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People, Processes, and Change

Content Management Systems and Web Standards

Jim Byrne
Guild of Accessible Web Designers

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines a set of standards for publishing content on the Web. The standards relate to the code used for adding structure to web pages, how those pages are presented to users, and scripting languages used to add dynamic elements to those pages. This article discusses why web standards are important in relation to Content Management Systems (CMS).

The need for web standards

CMS vendors are constantly repositioning their products to align them with the latest buzz-words and industry fashions, so it's easy to be deflected from concentrating on the most basic, but important issues-like ensuring the web pages you create will work with the browsers used by visitors to your sites. However, no web designer or CMS vendor can predict with any certainly the type of browser visitors may use. So, what strategies can web designers and CMS vendors adopt to cope with the problem of the "unknown web browser"?

Web standards are certainly a big part of the answer because standards are fundamental in coping with the issue of visitor diversity. Following web standards in the form of pages marked up with valid code and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) provide the best chance of consistently serving content to an audience likely using a number of different "user agents". Those user agents could be anything from a standard web browser to an assistive technology such as a screen reader.

Standard markup? What's that?

There have been many different versions of HTML and XHTML since the World Wide Web was invented in the early 90s. The "rules" for using each version are encapsulated in the standards published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The rules dictate the tags (markup) you are allowed to use, in what order, and how the tags will be interpreted by web browsers. For example, text within header tags is interpreted as a heading, and text within paragraph tags is interpreted as paragraphs.

What are advantages of using a CMS that produces standard markup?

The advantages of using web standards apply regardless of the tools used to create and manage a website. However, using web standards is even more important when using a CMS because the choices you make in template design, and the quality of code generated by the system (if indeed the system generates code) can end up propagating across hundreds, if not thousands of pages.

The main advantages of using web standards include:

  • Money can be saved and money can be made
  • The most obvious savings come from lower bandwidth costs; pages tend to be smaller and load more quickly. What is not so obvious, however, is that faster loading pages can also generate additional traffic and revenue. For example, when redesigned their site using web standards they estimated they would save 40,000 Gb of bandwidth per year, but they also found that advertising revenues increased. The quicker loading pages encouraged people to spend more time on the site and consequently, advertising revenues went up. [1]

  • Greatly reduced development time for future redesigns
  • Separating the structure of content (i.e., headings, lists, images, paragraphs) from the way that content is presented opens up opportunities to create multiple views of that content with little additional effort. A visit to CSS Zen Garden website ( is a must to see this in action; click a link and the page is redesigned on the fly. [2] Content management systems have always been sold based on their ability to re-purpose content. Using web standards makes this even easier, as clean structured content can be more easily re-purposed to audiences with different presentation needs.

  • Production and maintenance costs are lower
  • When following web standards, you no longer have to produce multiple versions of pages to cope with the quirks of different browsers. The time and effort previously required to create and maintain browser sniffing scripts can now be re-deployed to add value to the site for visitors.

  • Freedom from proprietary technologies
  • Using Web standards can free organizations from being held captive by browsers dependent on proprietary tags and rendering behavior. For example, IBM's move to Open Source desktop has reportedly been held back because their web-based systems were built on top of the non-standard Internet Explorer web browser. [3] Content management systems should not generate web pages that will only work on a particular browser or a particular platform.

  • Pages can be tested for errors
  • Code validators such as the W3C validator ( can check pages for errors in markup. [4] However, without standards, you can't check for errors because there are no rules to check against. The advantage of a CMS is that content creation can be farmed out to "unskilled" users (in theory at least). The disadvantage is that human error is unavoidable. Ideally checking and repair tools should be built into the CMS, because the ability to test and repair pages is essential.

  • Greater search engine visibility
  • Search engines are able to index web pages more accurately if the content on those pages is well structured. For example, when keywords appear in page headings, many search engines give extra weight to those words when indexing the page. A web page where headings are improperly marked up is likely to suffer in the search rankings compared with a page with the same content marked up correctly. A CMS can come to the rescue by adding structure (e.g., input forms with fields for headings and other structures) when content is being put into the storage system.

  • Content is future-proofed and backward compatible with older browsers
  • Pages built using web standards will display more consistently across browsers and platforms, including older browsers. Your content will not necessarily look the same in an old non-standard compliant browser, but the bottom line is that the content will still be available.

Web standards can help make pages accessible to disabled people

The de-facto guidelines for measuring the accessibility of a web page are outlined in the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Checkpoint 3.2, a Priority 2 checkpoint states, "Create documents that validate to published formal grammars." [5] If you want to ensure that your sites conform to at least AA WCAG-a minimum requirement, for UK local government sites, and recommended for educational sites-then using standard markup is a requirement.

If you spend time making a website accessible, does that mean you will have to compromise on visual design or hold back from incorporating interactive features? Absolutely not. This is one of the biggest myths about accessible web design. Accessible web design is about being flexible in your approach, about offering more, rather than fewer choices. For example if you are thinking of adding video to your site, then great, go ahead. However, you also need to think about how you can increase your audience reach by offering the content of that video in alternative ways (e.g., by providing a transcript or close-captions for deaf or hearing-impaired individuals).

Accessibility is where you really cash in if your CMS uses standard markup and CSS for presentation. Not only can you present the same content in many different ways, but visitors to your site can decide for themselves how they want to access it. For example, they can increase the size of the text, change colors and contrast, or substitute their own style sheets to create entirely new designs. Designing in flexibility is key to accessible web design, and it is also the most efficient approach because you can't possibly anticipate the diverse needs of every visitor to your site.

Accessible sites that use web standards can look great

Examples of great looking and accessible website are showcased every month on the Guild of Accessible Web Designers site at [6] The winner of the March 2005 Site of the Month is the World Wide Fund for Nature's Earthly Goods Online Store ( Previous winners included Haringey Council ( and the National Crime Squad website ( Many more accessible and well designed sites can be found by visiting sites created by Guild members, e.g. Minz Meyers, Research Kitchen ( [7]


A CMS should help rather than hinder attempts to create standards-based web pages. It should provide ways of marking up content in a standard compliant way, for example, by using a WYSWYG tool or by interfacing with other tools, or provide a way to transform existing structured content automatically into structured web pages. Ideally there should be tools to clean up content entered by users, for example, when content is cut and pasted from Word documents, and to highlight errors, allowing them to be fixed.

Efficiently managing a large website implies the use of a CMS-so make sure the next one you pay good money for gets the basics right-and helps you to publish pages that will be available to all of your potential visitors.


[1] Real life savings through Web Standards, posted 30th July 2004:

[2] CSS Zen Garden:

[3] IBM goes silent on Linux desktop effort:

[4] W3C validator:

[5] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Checkpoint 3.2:

[6] Guild of Accessible Web Designers:

[7] Many more accessible and well designed sites can be found by visiting sites created by Guild members:

Additional resources

Copyright 2005, The Rockley Group, Inc.