HTML Basics (First Steps)

HTML is (typically) what browsers interpret to display web pages. I’m not going to cover syntax in (many of) these documents, the purpose is to give a sense of structure. Also, don’t get peeved if I play a bit fast and loose with the terminology. If you want to know the deets, check out w3.org.

While HTML used to contain presentational markup like font and center tags, those are gone. b, i, hr, s, small, and u have been redefined “to be media-independent.” People realized that not everyone has access to two working eyes, and screen readers may have difficulty figuring out what, on some cluttered page, might be important.

Thus, HTML is now almost entirely semantic The style attribute and style element exist, but should be considered developer tools rather than production tools.

When writing a new, modern, compliant HTML document, one thing to keep in mind is that it should be usable without any styles beyond the browser’s defaults. Heck, take a look at it using lynx or some other text-based browser. Is it still understandable? Does the most important content still jump out at you? If it’s buried under menus and polls and input boxes and RSS feeds, you might want to move some things around.

If you worked with DTDs “back in the day,” you might recall starting all your HTML documents with something like

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01//EN" "https://www.w3.org/TR/html4/strict.dtd">

This helped during the big browser wars on whether or not to use “quirks mode” to render a page. Now that things have settled down and we’re left with little browser skirmishes instead, HTML 5 simplified things to just

<!DOCTYPE html>

For a little bit of historical context,  browsers used to use the DTD to validate HTML as a subset of SGML. Browsers don’t implement HTML as SGML, though, so who needs a DTD?

There are rules specifying whether or not some elements are required, whether the start or end element can be omitted, but for sanity’s sake, just use them.

Things that are encouraged:

  • Include a “lang” attribute in the HTML element (see here, here, and here for more information)
  • Include a meta element to define character encoding (this tag must be closed within the first 1024 bytes of the beginning of the file)
  • Include a meta element defining viewport, but do not restrict users from the ability to zoom! (The latter part is just bad form, but I’ll explain the why for the first part in the next article)

Thus, your minimal document should look a bit like this:

<!doctype html>
<html lang="en-US">
  <head>
    <meta charset="utf-8">
    <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width,initial-scale=1.0">
    <title>Document Title</title>
  </head>
  <body>
  </body>
</html>

There are lots of other things you might want to add to your document header. Make it look good on Google, have a shortcut icon when people bookmark your page, including open graph data for Facebook, titles for Twitter, and more. I might touch on them later, but if you’re interested, they might be worth a look.

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