Standards, semantics and old habits

Lately several people have written about how many people who learned HTML a few years ago have problems accepting that they need to relearn to keep up. I can understand the unwillingness to do this. I have been building web sites since 1995 and have been just as guilty of producing nested table, invalid, non-semantic tag soup as anyone. But in the late nineties I began to realize that there had to be a better way.

I had had enough of browser-sniffing, forked code and multiple versions of a site. Being a Mac user, I more and more frequently encountered web sites that just would not let me in. “Sorry, your browser or operating system is not supported here.” An extremely frustrating and aggravating experience. Some sites even went so far as to lock out certain browsers or operating systems (everything that isn’t IE/Win) just because they would not display the site exactly the same as IE/Win, and the “web designer” would not allow that. Several sites would work just fine in my browser if I could only find a way to get past the browser check. Totally absurd.

For almost two years I worked for a large web agency and ran into all sorts of stupid intranet sites that either didn’t work at all or only partially worked on the Mac. For no valid reason whatsoever. Had those sites been coded to follow web standards it’s very likely that they would have worked fine for me.

When I realized that web sites built to be standards compliant would have a much better chance of working in just about any browser, including those I used on my Mac, I started learning more and about them. I also tried to convince co-workers and friends to embrace the standards. This led to some heated discussions, and I’m not really sure I made that much of a difference. Looking back at it now, though, I can see that I was right. Just a bit too much of a trailblazer. And I didn’t have enough good arguments.

Well, for the people who are doing that kind of thing now, there are good arguments, great books, weblogs, mailing lists and so on. An excellent article is Standards: Designing For the Future by Ian Lloyd. It is the latest article at Dave Shea’s a second voice.

Over at Asterisk*, D. Keith Robinson’s Gorilla Web Tip Number Eight: Web Standards Frequently Asked Questions, provides some good arguments for web standards.

Coding to standards is easier if you use a validator to check your code. Give the W3C’s Markup Validation Service a try.

While talking standards it’s easy to get mixed up with semantics. Jason Kottke says that Standards don’t necessarily have anything to do with being semantically correct and I think he is absolutely correct. Standards and semantic markup are different, but both very important to anyone who wants to build accessible, adaptable, understandable and forward compatible web sites.

Dave Shea has more to say about this subject in Semantics and Bad Code, as does Douglas Bowman in On Standards and Semantics.

Posted on August 30, 2003 in Web Standards