Web standards: not just for geeks

What are web standards?

Web standards are ‘the formal, non-proprietary standards and other technical specifications that define and describe aspects of the World Wide Web’ (Wikipedia: Web standards).

It is easy for the business owner researching potential providers of website design services to assume that standards-compliance is an issue best left to the designers themselves – the experts. But if compliance isn’t explicitly promised in the design specifications for your site, you may be left with a clever, visually-appealing site which only works on one browser and requires constant expert (and expensive) maintenance.

The core language of the web, hypertext markup language (HTML), was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was formed to develop open specifications, or standards, to enable web-related products to work together. Since then, additional standards have been developed to extend the capabilities of the web, perhaps the most influential being CSS (cascading style sheets) and XHTML (extensible HTML) which have allowed developers to separate the content of a page (the words and pictures which convey explicit information) from its presentation (what it looks like).

What’s wrong with other formats?

Non-standard formats include Macromedia® Flash™ and Adobe® Acrobat™. These formats provide features which are not readily available in the W3C standard languages. However, visitors require browser extensions, known as plug-ins, to use them and they are not generally as accessible as the standard languages (although considerable improvements have been made in recent years). In addition, they require specialist skills and software to create and revise (unlike HTML pages, which can be created and updated with nothing more sophisticated than a text editor such as Notepad).

For many graphic designers, relinquishing any control of the appearance of their design is a challenging idea. They may have developed considerable expertise in creating layouts that are visually attractive, which direct the attention of viewers to the most important elements on a page: effective graphic design makes a significant contribution to site usability. It can be difficult for them to accept the fact that on the web, the more control they exert over a design, the more people they lock out of it. A site may look and work best for someone using a particular version of a particular browser on a particular platform at a specified screen resolution-for example ‘This site is best viewed in Internet Explorer 8.0 or higher with a screen resolution of 1024×768’– but to reach the widest possible audience it should be readable and usable for someone using an old browser, a screen reader or a web-enabled mobile phone.

A standards-compliant site will also continue to function when the next generation of browsers is released: one based on proprietary standards might not.

And any graphic designer who believes that standards-compliant design limits their creativity should take a good look at CSS Zen Garden, which is host to hundreds of stunning designs. Every one of them is standards compliant, with no Flash™, no scripting and no layout tables, but plenty of wow factor.

Help Google to help you

Well-laid-out web pages have clear headings and sub-headings which help readers to scan the content and understand which sections are most important. If the page is genuinely standards-compliant, it is marked up using heading tags, indicating which headings are major and which minor. This helps search engines to understand what the page is about, and give it more appropriate rankings: if I search on ‘strategic management’, I would expect to find a page with that expression in the title or a major heading ranked more highly than one mentioning it somewhere in the text.

Pages applying web standards generally have smaller file sizes than those which combine presentation and content in a single file. A significant percentage of internet users still rely on slow connections. If the whole world had broadband connections at home and at work, it would still be important to consider the increasing number of people accessing the internet through mobile phone technologies, who are likely to prefer sites they don’t have to wait for.

Buying standards-compliant design

Building a standards-compliant site arguably requires more expertise in the languages of the web than simply accepting the code created by a development tool such as Macromedia® Dreamweaver™ or Microsoft® FrontPage™. But because content and formatting are separated, maintaining and updating the content on such a site requires only a fraction of that expertise. A small business owner with an average level of computer literacy could acquire the skills required to update a basic site with only an hour or two of coaching.

As a business owner you may not have the expertise to check whether your website designers are genuinely practising standards-based design, supplemented with non-standard formats only where they add genuine value. You can however ask your prospective designers questions about the importance they place on standards and the criteria they use when deciding to use non-standard formats.

You can also contact me for an independent site audit to confirm that your site will continue to meet your needs – and your customers’ needs – into the future.