Web Standards for Business Sites
This article highlights the benefits of using Web standards for business sites (Internet, intranet and extranet sites). It is aimed at stakeholders from the marketing, communication and IT departments.
Benefits of Web Standards
The benefits of Web standards is a topic that has been covered extensively, notably on the Web Standards Project and Netscape DevEdge's Strategy Central. Within the scope of this article, we will address the following benefits that particularly apply to us:
- the separation of content and presentation
- the independence from Web browsers
- the quality and simplicity of the underlying HTML code
- the independence from proprietary lock-in
Benefits of Web Standards for Business Sites
Quite often, a company needs to manage several kinds of Web sites — usually an external Web site (Internet), one or several internal sites (intranet) and sometimes, B2B sites (extranet). Within each of these Web domains, individual sites can be very different depending on their function and purpose. For example, it is common to see combinations of corporate sites, marketing, customer support, portals, knowledge bases, forums and online applications. In large international corporations, one can count hundreds, if not thousands, of sites — often managed by different teams. These teams deal with the following issues:
- corporate style guide (consistency in image and branding)
- content management (creation, publication, maintenance)
- design and development (methods, tools, in-house team work and/or agency management)
- information technology (support, technologies, infrastructure)
All companies are organized differently; in one company, the Webmaster role might be attached to the marketing/communication department; in another, the same role might be managed by the Information Technology (IT) department. Therefore, we will endeavour to focus on the benefits of Web standards in relation to the above issues rather than to a specific organizational role.
Corporate style guide: managing the consistency of brands and image
Any company wishing to maintain a consistent image has some guidelines that govern the expression of its corporate identity through all of its communication channels, whether internal or external. Hence, these guidelines must also apply to a company's Web sites. Such guidelines which affect Web sites pose two main challenges: their application to all sites; and their maintenance on an ongoing basis.
A company that has made a decision to adopt a non-standards based Web design can be contented with a style guide comprising purely graphical rules (typography, colors, layout), or provide HTML templates for each type of pages. Specifying only guidelines for graphical elements is a sure way to end up with a plethora of Web sites, each with different behaviors, code base, and other characteristics. Providing templates has the advantage of reducing errors, but this often forces the company to limit the use of Web editing tools to the product with which the templates have been created. If a team or an individual within the company uses a different tool, it may break the templates if this authoring tool does not handle the code in the same manner. It is possible to produce more restrictive templates to reduce errors, but since the templates cater for both content and presentation, it soon becomes difficult, if not impossible, for designers who enforce the company guidelines to produce templates for every situation; furthermore, it becomes a problem to maintain them on an ongoing basis. Without stringent control from those who enforce the guidelines and the goodwill of site owners, this workflow shows its limitations very quickly.
Web standards greatly ease the production and maintenance of corporate style guides. At first glance, creating the guidelines using Web standards seem to require more effort; however, we shall see that these guidelines reduce both the subsequent workload and risks of errors. Style guides based on Web standards will require some consideration on two levels: meaningful structure of the content and the presentation.
- Content structure: what content is managed on each site? Which content components, such as corporate boilerplates and logos, will be beneficial to standardize on a global level, e.g. because they are published on several sites? Which components exist in standard corporate publications such as press releases and newsletters? This applies to the definition of guidelines for Web authors (for mark-up and code) and guidelines for content managers (content structure and writing).
- Presentation: the "look & feel" of the sites. This applies to the creation of relevant Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
We can immediately see that this separation of content from presentation draws a distinction between two territories: content management and image/brand management, which are now handled separately instead of being closely intertwined within the templates. The managers of the corporate image and brand can now enforce the standard look and feel in a much easier way by using the stylesheets, since this is now independent of the content. If the guidelines have been well-designed, it will be possible to modify the presentation by a simple modification within the style definitions without touching the content — imagine the benefit of being able to apply a site-wide style modification by changing a single file! Likewise, adding a new site to existing guidelines can be achieved more quickly by adding definitions for new content components, and if necessary, the relevant style descriptions.
This method still requires good team work from all parties involved. However, it is less demanding in the long run as it is more flexible and better accomodated to each member's responsibilities.
Content management: creation and publication
Thanks to content definitions within the new Web standards-compliant guidelines, content managers can now focus entirely on creating and disseminating content both inside and outside the company, without having to be concerned with presentation differences between these sites.
Web standards allow a company to manage its contents in a meaningful and structured manner that can be adapted to its own corporate vocabulary. Presentation is handled separately with the use of style sheets. These concepts of meaningful content and style sheets are not immediately obvious, but are neither fundamentally different nor more complex than the concept of styles within Microsoft Word. In most cases, a simple XHTML WYSIWYG editor is enough to do the job, or an XML-based content management system tailored to company-specific content at a more involved level. For example, a company may want to standardize the structure of a press release by defining meaningful elements such as title, headline, location, date, body and contact names.
