Web standards and Australian Government web sites



Gavin Dispain

Web site manager, Department of the Environment and Water Resources
Organiser, Canberra Web Standards Group

How did I get here?

The 2006 web standards audit

This audit is a repeat and expansion of a 2005 audit of 89 Australian Government web sites presented to an AGIMO Content Management CoP, 12 December 2005

Audit tools

  • http://www.visionaustralia.org.au/ais
    • http://validator.w3.org
    • http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator
    • http://webxact.watchfire.com
    • http://www.websiteoptimization.com/services/analyze
  • http://www.agimo.gov.au/branding
    • http://www.agimo.gov.au/branding/cue
  • http://www.maxamine.com
  • http://www.texttrustaustralia.com
  • http://www.hitwise.com.au

What are web standards?

Web standards are technologies and guidelines for creating (structuring and building) and interpreting (rendering) web based content. Web standards do not, however, dictate how a web site should look or work. The goal of web standards is too deliver the greatest benefits to the greatest number of web users while ensuring the long-term viability of web sites. Thus, designing to web standards will make web sites both more accessible and more durable (Cohen 2003; Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; WaSP 2002).

Who sets web standards?

Web standards are developed by groups and standards bodies, the most predominant being the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C was created to lead the web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the web (Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; Jacobs 2005; Zeldman 2003).

Google search standard

Example of a Google search result

Why use web standards?

During the rapid and dramatic commercial development of the web (1994 to 2000) browsers that did not support web standards came to dominate the market. As such, HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the code used to build web pages, was used to style web page content rather than for its intended use to give structure to web page content. This lead to complex and very specific HTML code that looked good in one particular version of a browser but did not work in other browsers or applications (Cohen 2003; Holzschlag 2003; Nielsen 2000; Veen2001; Zeldman 2001).

Designing web sites in this way is short sighted as there is an increasing need for web content to appear in other display devices such as wireless hand held computers and web-enabled phones, to work with assistive technology for the disabled (screen readers, Braille browsers etc), to integrate with backend databases etc. These needs can be addressed by designing web sites to web standards (Cohen 2003; Holzschlag 2003; Zeldman 2003).

Why are web standards effective?

Web standards are effective because they separate the structure (and semantics) of content from the presentation of content. This separation allows different systems to display the same content differently. For example, a screen reader can read the content aloud, a hand held device can resize the content to fit on its small screen etc (Cederholm 2004; Cohen 2003; Grannell 2005; Holzschlag 2003). The separation of structure and presentation is primarily achieved through the use of two fundamental web standards: Extensible HyperText Markup Language (XHTML) and Cascading style sheets (CSS).

Benefits of using web standards

Very broadly, designing to web standards will benefit both web site owners and visitors by increasing audience reach and improving efficiency (Arch & Letourneau 2002; Holzschlag 2003; HazaŽl-Massieux 2002; Zeldman 2003). More specifically, the benefits of designing to web standards include: Improved search, increased support for the semantic web, improved ability to repurpose content, increased backwards and forward compatibility, improved ease of access, reduced web site maintenance costs, reduced server-load and server-bandwidth issues.

As some search engines accord increased relevance to heading text, e.g. text within <h1> tags etc, structural XHTML mark up can contribute to improved resource discovery by both increasing the likelihood of web pages being found and improving ranking in search results. In addition, improved enterprise search will lead to less need for other resource-consuming technical or business support services (Arch & Letourneau 2002; Cohen 2003; Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; Nonnenmacher 2003; WaSP 2002).

The semantic web is an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, so that it can be used by machines not just for display purposes but for automation, integration, and reuse of data across various applications. Separating structure from presentation and utilising XHTML will position web sites to rapidly increase their audiences as the semantic web is developed (Arch & Letourneau 2002).

Mark up or content that is intimately linked with one particular display or access technology is likely to be unusable on other technologies. Designing to web standards enhances device and platform independence making it easier and quicker to repurpose content for use on the continuingly evolving range of web enabled devices, applications and technology (Arch & Letourneau 2002; Cohen 2003; Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; Nonnenmacher 2003; WaSP 2002; Zeldman 2003).

