When it comes to designing webpages, be it for a personal blog or for a full-blown commercial website, the web designer is faced with a dilemma:
- The less code you can have on your webpages, the faster they will load. Hence, even the top websites ignore standards on a regular basis.
- The more structured your webpages are, the more accessible they will be to screen readers, aggregators, search engines, and even to browsers. This often means more code.
I gleefully call this the Speed vs. Accessibility Paradox. However, there are two good reasons for why you may not have given it conscious thought, or probably hadn't even realized that it exists.
Firstly: the consistent demand for loading web pages and web-based applications faster. Web 2.0 and beyond presents and insists on a fluid, desktop-like online experience. The number of readers who do not use screen readers or scripts to gather information far outweighs the number of those who do. Browsers will ignore most common markup violations anyway, and in addition, web pages are no longer expected to behave as documents per se -- database management systems have evolved enough to handle that department, and some of the great ones are free.
Secondly: history, and practice. It all started when, overwhelmed by the popularity of the World Wide Web in its early days, there was a desperate need to include stylistic markup in HTML pages, e.g. <font>. The browser wars escalated the trend of deviating from HTML specifications, and although CSS eventually kicked in, no browser today is 100% standards compliant yet. Therefore it's no wonder that many web designers continue to ignore web standards; likewise, there seems little chance of deprecated HTML/XHTML tags becoming obsolete overnight.
It goes without saying that the trade-off between reducing code to make web pages load faster and including code to adhere to standards and improve accessibility won't have a significant impact on the site's performance -- unless of course the site in question draws in a large traffic on a daily basis and could do with some optimization (such as search engines, which constantly need to improve), or is seeking to explore a potential audience.It's up to the web designer to choose which factor to compromise on, and how much.
In this series I'll look at some 'foul styling', i.e. using XHTML tags to sidestep CSS when we can, and some ways to make your web pages more accessible to screen readers and regular readers alike: