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Web Standards. Should my business site be compliant?

Web standards is the new buzz phrase on the web. What are web standards? Web standards are basically the use of correct web coding standards as laid out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The web standards which are of most concern to modern business are XHTML and CSS coding practices. In the words of the W3C, “The XHTML family is the next step in the evolution of the internet.”

In order to achieve appealing presentation it used to be the case that various HTML hacks would have to be utilised by web designers to make a page look appealing. The most commonly know 'hack' (which is still in use today) is the use of tables to layout page structure. Thankfully these days are coming to an end, as web browsers have evolved and XHTML and CSS are now commonly supported standards. It is now possible to make sites which not only look great but are also constructed to the correct web standards.

This is all well and good, but should your business switch to a web standards based design? What are the business benefits of getting standards based re-designs?

One of the disadvantages of getting a web standards based design is that it can be difficult to find a designer who will make an attractive site which is also web standards compliant. A lot of very talented web designers do not create sites which are web standards compliant due to the time involved and the lack of appreciation received from the client for doing so.

The slow conversion to standards based designs is in part due to the ease in which a non-standards based site can be created. With the boom in 'what you see is what you get' (WYSIWYG) site creation tools like Dreamweaver it is now relatively straightforward for talented graphic artists to create professional looking sites with little code knowledge. Although the sites look great, the construction can leave a lot to be desired. Poor page coding, although not always visually apparent, can result in your business losing money as well as make your site inaccessible to a large audience, difficult to navigate and difficult to maintain.

A quality web standards based web site separates the look of your web pages from the written content of your site. This addresses the negative points about a non-standards based site mentioned above. By separating style from content, standards based sites allow people using screen readers, mobiles, PDA's and other web browsing methods to be able to navigate your site. These devices have trouble displaying table based layouts and big images so non-standards based sites are largely unusable. In the second generation of the web there is a wider range of platforms than ever before. Using web standards is the only way to ensure a high degree of uniformity across multiple platforms with your site. If your site isn't accessible then your message is restricted to certain customers, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that this isn't good in business.

A potential downside to a standards compliant website is some site add-ins such as certain bulletin boards, calendars and other dynamic content may not be written in a standards compliant manner. This becomes a problem when the add-in content is the only one that exactly fits your functional requirements. Sometimes in this scenario it may be necessary to forgo full standards compliance on pages where your non-standards compliant dynamic content is needed and migrate the page once the developers adopt standards.

A plus side of web-standards based sites is that maintenance is made easier, meaning your site can be more easily altered. As style is handled by an external (CSS) Style Sheet it is possible to change a sites whole colour scheme by changing a few key values. Also, as no styling information is in the HTML it is much tidier and greatly reduced in size making it easier to read and alter. Smaller file sizes mean that pages load quickly (providing a better experience for customers on slow connections), consume less bandwidth (reducing hosting costs to your business).

The final benefit of well constructed standards based websites is that as well as being accessible to your customers, often it will also be more accessible to search engines. Poorly structured inaccessible websites can often mean that some of the relevance of your text is misinterpreted by search engines. This means you could be losing out in search engine listings. By having a cleanly structured web standards website you are helping to ensure that your site (and its keywords) are correctly represented in search engines and is considered more relevant than non-standards based sites in your industry.
The obvious conclusion to this article is that web standards bring real tangible benefits to business. Although finding a design company that will construct a standards compliant site is more difficult than just finding a web designer, the benefits speak for themselves. By moving to a standards based web site businesses can ensure they have accessible sites which are maintainable and future proofed. Increased customer exposure and search engine prominence can all improve the level of business that comes to you via your website. Web standards are the future of the internet and to ignore it could leave your business trailing behind the online competition.

About the Author: Thomas Ashworth is a developer for NuBlue Web Solutions based in Lancashire, UK.

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