The Need for Web Standards
Jeffrey Zeldman, founder of Happy Cog, chronicles his latest attempt to establish clear standards for excellence on the Internet.
The Need for Web Standards
Every industry has standards. For example the Motion Picture, camera, there are two or
three film formats with a number of brackets and number of speed, a shooting speed that
is standard. If we didn’t have that then some motion pictures will playback too slowly
and people would talk very slowly and it will be bizarre. Our industries started with in the
absence of those standards. We had the HTML but it wasn’t really supported correctly in
any browser and browser makers initially led the exciting adoption of the webs. So, if
Netscape out of the feature, every web developer learned it and when we all use it and it
wasn’t a standard but that’s okay and then Microsoft to compete out of the future and it
wasn’t supported in Netscape’s browsers.
So, what ended up happening was that in order to make even just a simple content
website, you end up having to make three or four different versions of every page and
this is back in the 90s’ when websites we’re doing very much. They were pretty much
static pieces of content with maybe a form where you could get more, you know sign up
to a mail list and yet you are making all these different versions and if you’ve had even a
very simple Java script for instance to validate the form. You had to write it four different
ways for IE3, IE4 and Netscape 3, Netscape 4.
So some colleagues and I in 1998 started the web standards project to basically ask
browser makers to comply with a very small group of standards that would work across
all the licensing and they eventually did and could they all browsers support them pretty
well. As for what standards are and why there are important—in addition to not spending
25% of your time and 25% of your budget making all these different versions of the site
and that is money you can either save if you don’t have a lot of money or money you
could put in to better writers, proof readers, editors, film makers, better design, better you
know original illustration. Its money you could spend in better ways than just making
The most findable content is content that is designed with web standards and structured
that way. When we started the web standards project, we didn’t know that because when
we started it nobody use Google. Google didn’t really exist. Google existed as sort of a
project by to graduate students. And people use to find web content either by reading
your print ad and going oh, look there is a web address and typing it in right dutifully and
going to your homepage. Or they went to Yahoo which had higher article index, right? Of
all the content on the web and they go I’m looking for porn, how I would find porn and
then they would type social and cultural that must be it. And then they sort of drove all
the way down to the porn whereas with Google they would just type porn or whatever
they were looking for and find it. But Google didn’t exist at that time, so we didn’t know
that we were creating a means of designing websites that would have, that will make
content very easy to find. But that is a great benefit of it over then I talked to business
people about this, if I say, if I talked about Symantics, their eyes glaze over but if I talked
about your content will be found on Google they get it and they like that.
Most blogs that I know about are now designed with web standards. Some very large
commercial sites are designed with web standards. ESPN was an early adopter of web
standards, wire.com, is an early adopter of web standards. Seed magazine just had a
redesigned by Tim Burton, Mike Pick, uses it—it’s beautiful and you look at it and think
you are looking at flash content because of the way things move around and all but that’s
all web standards. There is a flashes used for the custom video player but everything else
is HTML, CSS and Java Script and then I—when my friends and I were pushing for web
standards in the 90s’. People laughed at us because if your designers don’t want to use
flash, if your designer, why don’t you just make an image of the text if you’re, and we
really felt like losers.
We felt and we would say well someone will do, a site one way and they say looks the
same in every browser and I’d say well, mine doesn’t look exactly the same in an old
browser but that’s okay, it’s still works. People thought I was bad designer and they make
fun of me and my friends will felt the same way but we won which is kind of amazing.
Just, I don’t know how but now most of the web 2.0 sites that you hear about use web
standards. Web standards have really won and they really captured a hold of most of the
interesting web content, the personal sites, the blogs, the social networking ads, the web
2.0 sites. And you know even if you look at—I just did a test, just a simple validation test
of the Alexis top 100 US sites to see how many validated and seven validated and two
almost did. These are sites like apple.com, but if you look under the surface and see what
they are doing, they’re all using CSS for layout, they’re all using Symantic markup.
Sometimes the CMS breaks that validations, sometimes they don’t bother. Everybody
who knows what they’re doing in web development and web design is now pretty much
on board this train even though not everyone is purest and not everyone shares exactly
the same understanding.
Are web standards an Ethos? It is, although for someone who’s looked at us leading the
movement, I’m very undoctrinaire. I really—I got involved out of practical concerns. I
basically didn’t want to learn, I didn’t want to learn more than four kinds of Java Script
eight kind of Java Script they just seemed crazy. I really thought I wanted to spend more
time on design and writing and contents strategy, usability stuff like that. So, to me this
was always practical and I think if I hadn’t and my colleagues, most of colleagues in the
web standard project hadn’t had sort of practical mind set, I don’t think it would have
taken off. I think if we said you should do this because you should do it and if you don’t
do it you’re bad person. That’s religion. There are definitely people in web standards that
are religious there.
There are people who say if your site doesn’t validate then it’s not standards, then it’s not
standards compliant or it wasn’t design with web standards if you make efforts to be
accessible but you don’t need every requirement of this particular standard or these
particular specifications then you’re not really doing it right. I tried not to do that. I
always think, I mean design like everything in life is about understanding what the
problems are, solving those problems and there is always trade-offs.
When we design a site, we have to standard that the users are and we have to design with
the most, the lead users and maybe three other kinds in mind and then maybe someone
who is in edge case who decides to work for them but it isn’t optimal for them. That is
just the trade-off or you use the means that you are disposal to size type. You want a size
type in such a way that is readable and looks good for most people, but people can still
come in and change the size if they want to because it is the web. There are different
ways of doing that and there is no perfect way.
If I use a relative font size so people using Internet Explorer can make it bigger or smaller
then someone who’s set their default to 11 points is going to find that my websites is type
is too small and I’ll say—I failed to understand how it is supposed professional, you can
make such small type but if I do it using pixels then people in Internet Explorer can’t
resize it at least. And so it’s always trade off and it is always—I think, I do think it’s an
Ethos. I think it’s a point of view and you should and most people who worked with web
standard eventually internalize them, in their design practice. But nothing is to be on and
a good user experience is good content, well presented. That’s to be on and all that is real
Ethos and these are just tools and techniques.
The Need for Web Standards
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