W3C Validation: It's Not Just About Rankings
The major roadblocks to universal Web standards are browsers themselves -- they are not compatible with one another, which is what causes site-display inconsistencies. Designers and programmers have to choose among competing Web site standards, which can make their jobs almost impossible.
In the world of search engine optimization, a perennial argument is whether Google's ranking factors look for clean code in a Web site. The W3C has developed two popular tools that check Web sites for errors: The W3C validation tool looks at HTML code, while the CSS validation tool checks the CSS Style Sheet. These free tools scan all of a site's code to make sure it is compliant with current Web standards. [*Correction - Nov. 12, 2009]
Not long ago, Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer, said -- not for the first time -- that W3C Validation does not affect search engine rankings.
This will probably not be the last time Cutts confronts this question, as many people are convinced that W3C is a factor, and that having a clean-coded Web site will increase search engine rankings -- even though it's not true.
Clean code does help the search engine spiders read and understand a Web site more easily. A clean-coded Web site will guide the spider to the important places on a site and prevent it from getting jumbled up in a web of unnecessary coding.
The main reason that Google does not use W3C validation, however, is that it's concerned about browser incompatibilities. Because a Web site shows up looking perfect in Internet Explorer does not mean it will look the same in Firefox, on mobile phones, on Web TV, etc. This is a big issue for many Web site developers, as a site can look great on one computer and horrible on another.
This is Google's main issue with the W3C validation. Just because a Web site passes the W3C validation test does not mean that it will be compatible with all browsers, which is why Google does not factor this into its rankings.
Another reason that Google does not validate Web sites is that it would take considerable time to validate every page. Internet users want everything to happen instantaneously. They do not want to wait around for a slow-loading Web site when there are another million sites out there with similar information. Therefore, Google eliminated the use of Web site validation to improve Web site load time and give users a speedier and more agile search engine. This makes sense, as larger Web sites would be slowed down by the validation process, which would annoy users.
Issues like these cause a great many headaches, and tiresome trial and error is required to resolve them. Universal Web standards would make Web designers' and developers' lives much easier. Although it seems unlikely that there will be any universal Web standards anytime soon, there is hope.
There have been efforts to establish universal Web standards, but they have not yet been widely adopted. Web site designers and developers are at odds with one another because of the issues caused by browser incompatibility.
Until universal standards are adopted, there will continue to be a lot of frustration among people working behind the scenes to create Web sites that look good in every browser. This is a time-intensive, tedious effort that can be eliminated once universal standards are adopted.
Although Google engineer Matt Cutts admitted that he wished Google did validate Web pages, the reality is that a lot of sites -- even popular sites -- would not pass the validations. That could mean that operators of those pages would see their rankings drop, or they would need to redesign and recode their sites. Both outcomes can have daunting effects on a site owner.
Why is it that so many Web sites have a link at the bottom saying they're W3C-valid? They are under the impression that this adds value to the page in the eyes of customers. The big reason to validate a Web site, however, is to look for human errors that may have been overlooked in the site building process. W3C validation reveals broken links and many other important coding factors that could negatively impact the way visitors see a site.
The bottom line is that it is a good idea to have W3C validation to check a site for errors and clean up unnecessary coding. Who knows? In the next few months or years, this may become an important ranking factor for search engines, and validated sites will be one step ahead.
*ECT News Network editor's note - Nov. 12, 2009: Our original publication of this article stated that "W3C schools" developed the validation tools. W3C has no "schools" and is not affiliated with W3 Schools.
Brandon Leibowitz is president of SEO Optimizers, a provider of Internet marketing services specializing in search engine optimization.