Leading from the front
November 5, 2001
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I really think it’s time some of the so-called professional sites got their acts together about their site implementations. Everyone’s so busy thinking about their server hardware and their bandwidth and how they’re going to get all their chunky graphics down the pipe that they have forgotten to look at their markup.
We had font, font, font till Daddy took the font tag away
Read my lips: The font tag was deprecated years ago and is absent from the
most recent versions of the
standard for HTML. If you are so concerned about the 0.3 percent of
Web users with version 3 browsers, fine, but don’t use font tags in a
page that’s unintelligible without CSS as well. How many times have I
seen sites that define their headings as
class="heading"> instead of an actual heading tag like
H2, and then use font tags elsewhere? It’s just stupid!
If the browser doesn’t understand CSS, then the page will have no
visual hierarchy. If it does understand CSS, then you don’t need the
I’m not talking about amateur sites here, I’m talking about
serious professional sites like, ooh, CNet.com, which uses
class=f7" to denote a story heading on its front page, but also
use font tags for things like stock quotes (incidentally, with color
directives that aren’t wrapped in quotes like they should be, at
least as of the time of this writing). I don’t expect everyone to be
quite as hardcore as I am about these things. But I do expect them to be
able to afford to hire a decent Web designer who understands the
appropriate application of stylesheets, or at least the appropriate use of
To be completely clear on this point: Pages that use stylesheets with no structural HTML markup will be near-useless to text-only browsers, voice-based browsers and search engines. You might not care about how Lynx users and the upcoming phone-based Web services will deal with your page, but surely getting a good listing in Google matters to site designers?
Stylesheets exist to format structural markup. Without structural markup – i.e. “this is a heading, this is a paragraph, this is a citation, this is emphasised text” – your page won’t make any sense except in the narrow format you designed it for – bog-standard browsers and screens on twentieth-century personal computers. If you are comfortable with that, fine. Just be aware that people will read your content with devices you weren’t expecting. You might think that your “target audience” has IE5 and at least a 17-inch screen, but maybe just for a change or because their desktop computer is being repaired, they’re trying to look at your site from their PDA today (or maybe even their misguided neighbour’s quaint little iMac).
Feeling a little unbalanced
Another thing that annoys me about the state of the Web’s internals is the preponderance of ill-formed markup in pages. It’s been nearly a year since I last complained about this in detail, but it seems things aren’t getting any better.
If you can’t write balanced tags in your markup, you should get the hell out of the industry. Oh, I’m not talking about the occasional hand-coding slip-up – you can check those in iCab or a validator or almost any HTML design tool. Everyone makes these mistakes every so often. The difference is that good designers who care about standards will check their pages for kiddie mistakes, and fix them when they occur. Incompetent designers don’t even understand why this is important.
And before you dismiss this problem as something irrelevant to pro designers who know what they are doing, think again. I have a list of sites that have unbalanced invalid markup – including some leading sites about Web design and programming, run by folks who can recompile their own kernals, but not write correct markup (although even we suffer from bad HTML foisted on us by ad banner providers – but that’s another column). One day, I will publish that list. Watch out!
Bringing the fight to them
This isn’t just me waving my meagre Web design credentials in other people’s faces just to make trouble. Every crap Web page out there, every unbalanced HTML element, is another hack or workaround that browser developers have to add to their applications. Every invalid page that someone writes is an extra few kilobytes of bloated browser code that you have to get down your phone line. Every piece of HTML incompetence is another slow page load, another browser crash and another headache for whoever replaces the incompetent designer a few months down the track.
So let’s start calling Web designers on their markup practices. For now, I’m just going to concentrate on unbalanced tags. This is setting my sights low, but it’s a start. There’s just no excuse for unbalanced tags. Every tutorial says to balance your tags. Even the graphical Web editing tools don’t actually generate unbalanced tags, just code bloat. Well-formed markup is the minimum we should expect.
Writing correct markup is the other side of WebStandards.org’s browser upgrade campaign. Sure, browser manufacturers can be encouraged to release compliant browsers and users can be encouraged to upgrade to them. But page authors need to keep their side of the standards bargain. If you are doing stupid things and accepting money for your work, you need to be told that it’s just not good enough.