An immediate benefit is that the content is now stored in a neutral and open format. This content will remain available for a longer period of time than if it were stored in a proprietary format, or if it were mixed with presentational elements, thereby risking obsolescence as soon as those elements are outdated. The most important benefit is the independence between the corporate content and its publication channels. Content that does not depend on presentation can be more easily disseminated through the various communications channels of a company. A press release created according to a common corporate standard will be easily published on its external Web site, its intranet portal, a mailing list, or an RSS news feed. It becomes truly possible to centralize content and reduce or eliminate duplicates without being limited by the medium of communication. Quite the contrary, by adopting Web standards, a company opens itself to a new breadth of existing media and emerging technologies that are based on these standards.
The browser war is dead, vive the browser war!
Since we are on the topic, what's the story with Web browsers? In the past, a more or less opportunistic ignorance of Web standards has led to the harmful growth of proprietary HTML during the "browser war" between Microsoft and Netscape. For years, these divergences have imposed a costly burden on companies that were forced to either support and test several proprietary environments, or to face legitimate frustration from the part of their potential audience using a browser they chose not to support — if not both at the same time!
The introduction of visual editors such as Dreamweaver or GoLive has reduced the problem, but only by hiding it. Companies that ignore Web standards continue to be exposed to these risks and have become confounded by the need to support several browsers on their Internet sites but only one on their intranet, in the hope of simplifying the problem. Unfortunately, the consequences of such a choice are largely ignored by most of those companies.
Firstly, the company is forced to maintain different guidelines between their Internet, intranet and extranet sites. The need to maintain a consistent image between all those sites then increases the costs and delays, especially in the case of corporate changes (reorganizations, mergers, partnerships) where the Web is expected, ironically, to ease and speed things up!
Secondly, the IT department usually thinks that the choice of a particular browser on the intranet shields them from a lot of problems. From the IT director’s perspective, it is logically necessary to limit the number of supported software to a strict minimum. However, the decision to employ a single browser, especially in an environment which nurtures a mono-culture amongst the developers, can lock a company into proprietary technology, a move that is dangerous and undesirable.
Indeed, this disregards the fact that the company extends further than the theoretical comfort of its standard computing operating environment. As telecommuting becomes more common, work is increasingly done on the home computer, customers and clients are beginning to request access to the intranet knowledge base, mobile personnel need universal access to the intranet anytime, from anywhere — not only from the corporate PC. I have two anecdotes to illustrate this point: once, I was asked to demonstrate an intranet site to a board member, but this site did not render on my computer (a Mac); on another occasion, I was called for help because of a server failure while I was attending a conference, hence I needed urgent access to my emails — this proved to be impossible from the conference cybercafé because it was equipped with … iMacs. In both cases, the problem was not with the browsers available on Mac OS, but because the propriety code used on these two sites have only been tested with one version of a single browser for Windows.
Furthermore, those who think that the browser war is over — only Internet Explorer for Windows counts — are making a big mistake. The supremacy of one browser is not absolute (as shown by the amazingly fast take-off of Safari as a replacement of Internet Explorer on the Mac), nor assured; Web standards put all browser developers on the same level and we have never seen so many alternative browsers competing to grab browser shares from Microsoft. And the observation of new-generation cellular phones with embedded browsers (such as Opera) and their market trends — for every PC, four phones are sold — shows where the next browser war will be.
Web standards are non-proprietary and developed independently of browsers (I should say user agents), and producers of software for the Web can no longer ignore them. By using Web standards, Web designers no longer have to have to cater for so many browsers in order to design sites that are accessible with current and future user agents. The corporate communications and marketing departments will be able to create a consistent style guide based on a common corporate vocabulary and a few style sheets to cover all their internal and external sites. The IT director will be able to continue to support one browser within the intranet only to limit his/her costs, and everyone — personnnel, clients or partners — will be able to use their browser of choice, as long as it is standards-compliant.
Quality of the code
Code maintenance of a company's Web site is a well-known issue for Webmasters and IT directors. In a more mature domain such as software development, the maintainability of code — the measure of ease and time required to maintain it — is a critical factor for success or failure. On the Web, where more people are involved and in more diverse ways that software development, communication between players' different responsibilities (graphic design, programming, integration, content) are even more complex when their individual contributions end up within the same HTML pages. The regular turnover of staff is also an issue when previous developers have used personal, proprietary or undocumented methods. When a company needs to undergo a complete re-vamp of its Web sites, it has to juggle between two extremes: absolutely nothing, due to the lack of resources (how many intranets are full of outdated sites because of this?); or starting again from scratch for the nth time (we will avoid tackling the notion of return on investment or budget slippages on intranet projects).
