Semantic Coding | May 7, 2004
The rise of web standards has also seen the rise of semantic coding. We’ve had it drummed into us a thousand times that <h1>’s are for headings and not for big text, that <blockquote>’s are for quoting text and not for indenting. We’re all so used to this now that we do it by default (don’t we?).
Semantic markup has been sold to us very well. The dream is that one day, other computer systems will see meaning in your code. Google will look at your headlines and think “hmm, that’s a headline, it must be important”. Speech browsers will see that something is wrapped in an <em> and will dutifully emphasise it. Using (X)HTML elements in the correct, semantic way is very laudable and long may it last.
If you’re a CSS author, you’ve probably used container elements to help control the visual display of your pages. You’ll wrap a <div> or a <span> around another element (or group of element) to act as a hook for your style. By doing this you’re adding meaningless markup to your code for display reasons. This makes you feel bad, so you’ll try to give these hooks some meaning. You’ll put all your branding code inside a <div> called branding and your main content will go inside a <div> imaginatively called mainContent.
You relax into your chair feeling glad that you’ve bought order back into the world. However, if you are anything like me (for your sake I hope you’re not) there will always be one or two rogue elements. For instance, you’ve decided to go for a two column layout. What on earth do you call their parent <div>’s? You could call them col1 and col2 or leftCol and rightCol but that just seems wrong. What if one day, via the magic of CSS, you decide to switch their position. Chaos would ensue and you’d be forced to hang up your web standards spurs in shame. Of course you know that you’ll never actually change the order, but it still niggles.
The question that springs to my mind is “does it matter?” Despite what we’d like to think, not everything has semantic meaning. Some things are purely presentational and sometimes it’s going to be impossible to completely separate meaning from display. While it’s reasonable to expect that current and future computer systems will be able to understand the meaning behind a <cite> element, is it reasonable to expect them to understand each individual authors personal semantic vocabulary? Because let’s face it, there really is no standard way of semantically identifying page elements outside the regular (X)HTML tags. As such, pretty much all this “semantic” information is meaningless. It makes up happy (and to an extent makes development easier) but it’s not really intended for anybody other than ourselves.
Posted at May 7, 2004 5:48 PM