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Improving the web; Blogging, Google and Web standards

The web has really changed the way we do things. Remember those paper timetables? No need for them anymore, we simply type in our destination on a box and get a step by step guide for what to do. Finding recipies? No need to look through books any more, just type in a few ingredients on your favourite food site. The examples are countless but there is no time for us to sit back and relax just yet. The web can be improved. We can get more people to publish their stuff online, we can get better tools for finding relevant info, and we can make the information accessible to more people. In this article I’m going to talk a little about each of those three points.

We need more information

We need more information. People will argue and say “No, there’s enough junk online already” but I don’t care. More information is a good thing. The web is currently not a good representation of the world at large. The is a million technology weblogs and five about shoemaking. Another million sites about how it’s like to be a teenager today and another five about life as an 80 year old. You know what I’m getting at? We need a wider variety of people on the web, not only people that are just like us.

Another thing to remember is that text only is one facet of information. With today’s bandwidth available we can look at live video from all over the world. We can listen to live radio and music just as easy as we read the web. We then have a look at availability. I’d say that at most one out of 1000 people publishing on the web is using something else than text (This site is no exception). I know that there are people out there that have a video camera, that have a microphone, and know how to put it up on the web. But they don’t.

This lack of variety in information is a real problem. It builds barriers towards people we just don’t know anything about and it fools us surfers to believe the world is smaller than it seems. “No, there can’t be any problems with the Chinese government, we would have heard about it!” or what about “Christianity must be the biggest religion, just look at what people are writing most about”.

There are ways the tackle this problem and the concept of blogging is one of them. It makes it easy to almost anyone, anywhere to just start writing in a few minutes. You can be anonymous, you don’t have to tell the truth, there’s no age check and it doesn’t cost you money. This opens up to real diversity on the web. The technology exists, what we need to do is get people online and make them use it. So tell your friends to pick something they love or hate and blog about it. We need more information.

We need relevant information

The next step, after we have gotten a larger and more diversified web, is to start filtering it. I’m not talking censoring here, I mean filtering in the sense to “filter what you want”. This can be tied to a certain task you want to accomplish or it can be a strong interest of yours that you want to follow. It doesn’t matter which, what matters is that there are ways to easily find relevant information.

There are many ways of determining relevancy on the web and the one most successful is linking. Links are like recommendations; anyone that links to a site is telling their readers a certain site is recommended. It’s relevant for the subject at hand and it contains good information. If you are just looking for random information about something looking at a few links might be enough. For example, if Roger Johansson links to something web related I can be pretty sure it’s good.

For more task oriented queries we need something else. If someone is looking for a plane ticket they will probably not know who the authority in that area is. Google is the search engine that has had the greatest success with solving this problem and the solution is simple. Gather the recommendations for as many sites as possible and reply to queries with what most people recommend. Just think about it, if 100 people recommend FlyPlane and 1000 people AirFlight, who would you go for?

In reality it isn’t that simple, but in essence that’s how search engines work. Something that is important to note is that the system encourages people to write good content. Why is that? Simply because good content gets linked to, and more links means it’s probably more relevant. This way Google and all the others are actively encouraging people to improve the web. Good, isn’t it?

Making information accessible

So, we have lots of information from all over the world and we have the tools to find the most relevant info at any point. The last step is actually delivering the information to our users. This is where web standards come to play.

In the early nineties browser makers raced to get the coolest new features included in their browsers. The result was things like blinking text, different methods of representing “layers” and scrolling text. Web developers had a hard time keeping up with browser differences and often you had to construct two or more separate pages to send people to depending on what browser they used.

The W3C acknowledged this and presented a solution. Instead of browsers trying to find the coolest additions, let a standards organization handle the new additions. Let hundreds of people sit together and discuss new ideas long before they are implemented. When everyone has had a chance to say their meaning and problems has been eliminated you release a document presenting the new features together with implementation details. Now the browser makers can race over who supports the most recommended standards instead, and webmasters can just pick a set of standards that is well supported. One way of doing things instead of many incompatible ones.

Right now, the current recommendation is to use the strict versions of HTML of XHTML for structure, CSS for design and Javascript for behaviour. Using those standards means that your site is accessible by more than just the few browsers you have tested with. Both people and automated crawlers that that are after just your content can easily skip your design. People with old browsers will still be able to view your content, even though they don’t see the design the still get the content.

If you adopt the recommendations I mentioned above you have gotten quite far, but there is more. Accessibility is an area in web development that has gotten far too little exposure. It’s focused on making it easier to people with various disabilities, varying from broken arms and color blindness to dyslexia. Previously people cared about old browsers, it’s time for a shift towards caring about people instead. Read up on accessibility, Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Accessibilty is a good start.

In summary

I’ve gone over three areas where I believe there is space for improvement on the web.

  • More diversified information. Get your friends on the web!
  • Better tools for filtering all the information depending on what we need. Build new and better tools for doing this!
  • Use web standards and care about accessibility. I try to help in this area with the help of this blog.

Now I’m interested in your comments. What do you think? Are there more areas we need to look into?

Friendly Bit is a blog by Emil Stenström, a Swedish web developer that occasionally gets ideas of how to improve the internet.