We're too big for web standards

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Many web designers are familiar with css and the benefits it brings. Style sheets separate of content from presentation which result in many benefits such as shorter code, easier maintenance, and not to mention the fact that search engines find cleaner code easier to spider. Web accessibility is becoming a hot topic and can even break into mainstream news particularly when a large organisation fails to provide accessible content. They can, and do face legal action by being in breach of the DDA and section 508 (usa).

The Big Players

In this brief article I set out to find who, out of the top ten big names on the Internet are conforming to web design standards by using css, or at least, are making some effort to provide accessible content. If they're not, why not? If they are, to what degree are they using css? I'm also interested to find out which web pages are designed using out-dated table layouts.

The ten company websites I am analysing are Google, BBC News, ebay, Amazon, MSN, CNN, Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL and Lycos. For each I am going to investigate the following;

  1. Document Type Declaration : Is there one defined? If so which version of HTML / XHTML are they coding in.
  2. Valid Code : Are they using code which follows the guidelines laid out by the W3C? Failing to do this can produce unexpected results in different browsers. Or course a DTD is essential for the code to be valid, if one is not present I see no reason to check it's validity.
  3. Alt Attributes : Is an alternative text description given to images - this can aid visually impaired users as they may use screen readers. The alt attribute would replace the image, so in many cases it's not appropreiate to describe the image.
  4. Access Keys : Are access keys used - these can help users who aren't using a mouse.
  5. Table Layout : Tables tags are meant to be used for tabular data only. Table layouts used to be very common, however, styles have evolved and it now makes sense to use css to position text on the screen.
  6. Header Tags : Header tags (<h1>, <h2>...)should be used to display your headings on each page.
  7. Use of css : I rated the level of css used (from levels 0-4).
    • Level 0: No styles used
    • Level 1: Only very basic css is used. ie. for font type and size
    • Level 2: Still basic use of css, possibility of background colours and images defined using styles
    • Level 3: More advanced styles including positioning of text
    • Level 4: Very good use of styles

The Results

Company DTD Valid Code Alt Attributes Access Keys Table Layout Header Tags Level of CSS*
Google No n/a Rarely No Yes No 1
BBC News html 4.0 (trans.) No Yes No Yes No 2
eBay No n/a Partly No Yes No 0
Amazon No n/a Rarely No Yes No 1
MSN No n/a Yes No Yes No 2
CNN html 4.01 (trans.) No Yes No Yes Yes 2
Yahoo! html 4.01 (trans.) No Yes No No Yes 3
Microsoft No n/a Yes No Partly No 3
AOL html 4.01 (trans.) No Yes No No Yes 4
Lycos html 4.01 (trans.) No Yes No No No 4

After carrying out the tests, the results showed that while some websites perhaps performed better than expected, for example, AOL which scored top, (followed closely by Lycos) produced surprisingly accessible pages. One of the most concerning results was the distinct lack of header tags being used in all but just 3 websites, particularly BBC News which clearly does have a heading on all article pages. Instead their heading is inappropriately displayed using a semantically meaningless div tag, when a header tag would have described it's meaning. A boost from search engine traffic after using a proper header tag would no doubt be noticeable if they were to fix this (CNN did use correct header tags on their article ages). Microsoft is almost using a tableless layout, I'm aware they have implemented this layout recently which replaced their previous table design.

None of the sites reviewed used valid code, amazing only 50% bothered to specify a Doctype. The site which produced the least errors was AOL. Developing their websites using css would save them money since site maintenance would be so much quicker and easier, not forgetting the massive amount of saved bandwidth because of the cleaner code. Many may overlook this, but with sites of this magnitude and traffic it would save sending large amounts of unneeded information.

Why not use valid accessible code?

It's difficult why such large company websites such as Microsoft, Amazon and ebay wouldn't make full use of css to design their websites. There's so many advantages it's hard to think why they wouldn't plan ahead and design their websites for a future. Here are my (few) possible reasons why their coding was poor;

  1. They're using in-house designers which simply aren't familiar and/or experienced enough to risk changing the site code so dramatically.
  2. They may be worried about older browsers not being compatible with newer standards.

I think in most cases it's the larger companies being slow to adopt css and web standards, and over time will comply.

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