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1.1 The Web's Fall from Grace

 
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1.1 The Web's Fall from Grace

Back in the dimly remembered, early years of the Web (1990-1993), HTML was a fairly lean language. It was composed almost entirely of structural elements that were useful for describing things like paragraphs, hyperlinks, lists, and headings. It had nothing even remotely approaching tables, frames, or the complex markup we assume is a necessary part of creating web pages. The general idea was that HTML would be a structural markup language, used to describe the various parts of a document. Very little was said about how those parts should be displayed. The language wasn't concerned with appearance. It was just a clean little markup scheme.

Then came Mosaic.

Suddenly, the power of the World Wide Web was obvious to almost anyone who spent more than 10 minutes playing with it. Jumping from one document to another was no harder than pointing the mouse cursor at a specially colored bit of text, or even an image, and clicking the mouse button. Even better, text and images could be displayed together, and all you needed to create a page was a plain-text editor. It was free, it was open, and it was cool.

Web sites began to spring up everywhere. There were personal journals, university sites, corporate sites, and more. As the number of sites increased, so did the demand for new HTML elements that would each perform a specific function. Authors started demanding that they be able to make text boldfaced, or italicized.

At the time, HTML wasn't equipped to handle those sorts of desires. You could declare a bit of text to be emphasized, but that wasn't necessarily the same as being italicizedit could be boldfaced instead, or even normal text with a different color, depending on the user's browser and her preferences. There was nothing to ensure that what the author created was what the reader would see.

As a result of these pressures, markup elements like <B> and <I> started to creep into the language. Suddenly, a structural language started to become presentational.

1.1.1 What a Mess

Years later, we have inherited the problems of this haphazard process. Large parts of HTML 3.2 and HTML 4.0, for example, were devoted to presentational considerations. The ability to color and size text through the font element, to apply background colors and images to documents and tables, to use table elements (such as cellspacing), and to make text blink on and off are all the legacy of the original cries for "more control!"

For an example of the mess in action, take a quick glance at almost any corporate web site's markup. The sheer amount of markup in comparison to actual useful information is astonishing. Even worse, for most sites, the markup is almost entirely made up of tables and font elements, none of which conveys any real semantic meaning to what's being presented. From a structural standpoint, these pages are little better than random strings of letters.

For example, let's assume that for page titles, an author is using font elements instead of heading elements like h1:

<font size="+3" face="Helvetica" color="red">Page Title</font>

Structurally speaking, the font tag has no meaning. This makes the document far less useful. What good is a font tag to a speech-synthesis browser, for example? If an author uses heading elements instead of font elements, though, the speaking browser can use a certain speaking style to read the text. With the font tag, the browser has no way to know that the text is any different from other text.

Why do authors run roughshod over structure and meaning this way? Because they want readers to see the page as they designed it. To use structural HTML markup is to give up a lot of control over a page's appearance, and it certainly doesn't allow for the kind of densely packed page designs that have become so popular over the years. But consider the following problems with such a roughshod approach:

  • Unstructured pages make content indexing inordinately difficult. A truly powerful search engine would allow users to search only page titles, or only section headings within pages, or only paragraph text, or perhaps only those paragraphs that are marked as being important. In order to accomplish such a feat, however, the page contents must be contained within some sort of structural markupexactly the sort of markup most pages lack. Google, for example, does pay attention to markup structure when indexing pages, so a structural page will increase your Google rank.

  • Lack of structure reduces accessibility. Imagine that you are blind and rely on a speech-synthesis browser to search the Web. Which would you prefer: a structured page that lets your browser read only section headings so that you can choose which section you'd like to hear more about; or a page that is so lacking in structure that your browser is forced to read the entire thing with no indication of what's a heading, what's a paragraph, and what's important? Let's return to Googlethe search engine is in effect the world's most active blind user, with millions of friends who accept its every suggestion about where to surf and shop.

  • Advanced page presentation is possible only with some sort of document structure. Imagine a page in which only the section headings are shown, with an arrow next to each. The user can decide which section heading applies to him and click on it, thus revealing the text of that section.

  • Structured markup is easier to maintain. How many times have you spent several minutes hunting through someone else's HTML (or even your own) in search of the one little error that's messing up your page in one browser or another? How much time have you spent writing nested tables and font elements, just to get a sidebar with white hyperlinks in it? How many linebreak elements have you inserted trying to get exactly the right separation between a title and the following text? By using structural markup, you can clean up your code and make it easier to find what you're looking for.

Granted, a fully structured document is a little plain. Due to that one single fact, a hundred arguments in favor of structural markup won't sway a marketing department from using the type of HTML that was so prevalent at the end of the 20th century, and which persists even today. What we need is a way to combine structural markup with attractive page presentation.

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