Web Standards

What are web standards?

Web standards represent a collection of specifications that detail how web pages should be constructed. In other words, rather than coding a website for a specific target browser it is coded against a set of specifications.

In real world development this means testing in a browser that is compliant (Mozilla Firefox is chosen by the majority of web development professionals) and then accommodating less compliant browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer 6. It's worth noting that Microsoft has finally put in the effort in making the latest version, Internet Explorer 7, more standards compliant than its predecessors.

The W3C was founded in 1994 to develop these open specifications that include:

HTML - HyperText Markup Language
A markup language that describes the structure and content of web pages.
XHTML - Extensible HyperText Markup Language
This markup language is like HTML but is much stricter being a type of XML.
XML - Extensible Markup Language
A subset of SGML (Standard Generalised Markup Language), a metalanguage used to define document markup languages, XML is used to share data between different information systems.
CSS - Cascading Style Sheets
A language most commonly used to style HTML and XHTML markup, but can also be used to style any kind of XML document.
DOM - Document Object Model
An API (Application Programming Interface) for interacting with web pages. This API allows intricate content manipulation using client-side scripting (usually JavaScript), and enables the development of more rich browsing experiences and online applications.

Advantages of web standards

In its beginnings, HTML was largely coded with content, styling and behaviour all bundled together in single, messy documents. Unfortunately, even today many WYSIWYG website editing tools still produce code like this.

Web standards allow the separation of content (HTML / XHTML), style (CSS) and behaviour (DOM Scripting).

This has a number of advantages:

  • Websites are more accessible to people with disabilities as their content can be understood by more than just your average web browser. For example, a Braille terminal can convert the text into Braille.
  • Different CSS can be used for different devices and media such as screens, PDAs and screen readers.
  • Websites can be read using mobile phone browsers with an appropriate style sheet.
  • The appearance of websites can be changed without extensive work to every page.
  • Print style sheets allow a specially formatted version of the page suitable for printing.
  • As the content is free of clutter, the pages have greater visibility to search engines, especially pages that are well structured.
  • Standards compliant documents are easier to convert to other formats.
  • Web technology can move forward while still accommodating older browsers.
  • Standards based websites use less server bandwidth and so are more economical to run and can sustained high loads.
  • They are easier to maintain by both the original developers. More importantly it will be easier for another team to maintained the website in the future.

Implications of Web Standards

It can take longer to program (at least initially) a standards-based website compared to one developed without standards, but this initial investment will pay for itself many times over.

Websites developed to standards are normally hand-coded as it is important to have full control over the markup. While the amateur may find this difficult, a web development professional does this as a matter of course.


Web standards go a long way to improve the accessibility of websites to disabled users but web standards need to be thoughtfully implemented according to accessibly guidelines to make a website as accessible as possible. The W3C's Website Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides guidelines and support materials to understand and implement web accessibility.

There are automated and manual tools available to assess the level of accessibility that a site provides. The W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have three levels of compliance for each checkpoint. If all checkpoints are satisfied to a given level, the site conforms to that level and can be labeled in accordance: WAI-A, WAI-AA or WAI-AAA.

In Summary

Web standards and accessibility are not only the right approach to coding websites, they have significant business benefits that are often overlooked. The benefits gained by using web standards outweigh any additional initial development investment.

The popularity of mobile web browsing is increasing as more mobile phones have a web browser and the cost of mobile Internet access is falling. A standards-based website can be made ready for this type of access without significant investment.

As well as disabled users, there are an increasing number of 'silver surfers', elderly people with poor eyesight and other difficulties. Their combined spending power is in excess of £120 billion.