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Validation Isnt Everything

By: Rick Vidallon at Visionefx

Submitted on Thu, Jul 20th, 2006 12:00 am

Like it or not, industry jargon often coughs up terms that become buzzwords. When this occurs—and it occurs across the board; web development is no exception—the terms can become diluted, even ambiguous. Two such terms lately include "validation" and "web standards." To be clear, the W3C provides specifications and recommendations, not mandates. In a rigorous sense, it can be argued that true web standards do not exist: they are a myth. Scary word! But don't be alarmed. Don't confuse myth with falsehood. So-called "web standards" are a myth in the sense that they describe an oft-repeated ideology that strives to establish popular convention.

Thinking optimistically, we might call these an ever-evolving ideal, something we as a community are still working toward perfecting. What we have, at present, are de facto guidelines, principles that serve an objective without being legally enforceable.

If a house's wiring and electrical components are not UL-listed, the home inspector may refuse to issue occupancy permits. When ISO compliance isn't met, products don't ship. These are high stakes. On the other hand, in the face of invalid web markup, websites march on. The overwhelming majorities of surfers don't bat an eyelash and don't need to.

Provided the developer has written functional markup, failure to meet W3C validation means nothing more than the fact that a document contains something that is either not in the specification or is in disagreement with the specification. Invalid markup is therefore not necessarily in violation of anything. These strong words—"invalid," "violation"—may pack a punch to the layman, but in context of the web developer's lexicon, they reflect markup that may be an addition to the specification or something the validator simply doesn't recognize. Certain JavaScript that is universally understood by user agents, for example, does not appear in the HTML specifications.

Let's not misunderstand. Poorly formed HTML can be a hassle to update. It may be a factor in search engine optimization (whose "standards" change often, to the chagrin of SEO subject matter experts). In some cases, it can cause content to load slowly (or appear to load slowly). Validators are great for quickly spot-checking possible deal-breaker gaffes among copious volumes of markup. But validators are servants, not masters. W3C badges are effectively academic badges of honor. Such validation is an admirable enough goal, but is not always worth the return on investment in a production environment. Far more important is to ensure that markup is efficiently written.

Let's see if the big boys agree.

Google and Yahoo! handle some of the thickest traffic on the market. As of this writing, neither site complies with the W3C validator. How about heavy-hitters CNET and eBay? Failed. Adobe's and Macromedia's websites? Failed. What about php.net and python.org? These are the home bases of open-source developers who themselves rely on evolving quasi-authorities like the W3C … but no; these sites fail, as well. How about netscape.com? Staffs of Netscape Communications Corp. are members the W3C, after all, and Netscape is responsible for JavaScript, one of the worlds's most widely used client side technologies. Yet their site does not comply. Surely useit.com, the site of the esteemed usability guru, Jacob Nielson, is compliant. Surely! Guess again.

W3C validation is not the web developer's Holy Grail. Validation does not guarantee a site will look the same from platform to platform, from browser to browser. Validation does not assure that markup is efficiently written or adheres to a given entity's assessment of best practices. What it means is that the developer has coded a functional document and used no markup in addition to that specified by the guidelines. Wearing suspenders in addition to a belt isn't illegal, it's just … extra. No harm in that, is there?

About the Author

Rick Vidallon
Visionefx
Rick Vidallon is President of Visionefx, a Web design company based in Virginia Beach, Va. They provide services to national companies as well as small to medium businesses throughout the United States. Rick can be reached at (757) 619-6456 or rick@visionefx.net.

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