A colleague recently lent me an awesome book about web standards, a fairly famous one, called Designing with Web Standards By Jeffery Zeldman and Ethan Marcotte. It is not your usual techy read, it makes a good case for the importance of web standards generally, addressing important counterpoints such as why are web standards still important despite that fact that browsers are willing to render code that is sometimes grotesquely invalid and despite the fact that most sites on the web are not W3C valid, or even close.
The 25 cent version of the argument posited by Zeldman and Marcotte is that coding with web standards helps improve load time by reducing file size and thus, cost of hosting. Coding with Web standards also improves search engine crawability, and helps with making your template behave consistently – site does not ‘break’ – no matter what brand or age of browser your visitors are using nor the device they’re using to view your site. In sum, it helps your site break the “build, break, rebuild” cycle as the web changes.
Benefits to Having Some Standards
It has been long known that W3C Validity is not a Google Ranking factor. Matt Cutts even tweeted once, “W3C compliance is NOT an SEO factor to Google #MattCuttsQuote #SMX”. Given that it is not an explicit ranking factor, does not mean that being W3C valid does not assist your SEO efforts.
Designing with Web Standards, shows how this may be the case, especially if you take into account the load time and crawlability portion of Zeldman and Marcotte’s argument.
Note that load time is said to be a ranking factor for Google*. Improving load time, which Zeldman and Marcotte assert is a result with complying with web standards, will thus contribute to better performance in Google. Crawlability is important for larger sites, since there is a special importance to ensuring that all of your product pages get found, while at the same time ensuring all your duplicate content does not get found ;).
By having smaller files and cleaner code, you can reduce crawl fatigue and help search engines crawl your site more deeply. One counter argument to the prior series of statements is that you only have to be as standards compliant as your competitors. My answer to that is why set the bar at your competitor? Exceed your competitors. Although being standards compliant alone will not rank you above them by itself, it is a little piece of the puzzle that helps put you ahead, It will help not just in the way of SEO (because the benefit there may be small unless you have a large or poorly formed site) but also in terms of conversion. By ensuring that visitors can properly access your site from older browsers and other devices, you’re opening your site for your customers and increasing your traffic sources creating more ways for your site to convert for you and at a cheaper price. Also this way you don’t have to rethink your whole site every time a new device is created.
Challenges and Ambiguities
Although there are benefits of being W3C compliant, there are also challenges to doing so. One of the biggest challenges is budget. This question rests on another: Will being W3C compliant move the needle enough to justify the spend?
My answer: Sometimes.
It depends on the scope of the problem. Do your pages show hundreds of validation errors? Is load time so slow that customers are bouncing? Then yeah, getting higher web standards is something worth looking into. Conversely, cases where there is a cost for designer/developer time to fix messed up <p> tags or other minor errors, it may not always be worth the cost. At least as far as getting your dollar value back for work done. It is my opinion, that most sites need not be 100% W3C valid, and the reasoning comes back to what moves the needle in terms of rankings.
Another issue that arises is with W3C validation itself. Just because code validates, that does not necessarily mean that the semantic markup is correct and it will be well understood by whatever is extracting it. One designer, Casse states that,
“I can’t count how many times I’ve rewritten VALID code because they used span tags where h2′s should be or p tags with line breaks for items more suited to an unordered list. Why? Because semantic markup that correctly describes the content between the tags is of much greater benefit than a poorly nested div is a detriment.“
The intuition from this statement and others really flesh out the general importance of clean code and using W3C valid code as more of a tool rather then a guarantee.
I also want to briefly note that there are many meanings of what it entails to be W3C Valid. There is .css markup validation and validation for the many flavors of HTML and XHTML, and now there is HTML 5 also.
Questions to ask yourself to see if YOU should care about web standards
- Do you have a short term or long term vision for your site?
- Go to your analytics software and check out your traffic. What’s your traffic from other devices look like? Then check your site from those devices, is your homepage broken? Another important consideration here is do you plan to grow traffic from these alternate sources? If so, it may save you money in the long run to include web standards in some capacity as part of your overall strategy.
- Quickly run the w3c validator on your site. Are the results horrifying?
- Make a decision and see if you want to dive in from there.
Overall your level of W3C Validation depends n your issues, resources and needs. Some of the issues involved compliance overlap with SEO best practices and those should be a priority. What has been your experience in striving for 100% W3C Validation?