Semantics, do we really need’em?

Perfect. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines the word perfect as Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.

As a strong advocate for web standards and semantics, I’ve been actively pursuing perfection in this area for a while now and have recently begun to feel disillusioned. After covering all the bases (read: <b>ed and <br>eakfast), and performing all the fancy tricks, it seems I’ve run headlong into the outer edges of what HTML and CSS are capable of doing. Oh sure, I still try and make the technology do more than it’s deemed able. But it’s in this territory that the “rules” get vague. For example, how well do you think HTML is able to add meaning to your content? Don’t give me simple examples of using paragraphs and headings, or emphasis and strong tags. I mean really, what’s the better choice to mark up a breadcrumb navigation menu? A nested unordered list? A comma delimited paragraph with spans around each element for styling purposes? And what of the delimiter? What denotes “a child of”? Then there’s the infamous heading debate. Which interpretation of the vague spec is best?

So what to do when …there exists a lot of room for interpretation… in the spec? Does it even matter? The U.S. Census Bureau reports 1st Quarter 2006 Retail E-Commerce Sales are up almost 5% from 1st Q 2005. In fact, they’ve been steadily climbing since 1999 without so much as a hickup during the dot com crash!

Estimated Quarterly U.S. Retail E-commerce Sales as a Percent of Total Quarterly Retail Sales: 4th Quarter 1999-1st Quarter 2006

So what does that tell us? Will standards and semantics really help a company’s bottom line? Maybe. They’ll save money on bandwidth and maintenance costs. But take a look at Google‘s markup and tell me if semantics is the secret to their success.

All I’m saying is that standards and semantics have their place, but sometimes in our zeal we don’t see the forest for the trees. Though standards and semantics make life a lot easier for the developer, and they make it a little easier on the pocketbook when it comes to maintaining a site, they aren’t what’s going to save the web and I think it’s about time that we stopped acting like they were.

In fact, I propose that we get our collective tail in gear and start developing apps that are specifically designed to take advantage of good, semantic markup. (I have a few ideas that–should I find the time–I’m considering developing.) Only then will standards and semantics really make a difference, when services won’t function without meaningful markup. Otherwise, you could throw a table, some font tags or a thousand line breaks into a pot, mix it all up and unless you view the source, it won’t matter one iota.

Tag soup anyone?

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