Thursday, May 25, 2006

Against Web Standards

Following on my article on web standards and my attempt at getting a Blogger page to conform, I thought I would address some of the common critiques of web standards. I have formatted this page as a FAQ. If you have any further questions, please post a comment. I'd like to see this become a lively debate.

Who or what is the W3C?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee with the involvement of MIT, CERN, DARPA, Japan's Keio University and the European Commission.

Who cares about the W3C?

Apparently, some of the largest technology firms in the world, including Adobe, AOL, Apple, AT&T, BBC, Cisco, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Google, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), Lexmark, Matsushita, NEC, Nokia, Nortel, Oracle, Siemens AG, Sony, Sun, Toshiba, Xerox, Yahoo!... even Microsoft. The full members list is impressive.

But the W3C site is ugly

The W3C site is designed for developers and bears the look of a specification or technical document. Taking its audience into account I find it about 6 on the ugly scale. I also think Yahoo! is quite ugly but use it every day just the same.

Ugliness does not translate into lack of usability, though I prefer sites that are easy on the eyes.

Won't using web standards make my site ugly?

Following the standards does not have anything to do with the aesthetic of a website. Conforming sites can be ugly or pretty, boring or exciting, just like nonconforming sites.

However, following standards makes it significantly easier to modify the look of your site and try out different designs. A good example of this is css Zen Garden which invites outside designers to redo the home page. Switchable stylesheets allow you to view the page in radically different designs. You may be amazed that none of these alter the HTML in any way!

The W3C has no standards so why follow them?

The W3C publishes what it calls "recommendations", and has done so more than ninety times. Whether you want to call these "standards" or not is a matter of semantics. For the record, the W3C themselves use these terms interchangeably.

Why should I support standards if [insert popular site here] doesn't?

There are several parts to this complicated issue.

First, it depends on which validation standard and tool you are using. Google produces 33 errors in the online W3C Validator but zero in the W3C tool Tidy.

Second, and related, standards are not an absolute target. Some large and complicated sites must support older browsers (eg: Internet 5 and its ilk). These user agents did not support standards and so the site cannot if it hopes to render properly. (There are partial ways around this.)

Third, there is the problem of inertia. A large firm may in fact be updating pages to be standards-compatible, but hasn't got there yet. If a mix of technologies for generating web pages is not compliant, it can take a lot of work and investment to reach that target. All the more reason to start off on the right foot.

Fourth, some sites may not see all the benefits, so the organisation is not pushed to change. Yahoo! and Google are the search engines so they obviously care less about good SEO!

Fifth, while there are bad examples, there are also surprising cases of shining goodness, for example Microsoft.

Sixth, despite all the above, some sites do in fact need work. For example, Google does not state a doctype on their page. This is poor behaviour I cannot explain! They should hire me (or maybe you) as a consultant. Who said big companies never make mistakes?


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