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Is your web site web standards-compliant?

Summary: Web standards are a set of guidelines which are used to create web browsers and the web sites that run on them.

Following web standards has a number of advantages. Web standards-compliant sites tend to:

  • display well with all recent web browsers and on a wider variety of devices,
  • rank closer to the top in search engine result listings,
  • offer better accessibility for people with physical limitations,
  • download more quickly,
  • save web site owners time and money in web site design and redesign and bandwidth costs.

Free programs are available to test whether the code for a web site meets web standards. Site owners can also use these programs to evaluate a web developer's skills and knowledge.

What are web Standards?

"Web standards" are a set of recommendations made by the World Wide Web Consortium (known as the W3C). The standards include the recommendations for HTML, XHTML, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and other aspects of web technology.

Software companies such as Microsoft pay attention to web standards when they create their web browsers. Browsers are not required to adhere to the standards, but in recent years browser makers have, in fact, come close to meeting these standards.

Web standards are equally important to web developers. Good web developers use these specifications to make sure that the web sites they create will run successfully on those browsers.

Although most web sites are not obligated to comply with web standards, responsible web developers ensure that their sites comply because it is in the site owner's best interest.

Why web standards matter

Web standards make it possible for different web browsers to display the same web page similarly. Although Internet Explorer is the dominant web browser in use today, there are many other browsers being used. Web sites that adhere to the web standards are much more reliable in displaying correctly.

There is, however, no feasible way to make your web site look exactly the same on every browser. Each browser uses different means to meet web standards and some interpret the standards differently. No browser has completely realized the ideals set by the web standards, although some have come very close.

Web standards-compliant sites usually have very little trouble meeting U.S. Section 508 or WAI Priority 1 accessibility guidelines. A web standards-compliant site will be accessible by Braille browsers, voice browsers, handheld browsers, and new kinds of displays that haven't even been developed yet.

Web sites that comply with the web standards have better search results rankings because it is easier for search engine spiders to index these sites.

Web standards-compliant sites can be designed to load more quickly. The speed at which a site loads is an important factor in whether visitors remain on a site. Another benefit of a quick-loading site is that the site owner will pay less in bandwidth fees.

Web standards can save site owners time and money on web development. One reason for this is that creating or redesigning web standards-compliant sites is often faster and thus less expensive. Another reason is that designing to web standards means that your web site will be "forward compatible," meaning that the site will have a longer usable life.

The most significant disadvantage to observing web standards is that older browsers may not be able to display the graphic design of web standards-compliant sites. Even in this case, however, older browsers will still be able to show your text content.

Warning to normal folks (non-geeks)

The rest of this article will be certified geek. If that's going to frustrate or bore you to death, stop reading now.

How to use web standards to choose a web developer

Before selecting a developer, you should study a few of their most recent web sites. It's important to choose very recent projects because best practices for web development have been changing rapidly. Even the very best developer will have web sites in their portfolio that do not meet the following tests.

If you're willing to dig into the code, you can see whether a developer is up-to-date.

Validation tools verify that code meets web standards

The W3C provides free validation services for web pages.

Careful web developers use one of these services to help eliminate errors in their XHTML or HTML code. Try a test of the XHMTL coding of this page.

This "validator" only checks one page at a time, not the entire site. To test the XHTML of other pages, go to http://validator.w3.org/ and type in the complete address of the web page, such as:
http://www.digitalDesign.us/howTo/index.html

There is also a validator for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Try it out: test the CSS used on this web site.

Checking the CSS for other sites is a bit more complicated. First, you need to discover the location of the associated CSS file. To do this using Internet Explorer, click on View in the top menu, then click on Source. If you're using Windows and Internet Explorer, the source code for the web page will appear in a Notepad window.

Next, to begin a search, click on Edit in the upper menu, then Find. Type text/css into the blank and click on Find Next. This should take you to the line that gives the location of the CSS file.

Sometimes the CSS data is listed in the html near the top of the page's code. If the page you're looking at has the CSS on the same page as the HTML, it's possible that the developer isn't using CSS to its full potential.

If the page uses no CSS, look for another web developer.

If you did find a Cascading Style Sheet, validate it by going to:
http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/validator-uri.html

Fill in the complete web address of the file containing the style sheet, being sure to include the domain name. If the CSS is included on the web page, use the address of the web page. If there is a separate CSS file, use the address of the domain, any subdirectory, and the name of the CSS file. For example, the address you would type in to test my CSS file is:
http://www.digitalDesign.us/css/digitalDesign.css

A few moments after you click on the Submit button, the validator will return its analysis.

When validating either XHTML or CSS, the best sites will not return any errors. If there are many errors—and this is a recent site—the web developer has not bothered to validate this site. You should find another web developer.

Additional ways to check for compliance with web standards

Next, let's look at the underlying code for signs of seriously outdated practices.

In the first or second line of the code, you should see a "Doctype" something like this:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"
"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">

Recent web browsers, including Mozilla, Safari, Opera 7, Mac Internet Explorer 5, and Windows Internet Explorer 6, use the Doctype to decide how to display each web page. Its use indicates that the web developer has made some attempt to stay current with best practices.

Examples of code you should not see in an up-to-date web page include:

  • <font>
  • <i>
  • <b>
  • <frame> and <frameset>
  • <table> (unless it is actually used to display tabular data)
  • <center>
  • spacer.gif (these are 1 pixel square transparent images used to force table-based page layouts to display correctly)

To find these, do a search for the tag, minus the last right angle bracket (>) because there may be more code before the closing bracket. In Notepad, click on Edit in the upper menu, then Find. In the blank, type one of the tags (such as: <frame ) and then click on Find Next.

If you find any of the code listed above, the web site developer has used outdated techniques. A web developer who hasn't kept current will waste your money and time.

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