What Every Web Site Owner Should Know About Standards: A Web Standards Primer

How to use this primer

— throughout this article we have identified specific benefits to your organization that you can gain by switching to a standards-compliant Web site.
we have also defined technical or Web related terms.

What are Web standards?

Just as standards exist for almost every kind of electrical equipment, every class of machinery, or every chemical product that we encounter on a day-to-day basis, there exist free and non-proprietary standards for the Web. Web standards help the different parts of the Web (your computer, a Web server, your friend's cell phone and an internet fridge) communicate in a way that is understood by the different devices connected to it. Web standards make the Web a place where files can be read by anyone, regardless of what they are using to access the Internet.

How do Web standards work?

Although there are Web standards that apply to all aspects of the Internet, such as ECMAScript (JavaScript), DOM, XML, RDF, as well as user agent and accessibility guidelines, when people talk about Web standards they are often talking about standards that govern HTML and CSS. HTML (Hyper-Text Mark-up Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are two types of authoring (authoring is also known as coding) that can make a Web page. Like a grammar rule book for Web languages, the standards specifications for HTML and CSS describe how to write HTML and CSS.

user agent:
a user agent could be a browser, a cell phone, an internet fridge or a page reader for the visually impaired — it's something used to read the Web.
Web authors:
people who create documents for the Web using a mark-up language or software that generates a mark-up language — often Web designers or developers.

Web standards not only tell Web authors how to code Web pages, they also tell user agents how to interpret and display that code so that users can read Web pages. Web standards are a way to make sure everyone is following the same rule-book — a way to mediate the Web.

What is the separation of content and presentation? Why is it important?

HTML tells a user agent where and how to denote the different parts of the document (headline, paragraph, block quote, etc.) — the structure of its content. CSS tells the user agent what the document should look like (fonts and what colours, etc) — its presentation. This separation of duties between HTML and CSS is often called “the separation of content and presentation.” Recent Web standards encourage the separation of presentation and content.

the amount of data that can be transmitted in a given time period through a communications link. It is often said that a Web site “uses” a certain amount of bandwidth, meaning that a certain amount of data has been transmitted between the Web site and the users of the site.

Web pages used to be coded so that information about the look of the page was part of the HTML. Each sentence in the HTML document would have information about how it should be displayed. If the company colours changed, then someone had to go through the company's whole site, line by line, changing each place where the HTML said which colours should be used. This was not a very efficient way to code Web pages.

When presentation information is separated from the content of the Web page it is possible to change the font (or even the layout) of all of the pages of the whole Web site by changing one CSS document. This ability to easily change the look of a Web site is what makes the separation of content and presentation so powerful.

What is standards-compliance?

How do I know when my site is standards-compliant?

To be standards-compliant means that your Web site is built following the published and relevant Web standards specifications. You can determine if your site's pages are compliant by checking them with a piece of software called a validator. A validator is a bit like a spell checker, except it tells you whether or not your HTML is correct and follows the rules set out in the standard.

Are all sites standards-compliant? What does it mean if your site isn't standards-compliant?

Not all sites are standards-compliant. Some user agents will display code that deviates from the standard in a minor way. In some user agents this would cause no visible problems, but it would mean that the Web page was not standards-compliant. Not following standards may cause severe problems. In some cases, pages that are not coded to the standard will not display at all.

Why aren't all sites standards-compliant?

There are various reasons why not all sites are standards-compliant. Sometimes Web authors:

  • create pages that have mistakes in them
  • don't know how to create sites that meet the standards
  • use software tools that don't create standards-compliant code
  • use code that takes advantage of features that exist in only one browser.

How can I reap the benefits of standards?

Reaping the benefits of standards is as simple as requiring that your vendors or employees deliver standards-compliant products. Discuss standards-compliance with your Web development team.

  • Existing Web sites can be incrementally updated by adopting standards on the most popular few pages and, on a regular schedule, slowly working through the whole site
  • New Web sites can plan to adopt Web standards. By planning early and adopting the most recent standards, you can reap the most benefits .
  • Web sites already in development can adopt Web standards — it may cost a little extra in the short term, but in the long-term standards will save you money.

Work closely with your Web development team to develop a standards-compliant site best-suited to your company's needs.

For more information, refer to the W3C guide to buying standards-compliant Web sites.

Who Decides What the Standards Are?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), one of the most influential organizations setting Web standards, releases technical specifications, recommendations and other missives for the Web infrastructure. Several other organizations also contribute Web standards, such as:

  • the International Organization for Standardization,
  • the Internet Engineering Task Force,
  • Ecma International,
  • the Unicode Consortium,
  • and many others.

What do I tell my Web developer/IT manager? I want to know more about Web standards!

An in-depth (and more technical) discussion of Web standards is available in the MACCAWS white paper, “The Way Forward with Web Standards”. Also available through MACCAWS are research studies, survey reports and case studies supporting the commercial case for adopting Web standards.

More standards information is available at the Web Standards Project (http://www.webstandards.org) and the W3C. (http://www.w3.org)

All documents within the MACCAWS kit are licensed under a Creative Commons License.