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Designing Documents for the World-Wide Web

This article is part of a series about developing for and publishing via the World-Wide Web. The series begins with An Introduction to the World-Wide Web.

In designing their Web pages, all publishers must comply with legal and technical requirements while attempting to maximize the value provided by each page by making pages accessible and useful to the greatest number of potential potential users. Some of the most significant topics for consideration are addressed below.

Publishing works via the World-Wide Web is fundamentally no different than publishing them using any other means. The same basic rules of law apply, though with some additional caveats.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The first of the legal caveats that all Web publishers should recognize are the effects of the United States federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Among many other things, the A.D.A. requires that all Web pages be equally-accessible to those with physical disabilities or handicaps. Yet, many entire Web sites are not accessible to handicapped users per A.D.A. guidelines.

The most notorious and prolific culprits are the many Web site designers who – apparently oblivious to even the existence of the A.D.A. – require all potential users of their sites to download and run the Adobe/Macromedia Flash plug-in. This makes the site's information inaccessible to search engines, those wishing not to use the plug-in, those using computers not supported by the plug-in, and – most importantly – those unable to use the plug-in due to physical handicaps, which thereby violates the A.D.A. and exposes the operator to severe liability. (Any practitioner with such a callous disregard for the basic laws governing his or her craft quickly becomes guilty of professional malpractice.) One prime example of how not to publish using Flash-enabled content is the Texas Renaissance Festival Web site.

Any Web site may easily include Flash-enabled content, but the home page and all other information should be presented in an A.D.A.-compliant text-based format. Any Flash-enabled content may only duplicate the information already presented in A.D.A.-compliant form.

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act

The next major legal issue that all Web publishers should recognize is the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which regulates the collection of information by Web sites and other online services directed toward children under 13 years of age. This act effectively requires that all Web site operators establish and publish a privacy policy, and that the policy is readily accessible from all pages through which data is collected.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property includes any idea reduced to tangible form. On Web sites, this includes works usually protected by copyright and trademark law. Copyright violations include the republication of works – such as text, images (including Yahoo! or Google maps), animation, music, or video – without the consent of the copyright holder. Trademark violations include the use of a trademark (or "service mark") without the consent of the mark's owner.

Technical Considerations

The World-Wide Web represents a subset of Internet data communication. Technical standards for Web publication are established by the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C).


The W3C provides a free validation tool to aid Web publishers. (See the "W3C" validation icons near the bottom of this page.) This tool should be used to validate all pages published on the World-Wide Web.


The registration and use of domain names are regulated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which offers rules and procedures to resolve disputes through arbitration, though they largely duplicate existing federal laws and provide worse service at much higher costs. (For an example, see the "Syncopated Software" Domain Name Dispute.)

Usability Considerations

The World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommends several Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. In short, these guidelines (at the time of this writing) include the following recommendations, which are listed in order of their "checkpoint" number.

Summary of W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
1.Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
2.Don't rely on color alone.
3.Use markup and style sheets and do so properly.
4.Clarify natural language usage.
5.Create tables that transform gracefully.
6.Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
7.Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
8.Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
9.Design for device-independence.
10.Use interim solutions.
11.Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
12.Provide context and orientation information.
13.Provide clear navigation mechanisms.
14.Ensure that documents are clear and simple.

In addition to the above, Syncopated offers the following additions, clarifications and amplifications.

Use Descriptive Link Text

As mentioned above (and in W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines checkpoint 13.1), most linked text – especially those found in bodies of text – should briefly describe each link's action, and never a non-descriptive term such as "click here". These descriptions should ideally include a noun and a verb, as in the sentence, "For more information, contact Syncopated".

Show Results, Not Implementation

When given the name of a directory, most Web servers typically attempt to display an index to the directory. If the directory contains an index file, the contents of that file are presented to the requestor. Otherwise, the server presents a listing of files in the directory.

As with all other areas of computer science, designers of Web sites should take great care to facilitate future developments by revealing as few of the mechanisms behind their implementations as possible. For example, one should publish or link to only "" instead of "", leaving it up to the Web server to determine which file to use and allowing the designer the option to later change the implementation to use server-side directives (as "index.shtml"), scripts, and so on. Similarly, by publishing or linking to only "", one could implement the destination as a single page (resolving to "") or an entire directory (resolving to "").

