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Web standards: where they came from and why they exist

Web standards: where they came from and why they exist

Web standards are a set of practical guidelines to ensure the web is accessible to as many people as possible. Learn the best practices for applying them.

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Web standards: where they came from and why they exist

Web standards: where they came from and why they exist

Web standards are a set of practical guidelines to ensure the web is accessible to as many people as possible. Learn the best practices for applying them.

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Written by
Webflow Team

If you’ve ever switched between browsing on your smartphone and your desktop, accessed the internet on a slow connection, or found a website using Google — you’ve benefited from established web standards.

One reason for the World Wide Web (the web)’s prolonged success is the standards set during its inception. When Tim Berners-Lee started hosting public pages on private servers in 1989, he made the earliest version of the web standards we rely on today. Without these established standards, the internet experience would vary widely across devices, locations, and internet connections. 

Let’s explore some of the history behind web standards and learn how to adhere to them when creating for the web. 

The creation of web standards 

After his initial creation of the WWW, its use continued to grow. In 1994, Tim founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is an international committee made of member organizations (businesses, nonprofits, universities, governmental entities, and individuals) with full-time staff working to develop internal standards and improve web-based technologies. 

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) also contributed to the first web standards. It formalizes solutions to global challenges, such as environmental, health, safety, and energy management standards. It also identifies international standards across industries, including some aspects of the web. 

Soon after the W3C and ISO came the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) — a nonprofit organization that sets standards for information and communication systems, such as programming languages and data exchange between systems, to ensure web page interoperability and more. 

Together, these organizations formalize standards for all the web’s content and use. 

What are web standards?

Web standards are the specifications that define the WWW, including best practices for web development and design. 

Before W3C and accompanying bodies set these standards, there weren’t rules for content creation or site structure. Now, websites are built to meet the same standards to ensure they’re compatible across browsers, censorship-free, and accessible to as many people as possible.

Why were web standards created? 

Web standards were created to formalize all pages across the web and create ethical standards for creation and use. The first three web standards might sound familiar: 

  • HyperText Markup Language (HTML)
  • Uniform Resource Identifier (URI, aka URL)
  • HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP)

From its inception, the W3C agreed that all web-related technologies would be free to use. Once governing organizations set standards and Tim Berners-Lee worked out how to link between servers, web browsers popped up by the dozens, servers by the thousands, and web pages by the millions.

Today’s web standards are more varied than the first three, but they’re all based on five early ideals

  • Decentralization: Anyone can post anything online without explicit permission from a governing body. 
  • Nondiscrimination (net neutrality): The same level of communication should exist across platforms, no matter how good or bad the internet service is. 
  • Bottom-up design: Code should be developed publicly, encouraging collaboration and experimentation.
  • Universality: All computers should speak the same language, no matter where they’re located or who’s controlling them.
  • Consensus: Everyone involved in the technical aspects of the web must agree to use web standards. 
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5 of today’s most common web standards

Thanks to web-focused governing bodies, several standards are common across the web. The most common ones are terms you might be familiar with, regardless of your web development experience:

1. HTML

HTML is the web’s publishing language — every page is written in it. There have been several iterations: 2.0 enabled cross-browser functionality, 3.0 and 3.2 extended the original language, 4.0 added accessibility options, style sheets, and an improved framework. The most current version, 5.0, launched in 2014 and allows for faster, more complex sites and web applications. 

2. XML

Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a web language that allows for more personal definitions of web page elements rather than the fixed nature of HTML. That personalization is why XML is most commonly used for machine-to-machine rather than in-browser communication. 

3. XHTML

Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) mixes the style sheet, accessibility, and internationalized concepts from HTML 4.0 with the stricter syntax rules of XML. This language separates structure and presentation, enabling reprocessing of content to display on different browsers and devices.

4. CSS

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) replaced early HTML style sheet elements. Some websites assign each site element (e.g., header, page body) a style sheet. Others use a master stylesheet covering every element. CSS defines the appearance of each component or section. It also takes up less file space than old HTML style sheets and is easier to organize. Nearly all websites use CSS to define their appearance.

5. WCAG 2.0

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outline how site creators can make the web more accessible. These accessibility guidelines include adding alt text to images and captions to videos, for example. The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are also an ISO standard, meaning countries that maintain ISO technical standards should formally adopt these guidelines. 

Why we need web standards

Web standards benefit both the people who use the web and those who build for it. Adhering to web standards and following WCAG guidelines improves search engine results and accessibility while supporting evolving technology and design flexibility. 

Web search visibility

Web standards ensure sites are easily indexed and accessed by search engines such as Google or Bing. 

Google, for example, uses site crawlers that comb your content to figure out what it’s about, where numbered lists are, what words are on each page, etc. From this information, it decides which keywords your content is relevant to and where to put your website in its search engine results pages (SERPs). Since 93% of all website traffic comes through search engines, being indexed correctly and placed high-up in results is crucial to your site’s visibility. 

Accessibility

HTML accessibility options and WCAG’s guidelines help as many people as possible effectively use the web. This is excellent for users, and increases your target audience. 

Versatility 

Technology evolves quickly and web standards help the web keep up and accommodate different devices or browsers 

Design flexibility

CSS reduces web design size across devices and increases loading speed by sitting separately from the website code. This makes it easy to change fonts, colors, and other design elements without altering web page structure. 

Best practices for standardized web design

Here are some tips on following web standards throughout your web design process: 

  • Use an accessibility checklist: The best way to embrace web standards and create content for all is to ace accessibility guidelines. Use an accessibility checklist to ensure your web design considers people with unique needs. This includes offering text translation or designing elements for vertical display or right-to-left layouts to make websites viewable to as many people as possible. 
  • Create mobile-friendly designs: Creating responsive designs expands your target audience, as 49.8% of people access the web on their mobile phone more than their computer. Review best practices for responsive web design to ensure your site automatically alters its appearance and elements depending on the device and screen size. Consider your load time as well — most users bounce if a page takes more than four seconds to load. You can compress and optimize your images or choose a high-performance website host to quicken your site’s load time. 
  • Share your code: Open-source content builds upon one of the original tenants of web standards: bottom-up design. If possible, share your website’s code in forums or on open-source dev platforms like Github to promote accessibility and collaboration. Another user might have a more streamlined way of creating a diagram, for example, or you might help a web designer break through a tough design problem. 

Follow web standards without writing code

Complex coding isn’t as necessary as it used to be to make appealing and intuitive sites. While some organizations might still write HTML, Javascript, and CSS, increasingly more people are turning to no-code or low-code tools.

Webflow's visual development platform enables people to build for the web while keeping an eye on adherence to web standards like WCAG guidelines. For more information, check out our free course, Accessibility on the web.

Last Updated
March 1, 2023
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