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How to Build and Develop a Website: Web Standards

Why develop a church website? Because there are a hundred other churches in your city.


History of the Web

In 1989, the World Wide Web was born. Tim Berners-Lee, a young technologist from London, had developed one of the world’s greatest information systems. Five years would pass before the web reached critical mass. When it did, the invention joined the ranks of other technological advancements in media: print, the radio, the television, the satellite. Web-based search engines revolutionized the way we acquire information. Instead of reaching for Britannica, most of us now reach for Google.

The web rapidly became a primary source for commerce as well. Five short years after the web became popular, the dot-com boom was in full swing. Businesses, funded by venture capitalists speculating that wealth was near-certain, swarmed to the web. Ultimately, the economic recession of the first years of the 21st century burst the “dot-com bubble”, but the web, a free media, was never stronger.

Today, more than 1 billion people worldwide use the Internet [source: Internet World Stats]. Much of this traffic flows across the web. Because the web is so vast, it is imperative that its foundation be solid, reliable and durable. The web is primarily comprised of three things.

1.) The Hypertext Transfer Protocol. HTTP is the protocol that data packets use to route traffic across the vast network.
2.) Uniform Resource Locator. The URL is basically an address for a web server that displays information.
3.) HyperText Markup Language. HTML provides the framework for constructing and displaying the pages of information that are the heart of the web. Because of its foundational nature, HTML is very important.

To publish information on the World Wide Web, HTML is the necessary ingredient. And the “language” of the web hasn’t really changed that much over 17 years. In fact, it was built to last. Berners-Lee’s original work has stood the test of time.

The W3C and HTML

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an organization that creates standards and supplies best practices for web developers. Since 1994, the W3C has provided crucial guidance for the development of the web. Web developers are served with information about how to efficiently and effectively craft websites that adhere to the standards set forth by the consortium.

Developers who make the choice to create sites based on these standards adopt certain practices while they “code” in HTML. Pages are constructed in a modular form, where the source code is broken into distinct chunks.

There is also a hierarchy of the information presented in the source code. The same hierarchy applies to the page content and is visible when the HTML is rendered in a browser as a visitor views the page. This system of hierarchy is known as semantic HTML. This means that the web developer uses HTML appropriately rather than abusing it to produce something different than the code was constructed to produce. One very common example of abuse is the use of the <table> tag to create the layout of a page. The <table> is reserved for displaying actual tabular data within the body of content, but is often abused by developers who use it as a shortcut to create a grid-based layout for the page itself. No no.

If used appropriately, HTML should simply present a base of well-organized titles, subtitles, content and hyperlinks. Another language, called CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is responsible for the visual presentation of the content, including arrangement, spacing, color and typeface. A huge part of web standards is this idea of separating content and presentation. A well-built site will “gracefully degrade” to pure content if the presentation layer (CSS) is removed.

So, web standards even reach beyond the primary language of the web, HTML, and into other languages like CSS. The eXtensible Markup Language (XML), which is light and modular and used in many applications including RSS feeds and podcasting, is also guided by the W3C.

The Importance of Web Standards

“Why are standards important?”

Great question. I’m glad you asked.

First, standards are standards. That is excellent news for all web developers. If I create a website that adheres to web standards (and I always do), another developer can follow my work and immediately develop on the same system. There is no learning curve to try and figure out why “that other guy” did this or that. The next developer can pick up right where I left off. For the same reason, standards are also perfect for team development. Everyone is together and there is never a conflict over “development style”.

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Second, standards make sense. Ready for a complete redesign of your entire site—every single page? Great. Your work is easy. Build new CSS files and upload any new graphics. You’re done. Because you’ve opted to separate content from presentation, you only touch the presentation layer (CSS) to re-style the site. Touch content (HTML) when you need to change content. It’s that simple. Small site-wide changes are even easier. The old method embedded the style values directly into the HTML. That causes such a headache. Imagine changing the color of every link on the site. You’d have to change many lines of code on many pages. But with web standards, you change one line of code in your presentation layer and the style of every single link on the site shifts accordingly. Beautiful.

Third, standards promote accessibility. In the Summer 2007 issue of RELEVANT Leader , I discussed the importance of accessibility. Long story short, we need to make certain that our websites can be accessed by anyone, on any device, using any browser. It is important to pay attention to the fact that not everyone uses the web the same way. Blind and sight-limited persons use screen readers to access content. Mobile devices are ubiquitous and now they connect to the web. There are browsers and more browsers to choose from. All of these things raise issues of accessibility. The good news is, web standards are the perfect start to creating an accessible site. There will still be some considerations, but with standards the first step is an easy one.

Fourth, standards are the coolest way to get your search engine rankings up. Because search engines and web indexers use automated scripts (like computer controlled “bots”) to scour the web and index content, it is important that these “crawlers” be able to easily access the content of your site. If you’ve got poor coding practices and big, hairy Flash-animated splash pages preventing search engines from even reading your content, you’ll never find relevance in search engine rankings. To the search engine, you’ve got nothing there, so why deliver traffic to you? If you take a standards-based approach, you won’t deal with those obstacles and search engines will crawl and index your content with ease.

When I re-designed and re-developed TheaterChurch.com in September 2006, we moved from an outdated content management system and code base and into a modern web standards approach. This one simple decision proved to be very valuable for us. Prior to the re-develop, we ranked worse than 100 on related search engine queries like “church dc”, etc. Within weeks of our conversion to a standards-compliant site, we were in the top five search results for relevant search queries. In some cases, we were number one.

Why? There are tons of churches in this city. Why is NCC the most relevant result when there are hundreds of great churches that fit that same search query? To me, the answer is simple. The search engines index every page of our site with ease. They calculate how rich our content is and compare it to other content on the web that it deems to be relative to the search query. Because some churches have yet to adopt good web development practices, our content is ruled to be more relevant to those terms than the other options the search engine has to present. Of course, it’s not about competition. We just hope people who are searching for answers on the web find a Bible-based church and, more importantly, discover a relationship with Christ. But I’m excited for a day when all ministries leverage the power of web standards. It will be powerful.

For more information on web standards, visit the W3C’s resources on the www.web.w3.org and www.webstandards.org . If you’d like to know how Christian ministries are using web standards or if you want to view sites that are built to perfection, visit www.godbit.com .

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