Designers should also use care to avoid inadvertently revealing the contents of entire directories by placing an appropriate index files in each directory and/or configuring their server programs not to display directory listings. (In doing this, also remember that obscuring file names is a relatively poor mechanism for securing files.)

Prevent Senders of Electronic Junk Mail

Syncopated strongly recommends against publishing electronic mail addresses on Web pages. About 95% of the electronic mail Syncopated regularly receives consists of unsolicited and unwelcome commercial ("junk" or "Spam") messages, most apparently from automated senders, and nearly half of the messages of this type are sent to addresses that have been published on Web pages (with or without mailto: links). The presence and correct configuration of software needed to send Internet S.M.T.P. messages (those send via mailto: links) is not ubiquitous, and is usually not included in Web browsers.

Instead, Syncopated uses – and strongly recommends using – a mechanism that allows users of its Web site to send brief messages via a simple Web-based form; see this example on Syncopated's contact page.

Wait to Stream Media

To create the greatest utility for the greatest number of potential users, Web publishers should attempt to minimize the computing resources needed to access their pages. So, Web pages should never attempt to play sounds and, ideally, should not display animation unless specifically instructed to do so by the user.

As another unfortunate counterexample, the Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg Web site automatically plays music to all users. Though, to the publisher's credit, the music is only a low-bandwidth MIDI sequence.

Design Outsourcing

Many publishers choose to delegate much of the design of their Web sites via contract to vendors outside their organizations through a process commonly referred to as outsourcing. (For further reading on business management, see An Introduction to Business and Operations Management.)

Before hiring a developer, the prospective publisher should research which potential vendors are available and qualified to perform the work. When seeking service providers, this vendor qualification process usually involves reviewing samples of each potential vendor's prior work. Specifically for qualifying Web site developers, this should include verifying that the work for which credit is claimed was actually performed by the vendor, and that the site meets all legal, technical and client requirements, including those described above.

Design Grading

One may quickly evaluate the quality of Web sites (and through them, their developers) using a process such as the following:

  1. Check for compliance with these basic requirements:
    • Markup: Test the site's home page using the The W3C Markup Validation Service. If the home page fails this test (like most, unfortunately), the site obviously fails to meet the minimum technical standards established by the authoritative source. If the site's home page passes, you may also want to test other pages on the site.
    • Accessibility: Check for violations of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Americans with Disabilities Act. If the site uses Adobe/Macromedia Flash files, attempt to view all of the information available on the site using a computer that does not have an player installed. For testing accessibility, Watchfire offers several automated validators of accessibility and more; for non-commercial pages, designers may use the no-cost WebXACT.
    • Privacy policy: Check for the presence of a privacy policy on (or linked from) the site's home page and all pages through which data is collected (such as Syncopated's contact page); without one, the site will likely violate the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and possibly other privacy laws. Additional functionality may be added by following recommendations in the W3C Platform for Privacy Preferences 1.0 (P3P1.0) Specification.
    • Check for obvious infringement of intellectual property, including copyright and trademarks. Copyright violations include the republication of works – such as text, images (including Yahoo! or Google maps), animation, music, or video – without the consent of the copyright holder. Trademark violations include the use of a trademark (or "service mark") – other than as a descriptive identifier – without the consent of the mark's owner.
  2. If none of the above faults are found, note the presence of any of the following faults:
    • the privacy policy is not immediately accessible (at least from the home page),
    • non-descriptive link text (such as "click here"),
    • broken (non-functional) link,
    • typographical errors ("typos") including misspellings, etc.,
    • electronic mail address (in linked or non-linked text or image),
    • automatically playing media (audio and/or video), and/or
    • advertising or other ephemera of the site's developer.
  3. If seeking to hire the site's developer, contact the site's operator to verify that the site was substantively developed by the party claiming credit.

In ranking others' sites, Syncopated uses the traditional American academic letter grades "A", "B", "C", "D" and "F" – with "A" being the best and "F" being a failure – subtracting from a perfect score one-third of a letter grade for any detected occurrence(s) of each non-critical fault.

For information about publishing Web pages on-line, see Publishing on the World-Wide Web. For more general information about communication and publishing, see On Effective Modern Communication.

For information about selecting a local vendor for outsourced Web site development, see Austin Area Web Site Developer Rankings. (For general information about business management processes, see also An Introduction to Business and Operations Management.)

For other related information, see also On Intellectual Property, On the Formatting of Dates and "Syncopated Software" Domain Name Dispute.