC makes an improvement to their specifications.
What about the homes that aren’t wired to spec? Trial and error, I’m afraid. Plug your smoothie maker into the wall and see what happens! If it works, all’s the better. If it starts smoking, it’s back to the drawing board. Just make sure you publish your results so others don’t make the same mistakes.
Well, okay, that’s a valid question. I’ve stretched that analogy far past its limits anyway.
On the Web, standards compliance means that your site will work as well in two years as it does today, and if it’s time for a redesign, you won’t have to scrap the whole thing and start over. Your site will work out of the box on all standards-friendly web browsers. It’ll work on mobile phones with under-powered browsers and limited bandwidth. It’ll work for people using assistive technologies like screen readers, disabled page styling or large font sizes. It’ll work for people whose IT department turns off their browsers’ bells and whistles.
Put concisely, your site will work for everyone, everywhere.
In addition, standards-compliant sites are better coded. Search engines are more able to determine what your site is about, so your site shows up in relevant searches more frequently. Your pages will be leaner and lighter weight without all the cruft and hacks we designers used in the past.
But it’s hard. Standards compliance is a lot of work. I create my sites “by hand”, so to speak: no fancy software, just a plain old text editor (like Notepad, but smarter). I spend a lot of time keeping up with the news and the trends and the tricks of the trade. It’s a necessary investment, though, one that will pay out a hundredfold in the quality of my work.
I hope this was interesting, or at least informative. I’ll wrap this essay up with a few additional links for curious readers:
- The Web Standards Project — a grassroots coalition fighting for standards
- A List Apart — a magazine “for people who make websites”
- The Counter — statistics on web browser usage across the globe
Thanks for reading!