Response to Scott Elliott
byon 3rd Jun 2010 at 10:01 (4010 Views)
Today's Courier (PDF) features a letter from a local web designer by the name of Scott Elliott, followed by a response from myself. I've pasted them both below (if you've already read them, skip down to the full rebuttal):
I couldn't agree more with David Bowler's front page statement in the Courier last Thursday when he refers to a "third world power supply". However New Zealand is more like a third world country than many residents realise. I'm referring to website development and technology use in particular. The quality of websites that I have viewed in the Waikato is nothing short of appalling.
Most small businesses don't have an internet presence at all. Many of those that do have websites are written so poorly that the site is more likely to turn readers or customers away before the first page even loads.
Have the authors of these sites never heard of the W3C and are they unaware of industry standards?
It's not just the little guys either - all of these sites fail to meet the W3C standards:
Te Awamutu Online 8 errors 1 warning
Waipa District Council 98 errors 26 warnings (not bad for an organisation that enforces so many other standards);
Woolworths 102 errors 25 warnings;
Te Awamutu Chamber of Commerce 24 errors 1 warning;
Waikato DHB 18 errors 10 warnings;
Transpower 8 errors 3 warnings.
The list could be enormous and I'm not singling these organisations out for any special attention. I'm highlighting the very poor standards employed throughout most of New Zealand. Oh in case you're interested I checked out the Courier site to and it passed with no errors, well done you.
There is a reason for the standards - not everyone uses Microsoft's Internet Explorer (which does a reasonably good job of displaying most of these sites.) or a P.C. To access the internet, many use alternative browsers and devices and this is where poorly written sites fall apart. It seems the Kiwi culture of 'she'll be right' lives on.
Of course, it's all completely useless without electricity.
www.bits2bytes.co.nzScott Elliott's simplistic view of web design is very misleading. W3C compliance is a worthy goal but it is neither a requirement nor a useful measure of overall website quality. The arguments are too many to include in this letter so I have written a detailed rebuttal at www.teawamutu.co.nz. I'll only make one point here:
W3C compliance must occasionally be sacrificed for a greater benefit. For example, in the case of Te Awamutu Online, Mr. Elliott claims to have found eight errors but he failed to notice that they are all generated by external applications - namely Google and Facebook. Our own HTML code is fully compliant but we have no control over Google or Facebook, so we make exceptions to incorporate advanced functionality from these "non-compliant" websites. The "errors" are inconsequential while the benefits to our users are significant.
Understanding the situations that require this type of compromise is a critical part of web design. When Mr. Elliot gets a few clients under his belt he'll begin to appreciate this reality. In the meantime he can busy himself fixing the 12 spelling and grammatical errors on his own home page.
Te Awamutu Online
The full rebuttal
Let me begin by acknowledging that Te Awamutu Online is imperfect. It is, after all, a community-driven website produced by volunteers and we always consider it a work in progress. It would be fair to criticise many aspects of our website, but Scott's criticism is unfair.
I'd also like to say that I have no appetite for public spats like this one. I would have preferred Scott to contact me privately - we could have had an enjoyable, productive conversation. But by going directly to the media and dumping on our website to promote his own business, he has set a different stage. He has publicly implied that I am incompetent so I am publicly defending myself, vigorously, with the following rebuttal...
Scott's criticism of local websites is based entirely on the fact that they fail to meet W3C standards. He implies that this makes them unstable or even unusable. The truth is much more complex.
What are W3C standards?
W3C is the name of an international consortium that recommends technical standards for browsers and websites. There is no requirement to follow their recommendations but it is a good idea to do so. Basically it helps to keep us all on the same track and avoid the nasty browser/website incompatibilities that plagued early versions of Netscape, Internet Explorer, etc.
If a web page is 100% compliant we say that it "validates", i.e. the underlying HTML code is 100% valid as measured by an automated test. You can test any web page at validator.w3.org.
Should web designers comply with W3C standards?
