Friday 31 July 2009

Web Standards DO Save, Then and Now

It's been known in the Web-development community for several years now that well-designed, semantic, standards-compliant Websites use dramatically less resources (such as bandwidth) than 1997-era tangles of nested tables and invalid HTML. But it's still refreshing to read confirmation that that truth is pretty universally applicable - especially when that reading doesn't depend on what we now know as the "latest and greatest" Web browsers.

Take, for example, this five-year-old article by Jim Ramsey, then-Webmaster of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper's Website. In the section titled Simplify, Man!, he writes:

This is what a basic link in our navigation looked like late last year, before standards:

<td class="navmenu" height="18"
  onMouseOut="javascript:rolloutNav(this); " colspan="2">
<a href="/home/index.cfm" class="nav">HOME</a></td> </tr><tr>
<td bgcolor="#EEEEEE" class="navmenuspacer" colspan="2">
<img src="../site_images/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2"></td> </tr>
Now take a look at what an Examiner navigation link looks like now:
<li><a href="/home/">Home</a></li>
That’s a big difference. In fact, the first one is so bad, I’m almost embarrassed to include it here. And what did I get for all that extra stuff? Basically, nothing. The JavaScript triggers the rollover effect and the table cells control the spacing. All of that can be done using styles.

Let’s take another example. Here’s how a link to a story in the Arts section looked before standards:

<img src="../site_images/sfex/homekickerarrow.gif" width="6" height="8">
<span class="kicker">Movie Review: Dickie Roberts<br></span>
<a href="../templates/story.cfm?displaystory=1&storyname=090503a_dickie"
    class="headlinesm">Problem 'Child'</a>
<hr noshade size="1" color="#EEEEEE">
Here’s the same thing following standards:
<h5>Movie Review: Hero</h5>
<h4><a href="/article/index.cfm/i/082704a_hero">Holding out for a 'Hero'</a></h4>
Again, once it is styled, the second version can be made to look identical to the first. When you can simplify markup in this way, it starts to make a big difference in bandwidth.

Comparing last year’s table-based site to our new standards-based one, the amount of information on our homepage is strikingly similar. Both contain basically the same elements and yet the HTML is 13K smaller on the CSS-version at 19.6K.

As a result, even though our traffic was about 40% higher in July 2004 than in September 2003, our bandwidth was almost exactly the same for those two months.

"[E]ven though our traffic was about 40% higher...our bandwidth was almost exactly the same..." What other development practice allows you to simultaneously:

  • boost your traffic by nearly half without similar increases in bandwidth costs;
  • improve your search-engine results without expensive, error-prone twiddling;
  • open your site to a potentially much wider audience, by not limiting what platform or browser your audience uses; and
  • significantly reduce the cost and complexity of maintaining your site?
As one colleague put it in an IM discussion, "people who develop like it's 1997 shouldn't be surprised if their revenues and page views don't exceed 1997 levels. Especially if they weren't around in 1997."

I'm not (quite) to the point of some of the more, um, evangelical developers out there in equating broken, invalid sites with actionable incompetence — but if our craft has serious hopes of making it out of "hobbyist" status in the eyes of non-technical business people, to where they treat practitioners as members of a profession, then we need to get some meaningful, practical, well-defined standards. This (standard-compliant, semantic development) is at or very near the top of my list of such standards.

Final note: I find it deeply ironic that Google have apparently redesigned the posting interface for Blogger. Whereas previously I have been able to post from any Linux, Mac or iPhone browser, switch between HTML editing and WYSIWYG view, and use all the other goodness...the new CSS and JavaScript seem to fail in any of the half-dozen Mac browsers I've tested today. One step forward, two steps back is especially painful when one started by walking directly away from the very edge of a cliff.

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