For example, one easily editable CSS file can contain display instructions for numerous display technologies making it unnecessary to reedit every web page to meet the needs of a new technology or device, or for different end purposes, such as, screen or printer presentation . Further, XHTML is ideally suited to machine manipulation of information, making automatic conversions of content for alternative display even easier (Allsop & Weakley 2005; Arch & Letourneau 2002).

Web standards are written so that old browsers will still understand the basic structure of documents and will be able to display the content of a web site. Web standards will also scale with time and with increased/changed needs extending the usable life of web sites (Cederholm 2004; Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; Zeldman 2003).

The majority of the world's web users are limited to low-bandwidth connections. Even in areas with high-bandwidth infrastructure web users may use portable wireless devices or older systems that will benefit from fast downloading web sites. As CSS files are cached by a browser once and are then available instantly to all pages that refer to them, using CSS can significantly reduce the size of individual pages, making web sites particularly fast to download (Arch & Letourneau 2002; King 2003; Nielsen 2000).

People with disabilities represent about 10% of the world's population (Dubost 2002). Designing to web standards make it easier to follow W3C accessibility guidelines which ensure that people with special needs can access web site content (increasing visitor traffic), and that web sites comply with online accessibility law (Clark 2003; Dubost 2002; HazaŽl-Massieux 2002; Slatin & Rush 2003; Thatcher et al. 2002; WaSP 2002; Zeldman 2003).

Designing to web standards can reduce the time, resources, and costs required for web site development and maintenance which, in turn, will improve return on investment. Separating content from presentation will bring about these savings by (Allsop & Weakley 2005; Arch & Letourneau 2002; Cohen 2003; Dubost 2002; Dubost 2003; Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; Nonnenmacher 2003; WaSP 2002; Zeldman 2003):

  • making it easier and quicker to edit, debug and modify the separate XHTML and CSS code
  • reducing the amount of coding needed to make modifications
  • making it easier to migrate to new platforms
  • eliminating the need for multiple versions of content for different browsers or devices
  • enabling the use of XHTML and CSS validating software
  • facilitating the hand over of web site maintenance between different web staff

With increasing traffic on the Internet, server performance may not keep up with visitor demand and server-bandwidth may become inadequate to meet visitor demand. As using CSS will reduce the size of each web page, designing to web standards can reduce operational costs by reducing the load placed on servers and server connections (Arch & Letourneau 2002; Cederholm 2004; HazaŽl-Massieux 2002; King 2003; Nielsen 2000; Nonnenmacher 2003). For example, the Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN) converted to a CSS based design and in doing so cut 50 kilobytes from each web page. With 40 million page views per day, ESPN saved 2 terabytes in bandwidth per day or 730 terabytes per year (Cohen 2003; Nonnenmacher 2003).

Designing or redesigning to web standards

It is easy to design new web sites to web standards but it may seem daunting and unrewarding to convert existing web sites to web standards. The transition to web standards is, however, inevitable and the benefits of converting far outweigh the inconvenience of change (Cohen 2003; Holzschlag & Kaiser 2002; Nonnenmacher 2003).

Step 1: Learn about web standards

Step 2: Choose and declare a DTD

Allsopp, J 2004, HTML, XHTML, semantics and the future of the web, Open Publish, 29 July 2004
Web page: westciv.com/style_master/house/good_oil/xhtml/

Home page DTD

Home page DTD

Note: HTML 4.0 and 4.01 counted together

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Step 3: Separate content and presentation


Allsopp, J 2004, HTML, XHTML, semantics and the future of the web, Open Publish, 29 July 2004
Web page: westciv.com/style_master/house/good_oil/xhtml/

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Step 4: Validate, test and check

Allsopp, J 2004, HTML, XHTML, semantics and the future of the web, Open Publish, 29 July 2004
Web page: westciv.com/style_master/house/good_oil/xhtml/