Yes, where possible. The Internet would be a much better place if all web designers made the effort to validate their web pages. However, sometimes it's not possible without unacceptable concessions.
In short, all web pages should either validate or have a justifiable reason for not validating.
What are these "errors" and "warnings"?
They are instances in a web page's HTML code that don't meet W3C specifications. In themselves they do not create any actual errors on the web page and the warnings do not indicate any danger - they only exist as a guide to help web developers.
Why do web pages fail validation?
In most cases it is due to poor quality control, as Scott says. The problem with Scott's position is that he has labelled all non-compliant websites as somehow "broken", which is not true.
Here's one example of why a good website can fail: The current HTML specifications are very limited, meaning that in order to create advanced website features, developers must often create new code that is not covered in the specifications. This is far from ideal but done properly, no problems occur. Browsers that can't understand the new code simply ignore it.
Scott claims that Waikato and New Zealand websites are particularly appalling because many of the "big" websites fail. He neglects to mention the big international sites that also fail, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, CNN, BBC News and just about everyone else. Are all their web developers incompetent? No, they realise that functionality wins over validation.
What happens when a web page fails validation?
Nothing. As long as the web page has been tested thoroughly it will display correctly. Of course if the page is actually broken, as opposed to just failing a validation test, that's a different story.
Why doesn't Te Awamutu Online validate?
If Scott had bothered to look further than our home page he would have noticed that, with a few exceptions, the rest of our website does validate. Our home page fails because we decided to incorporate functionality from Google and Facebook, which both fail due to the proprietary code they use*. In other words, the "errors" come from Google and Facebook, not us.
We stand by our decision to prioritise website functionality ahead of pedantic validation issues.
BTW, as Scott himself pointed out, the Courier website validates. I'm not sure if he realised that it's part of Te Awamutu Online.
Why is Scott Elliott so concerned about W3C standards?
Because his web design company uses W3C compliance as its main marketing strategy. I actually think that's a good idea - we could do with more designers who care about standards. All other things being equal, I'd recommend going to such a designer. However Scott has crossed the line between promoting best practices and promoting misleading information.
Scott Elliott is very critical of other people's mistakes, so his own track record must be super-clean, right?
At the time of writing this post, Scott's website is littered with serious spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Personally I'd rather employ someone who can spell-check than someone who can validate HTML.
In addition, his website fails basic accessibility tests; for example, there is no way for a screen reader (for the visually impaired) to read the navigation menu. There are also other errors such as hyperlinks that go nowhere. These are bigger problems than failing validation.
Scott's company is a new entrant into the web design market. Apparently he is seeking local clients, in which case I suggest that he tries to make friends with the business community rather than attacking their professionalism. Members of the Chamber of Commerce, for example, are unlikely to be impressed that he criticised their website without knowing all the facts.
I don't make websites for clients but I'm often asked for local recommendations. I usually suggest Design onQ or Deni Vanin. (Any others? Let me know.)
Okay Scott, I've said my piece and I'm going to leave it at that. Despite the tone of this post I'd still be happy to meet you for a chat. It's a small town and we both have to live here, so why not see if we can make it work a bit better? Who knows, maybe we could put this sorry incident behind us and work towards a more mutually beneficial relationship?
The strive for excellence should be a cooperative effort. People like you and me should be sharing experience and learning from each other in a friendly environment, not bagging each other in the media. I'm up for a change of pace if you are.
Manager, Te Awamutu Online
* I know there are workarounds to make FB & Google Calendar widgets validate but all the ones I've found involved ugly hacks - not an option IMO. If anyone knows how to make these widgets validate cleanly, please let me know.
* The next generation of web pages will use a new specification (HTML5) which is far more powerful - this should help a lot in allowing advanced features to validate.
* Technically I've misused a few words (e.g. code vs markup) but for this type of blog entry I prefer to use terms that are more likely to be understood.
* Regarding the various pages in our site that don't validate, there's a long story behind each of them - too long to bother with here.