Languages that are part of Web standards improve code maintenance thanks to:
- their standardization, which implies a unique specification and public documentation
- their validation by publicly available tools (of which most are free)
Validation tools (such as the HTML validator and the CSS validator) are invaluable to developers, who can use them to learn about the standards more quickly, and at the same time, improve the quality of their code. Additionally, a client can use these to check the conformance of a site delivered by an internal or external supplier. Such tools contribute a great deal in decreasing the development and maintenance costs of Web sites whilst improving their quality.
Clarity and conciseness
Sites based on the so-called "old-school" design methods use a lot of intricate tables and transparent images whose code is mixed with the actual content, and thus are transmitted with each page. On a standards-compliant Web site, the presentation can be sent once, using one or more style sheets that are cached by the browser. Separated from the presentation, the mark-up of the content is more concise. The volume of data transmitted over the network is therefore smaller, which has two immediate advantages: pages render faster on browsers; and the bandwidth requirement (a very costly item) is lowered. Conciseness also has a positive impact on the quality of the code; it becomes easier to maintain.
The actual savings will be different in each case; it depends, among other reasons, on the following:
- the level of optimization of the initial code. The less the initial site was optimized (in terms of file size vs. percentage of useful content), the more significant the savings will be.
- the type of traffic received. A site that receives 80% of the total traffic on its home page (the most common scenario on Internet sites and portals), the savings will be less than a site with more distributed traffic. This is because the presentation information (CSS) is only loaded once along with the first page. A company applying the same presentation to all its intranet sites would see a significant reduction in bandwidth and, consequently, in its network infrastructure costs. This will be of particular interest to the IT director, who is always under pressure to reduce costs!
In the case of ESPN (which recently adopted Web standards), the savings include 50% reduction of page weight to 50kb — with 40 M page views per day, this translates to a saving of 2 TB/day, 61 TB/month and 730 TB/year. Take your ISP contract, your Web statistics, and do the math.
Code modularity is encouraged by the ability to use separate files to store application code (ECMAScript), style sheets (CSS), as well as having a separate place for the structured content once it has been detached from the presentation. The code can have a layout that is logical and easy-to-read, which is not the case when using HTML tables. Modularization allows multi-disciplinary teams to work better with simpler processes, where each group can achieve their goals without intervening with the responsibilities of another group. By better allowing code re-use, modularization helps to encourage best practices and speeds up the training process.
Furthermore, modular code is more concise and therefore has direct advantage in the case of search engines which index only a site's content. When the content is presented in a simple, semantically meaningful form, a search engine will have less work to do and thus achieve a better result in the indexing process. As search engines play a key role — especially in a corporate intranet, this improvement will not go unnoticed. Combined with well-organized content and hyperlinks, it is the best way to improve a site's ranking on Internet search engines.
Standards bodies ensure that standards remain open, with publicly documented specifications, and without license and copyright restrictions. They also have the role of maintaining these standards according to users' evolving needs. Web standards, like any industry standard, support the development of conforming tools. In this way, they are fundamentally different from proprietary standards which are closed, extendable only according to the business interests of the owners of those standards, and can be exploited only by proprietary tools whose availability in the long term is never guaranteed.
By using standards, a company can ensure that its content and applications remain independent from possible lock-ins by suppliers, and can be maintained in the long term according to its own objectives.
Web standards are the cornerstone and the future of the Web; considering the advantages they bring and the current trend in the evolution of browsers, all companies will come to them eventually. The adoption of Web standards in a company may require varying degrees of change depending on how well-prepared it is, its technological flexibility, the number of sites it has, the quality and quantity of existing content and software applications; this process must be studied and adapted to each case. As there is no urgency for most companies to employ Web standards, it is up to each company to consider the opportunity to do so each time it re-vamps its sites. This can be a good, gradual way to surmount the learning curve whilst getting the most from these new methods — by reducing the risk of errors and negotiating the natural resistance to change, with a sound knowledge of what benefits one can glean from Web standards.
For more information on Web standards, numerous free resources are available on the the Web. Here is a non-exhaustive selection:
- The Web Standard Project provides news, information and links to resources
- The W3C provides some advice on how to buy standard sites from agencies
- Strategy Central from Netscape DevEdge has case studies, presentation and articles on how to adopt Web standards
- Why Tables for Layout is Stupid is an excellent presentation comparing old and new design methods
Translation from French by Stephanie Troeth.