It’s still important to talk about HTML 4

December 8, 2010

Topics: Web Development, Web standards.

Yes, that does say HTML 4 in the title. This is not an article about HTML 5, or, indeed, about anything which is at all new. But it’s not just new technology which needs discussion in the web development sphere!

It’s sometimes hard to remember that HTML 5 is still not in common use — and that writing about HTML 5 is something which almost exclusively targets forward-thinking and experienced web developers. HTML 4 is still in widespread use across the web. If you’re looking at volume, HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 cover most of the web site editing by webmasters, internet entrepreneurs, content management systems, or on personal sites.

But, more importantly, the internet continues to be littered with tutorials on how to abuse HTML.

If you look for HTML tutorials, you will primarily find fair and reasonable articles on standards-based usage. This is good. You will not, however, exclusively find tutorials which exhibit best practices in front-end development. This is, in part, the fault of an un-revised web: the well-reasoned article you wrote in 1998 may still be present, exhibiting years of inbound links and an honest but obsolete point of view. To the undiscerning reader, the authority of your article may be more apparent than it’s obsolescence.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of deprecating web content. There’s a part of me which is hesitant to edit the past by deleting and redirecting from older articles. After all, this isn’t done in print materials — if a volume is edited and re-released, the prior version is still available. In fact, the prior versions won’t even have any reference of any kind to let you know that they’ve been updated! The web has the power to avoid that problem entirely: in theory, you can delete, revise, or redirect away from any obsolete article on the web, making it impossible for any new explorer to come across out-dated material.

In practice, however, that doesn’t always happen. The best publications focus (as they should) on producing quality new content, and let their archives stand. While this means that they retain an honest history of their publishing, it also means that authoritative publications may still be promoting outdated ideas.

Today, for example, I ran across a web site which had a professional-looking design (albeit rather generic) and offered a prominent section of HTML tutorials. The first article in the set of tutorials was discussing how to use the font element to change the size, color, and font used in your text.

It even used Comic Sans as the example for an alternate font to use. Seriously.

For obvious reasons, I’m not actually linking to this site — the whole point of my article is to try and avoid the promotion of outdated material, after all.

Now, to me, it’s fairly apparent that this article is sitting here pretty much as advertising fodder. The site isn’t one which has anything like a prominent position in results for HTML tutorial, or is a place somebody would be expected to land when looking for an HTML tutorial. But it’s there, and somebody has undoubtedly made use of it.

Is the article above a representative example?

In point of fact, a lot of web publications have behaved moderately responsibly about promoting better practices in web development. However, the actual results you’ll find in a search are all over the map — and examples like what I cited above are definitely present. In an example search for “html tutorial change font color”, among the 9 relevant results in the the top 10 included:

  • 3 sites which mentioned that the font element had been deprecated;
  • 5 sites which suggested the use of stylesheets instead;
  • 3 sites which linked to a tutorial page on Cascading Style Sheets;
  • 3 sites which linked to a tutorial page on adjusting fonts with Cascading Style Sheets;
  • 0 sites which had removed the information on changing font size with the font element;
  • 4 sites which did none of these things, and recommended use of the font element whole-heartedly;

Interestingly, not one of the results was exclusively a discussion of changing font color using CSS. None of them. In fact, only one of these articles even included information on changing colors with CSS on the page, and the example provided in that article only pertained to changing the colors of of the anchor element. This very fact should make it evident that people searching for HTML information are still very likely to come across bad information.

It’s not 1998 anymore, but 1998’s HTML tutorials are still haunting us.

It’s clear from examining the search results that the larger players in the tutorial realm (Tizag.com and W3schools.com, for example) have done some due diligence in updating their articles, which is good. However, they could do better.

The Conclusion

So, I get back to my original point. It’s still important to talk about older technology: it’s still relevant to write or promote articles which offer tutorials on simple tasks, like changing font color using CSS or properly forming an unordered list. The reason it’s relevant is because the internet knowledge base is polluted — those who are in control of outdated material should take responsibility for updating their information, ideally, but we don’t all have that power. The best we can do is continue to promote best practices in all areas.

If you think about it, a significant part of web site updating is done by non-experts: the person tasked with maintaining the web site in a small business may not be at all knowledgeable. The beginning blogger may not know anything about HTML. Their learning will still come through basic searches, starting from a task-oriented question which is probably not technology specific. Those are people we need to reach if we seriously want to improve the quality of HTML on the internet.

4 Comments to “It’s still important to talk about HTML 4”

  1. As a student years ago I created two websites as class projects. One was written entirely in HTML 4 code and I used as my source of learning the “Special Edition Using HTLM – Sizth Edition.” My other webite was written in Macromedia’s Dreamweaver version 4.

    I never went beyond a student’s interest but I started revising that interest again when I attempted to teach my 15 year-old Grandson the basics of website creation. If I recall corectly my websites were written in Windows XP.

    In Dreamweaver the HOTKEY F12 was used to view a text file as a webpage. In Windows 7 that key no longer works. I don’t remember if a text file in HTLM could be viewed the same way.

    Thank you for your help

    Bob

  2. I tend to agree. Take, for instance, the proliferation of CMS systems. No matter how much work we put into designing the site so that it conforms to current best practices, someone at the client’s company, usually untrained in web design, ends up being responsible for working on those pages that have CMS-editable content. Over a few months time, we end up wiht are pages that, although beautifully designed, littered with content that is riddled with outdated HTML tags, text nearly always centered on the page, lots and lots of colored and bold text, and (if we let them) you can be sure that something would be blinking.

    Content management systems, in my opinion, are both a blessing and a curse.

  3. YES! Agreed! It’s amazing how many people still use outdated browsers. I found a great tool from abobe that checks compatibility across all browsers (mac and PC, old and new). I found a few serious errors on my website in older versions of firefox and mac os’s.

  4. I completely agree. You can’t leave old technology in the past. For instance, the other day I checked on my Google Analytics to see that 2-5% of people are still using IE 6 and Firefox 2! It’s such old technology but people are still using it!!!

    So yes I agree we need to make sure we do keep past technology at heart and don’t forget it.