Valid home page HTML/XHTML

Valid home page HTML/XHTML

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Home page accessibility

Home page accessibility

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Images

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Page weight

Home page weight

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Links

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

TextTrust Pro spell checking

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Commonly misspelt words

Australia 404
Business 399
Information 388
Accommodations 348
Government 315
Activity 292
Management 287
Administration 231
Identify 231
Available 207
Commission 206
Committee 175

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Search engine traffic

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Web site visit duration

Web site visit duration

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Maxamine visitor rating

Maxamine visitor rating

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Australian Government CUE

2006 e-Government strategy, responsive government: a new service agenda
http://www.agimo.gov.au/publications/2006/march/introduction_to_responsive_government

Consistent user experience
http://www.agimo.gov.au/branding/cue

Consistent user experience: common navigation elements and legal statements
http://www.agimo.gov.au/branding/cue/navigation

Consistent user experience: page structure and accessibility
http://www.agimo.gov.au/branding/cue/structure

CUE: branding

CUE: branding

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

CUE: utility navigation

CUE: utility navigation

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

CUE: legal statements

CUE: legal statements

Dispain, G 2007, A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, December 2006, Canberra Web Standards Group

Developing a CUE

Summary and what's next

References

Allsop, J & Weakley, R 2005, Web essentials CSS workshops; day 1, web standards foundations, Web Essentials, Sydney.
Arch, A & Letourneau, C 2002, Auxiliary benefits of accessible web design, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/WAI/bcase/benefits.html>.
Bos, B 2005, Cascading style sheets home page, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS>.
Cederholm, D 2004, Web standards solutions; the markup and style handbook, Friends of Ed, Berkeley.
Clark, J 2003, Building accessible websites, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Cohen J 2003, The unusually useful web book, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Dubost, K 2002, My web site is standard! And yours?, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/QA/2002/04/Web-Quality.html#Standard>.
Dubost, K 2003, Web standards switch or how to improve your web site easily, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/QA/2003/03/web-kit>.
Goto, K & Cotler, E 2005, Web redesign 2.0; workflow that works, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Grannell, C 2005, Web designer's reference; an integrated approach to web design with XHTML and CSS, Friends of Ed, Berkeley.
HazaŽl-Massieux, D 2002, Buy standards compliant web sites, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/QA/2002/07/WebAgency-Requirements>.
Holzschlag, ME & Kaiser, SE 2002, What are web standards and why should I use them?, Web Standards Project web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.webstandards.org/learn/faq>.
Holzschlag, ME 2003, Cascading style sheets; the designers edge, SYBEX, Alameda.
Jacobs, I 2005, About the World Wide Web Consortium, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/Consortium>.
King, AB 2003, Speed up your site; web site optimization, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Krug, S 2005, Don't make me think: a common sense approach to web usability (2nd Edition), New Riders, Indianapolis.
Nielsen, J 2000, Designing web usability, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Nonnenmacher, F 2003, Web standards for business, trans. S Troeth, Web Standards Project web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.webstandards.org/learn/reference/web_standards_for_business.html>.
Slatin, JM & Rush, S 2003, Maximum accessibility; making your web site more usable for everyone, Pearson Education, Boston.
Thatcher, J, Bohman, P, Burks, M, Lawton Henry, S, Regan, B, Swierenga, S, Urban, MD & Waddell, CD 2002, Constructing accessible web sites, Glasshaus, Berkeley.
Veen, J 2001, The art and science of web design, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Web Standards Project (WaSP) 2002, WaSP fighting for standards, Web Standards Project web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.webstandards.org/about>.
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) 2005, HyperText Markup Language (HTML) home page, World Wide Web Consortium web site, viewed 24 September 2005, <http://www.w3.org/MarkUp>.
Zeldman, J 2001, Taking your talent to the web; a guide for the transitioning designer, New Riders, Indianapolis.
Zeldman, J 2003, Designing with web standards, New Riders, Indianapolis.