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Why and how to build web sites to W3C standards
Monday, June 05 2006 @ 09:41 PM CST
Contributed by: Patrick Donoahue
Views:: 6,596

The Internet is at a critical juncture and serious choices are being made by millions of people across the globe. These decisions will have an enormous impact on future direction of the World Wide Web. As with any professional discipline a need for universal conventions is necessary.

It is my contention that the World Wide Consortium (W3C) and the standards and protocols they are proposing are necessary, beneficial and indispensable to proper web site construction. The reader should be aware that there are those who think the W3C can not provide this structure. My hope is to convince you otherwise.

This will be about basics. It is always wise to revisit basics and at the same time, it's an opportunity to address questions for those new to web development. I think it is often forgotten how many people each and every day are only now thinking about the web in more meaningful ways. This includes a huge variety of people from key decision-makers to stay at home bloggers and all points between.

So let's say you are new to web development. Here are a few simple questions that might come to mind: Is there a right way and a wrong way to build a web site? Where do you begin and why there? What do I absolutely need to know before going further? How do you know you are not wasting your time on something that will be obsolete in the near future? Will these skills really be useful?

Over the past three years I have been an instructor at the University of Toronto for people asking these very questions. Through the Professional Learning Centre I teach a course called "Web Site Implementation and Management". Upon being hired to teach this subject I was faced with the daunting challenge of which subjects I would focus on, over eight one-hour classes. It is not much time. Suddenly I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of the ocean and all I could hear myself say was - swim! People new to the Internet feel much the same when their employer or circumstances demand they confront the challenge of deciding what needs to be learned, where to start and most importantly, which skill sets will serve their requirements.

Typically, for most people there are no frames of reference. They can't look back on generations of rules and standards, which have been passed down over time, as with most professions. For example, if you are learning about printing you can consider that trade's gradual developments, methods and standards over the years, dating back to Guttenburg and his press. The Internet is approximately 17 years old and the speed of change in that short period of time is staggering. The number of associated disciplines, languages and technologies, all which are developing and growing exponentially are far too numerous to list here. The big question we face is where to begin?

Enter the World Wide Consortium (W3C). Sir Tim Berners Lee, the Internet's Guttenburg, heads up this rather august international organization. So what is the W3C?

W3C is where the future of the Web is made. Our Members work together to design and standardize Web technologies that build on its universality, giving the power to communicate, exchange information, and to write effective, dynamic applications-for anyone, anywhere, anytime, using any device." - Sir Tim Berners Lee

OK, so where do we begin? Let's start with some indispensable basics that will get you off on the right foot.

Learn about the W3C

Set aside some dedicated study time and really delve into their web site. Consider the membership. From Apple to Yahoo all the major IT players are supporters of this initiative. There are 18 countries with W3C offices, China being the most recent member. I point this out because I have heard comments to affect of "it's just another one of those groups". In this case, that would be completely wrong. It appears certain that the W3C will provide universal protocols and languages that will dictate the future of the Internet.

Consider carefully accessibility issues. It is not only beneficial to design to these standards it is becoming the law in most industrialized countries that web sites be accessible to people with disabilities. This W3C site is the best place to start: I really like these folks too:

To start learning try the online school created by W3 Wonderful for basics! The tutorials at the main W3C site are more advanced and are must reading when you are ready.

CSS, cascading style sheets.

Learning CSS must be a top priority. It is just that important and the benefits are seemingly endless. CSS offers several important features. Firstly, CSS separates content from style - by that I mean your data is one thing, lovely stylizing and pictures are entirely something else. By making this separation you not only create much cleaner code, you also have far greater control. And what does control mean? It means being able to make instant site wide changes in seconds. It means sensible, efficient management. It means being able to offer accessible content to any and all people. Think of accessibility as a must learn skill, building with CSS is the key. CSS caches so pages load much faster and navigation is quicker and smoother. This also means a saving in bandwidth, which saves money.

CSS allows for beautiful designs. To see some CSS magic at work visit CSS Zen Garden, Click on the HTML file and see what the content looks like, then view the many different styles that are using that very same content; nothing changes but the style sheet. A tiny change in a single line of code is all that is required to attach a different design. At the same time, the styles can be just as easily detached, leaving you with clean data for information storage or retrieval. CSS can be validated, which insures a reliable measure of quality. CSS costs nothing, it is open source and it is a W3C recommendation. CSS is to web development what the hammer and saw are to carpentry. What else can I say? Learn CSS!

XML - eXtensible Markup Language.

XML was designed to describe data and to focus on what data is.

HTML was designed to display data and to focus on how data looks.

Have a look at the source code of any RSS. Notice the tags tell you what the nature of the information is between them, not just how they are suppose to appear on a screen. XML is often referred to as a "descriptor" language, not a presentation language, like HTML. XML allows you to write your own tags and define your own document structure. I think it is safe to say that the Internet is undergoing an XML revolution, which can be seen most acutely in "push" technologies (RSS is an example) and wireless technologies. XML and its associated languages are all W3C initiatives and are at the core of what is being called Web 2.0. If you Google 'XML' you will get over 2 billion results. Scan through the results of the first 100 or so. You will get a sense of how pervasive XML has quickly become.

XHTML - eXtensible Hyper Text Markup Language

XHTML is a combination of HTML and XML (eXtensible Markup Language).

XHTML consists of all the elements in HTML 4.01 combined with the syntax of XML.

XHTML provides a standardized document framework. It is like an understanding of how we build our homes, each will be unique by how we style it but share common structural similarities and concerns. If it is agreed that this is the best one, then we can focus on what we want to build, rather than on which building codes we will adhere to. Imagine that you try to build a home without understanding all the interconnecting services such as electrical, plumbing and carpentry. It would be a mess.

At this time every major web tool allows for the easy creation of XHTML documents. You don't have to; you can still create in HTML and enjoy good results. However, web pages are not just for desktop computers with 17" monitors anymore. Your content may show up on a cell phone or a Blackberry or any number of devices. If you create your page in XHTML, stylized with validated CSS you will be able to offer your information, products or services to everyone. XHTML will provide an ideal framework for all of the new immerging XML technologies. The W3C has stated that XHTML is intended as a replacement for HTML.

Finally, by creating sites using these fundamentals you will be rewarded by search engines. Companies like Yahoo and Google, who are members and supporters of W3C, will reward you with better page ranking if you develop with valid XHTML and valid CSS, also known as "best web practices". It's win win.

The W3C is in the process of bringing structure to the Internet. I wish them Godspeed. As for the critics, I have a question to leave you with. Is there a realistic alternative? I am not suggesting the W3C is perfect. I have read some of the criticisms. However at some point we have to decide what to learn, or in a teacher's case, what to teach. It is time to put this discussion to bed and get on with building better more universal web sites for everyone. Supporting the W3C and building to those standards will help make that happen. It will also make you a better web site developer.


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