Should a content contributor know (some) HTML?

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Yes, I think so. There, I said it. Admittedly, it's a selfish opinion since it would make my life at work as "the web guy" a lot easier. However, I also think it would improve the quality of websites in general.

Number one with a bullet...point

  • Semantic utopia, MS Word copy/paste reality
  • Technical or training solution
  • Does it really matter?

My experience pits dreams of having 100% semantic mark-up vs the reality of content editors copying and pasting MS Word documents (and thus, ugly code) into the site. Before we even talk about the quality of HTML, let's admit that sometimes it doesn't even get that far. Many contributors are perfectly satisfied emailing you their finished MS Word file and they just want a link to it somewhere on the website. A user can then visit the site, click the link and the Word file opens up. Brilliant. The content contributor doesn't know (or care) about the fact that not everyone has MS Word or that it makes their content harder to index in the CMS or that it's just bad form to have a website that is really just a collection of links to your company's Word and Excel files.

That's one kind of content contributor but it's likely they only deal with the website on a haphazard basis. Another kind of contributor is the one who has actual access to the CMS and copies & pastes from Word files into the CMS's wysiwyg editor.

The Cruel Copy & Paste Reality

Copying and pasting content from MS Word into a CMS's wysiwyg editor is better than just linking to a .doc file, but the resulting code should make most professionals cringe. It is bloated and ugly, to say the least. Better wysiwygs do an ok job of cleaning it up but it's not like you can depend on the resulting HTML to be clean. I admit, I haven't made an exhaustive search for the galaxy's best Word-cleaning wysiwyg editor, but I have looked at several and I have concluded a wysiwyg holy grail may never be found. For me, this means that either Microsoft has to "semanticise" the HTML spit out by Word or content contributors, who enter their own content, need to be taught how to enter it as clean, semantic HTML. Therein lies a big problem.

You Expect Me to do What?

If having semantic HTML is a goal, then where does the responsibility lie? Let's take a media relations worker as an example. How do you convince someone whose job is to write press releases to also give the words a semantic structure before they publish it to the website? Their job is generally to get the words written and released a.s.a.p. - adding the semantic step just takes more time. How it looks and is coded on the website isn't their problem...except, maybe it kinda' is...or should be. (perhaps they should be forced to create the content in a semantic wysiwyg editor?)

One alternative is having them pass their Word file to an "HTML jockey", perhaps in the form of a college co-op student or fresh-out-of-college "new media" graduate. But how many companies are willing to hire someone just to convert word-processing files to semantic HTML? Not many, I figure.

The next alternative is to pass the responsibility, if I may be so bold, up the pay scale to the webmaster. (assuming some people still use this term) Depending on the size of the site, this is an obvious bottle neck and a waste of the webmaster's time. In this case, I'm defining the webmaster as someone more concerned with the inner workings, maintenance and performance of all the company's web properties and servers. It's a bit like asking the president to wash his dishes after a state dinner. Sorry to say it, but he's got more important things to do.

This isn't 1998

I hope this dates me, because I do remember when websites were run by "webmasters" and the webmaster was some guy in the IT department who happened to know how to edit the website. Sure, there were progressive companies who had web teams and a web strategy, but for laggards, having any kind of web presence was good enough. Any and all content was sent to the webmaster and (likely) he just published it and forgot about it. Obviously that has now changed.

Websites are the focal point and main communication channel for most businesses and leaving that in the hands of a backroom geek is a marketing executive's worst nightmare. In fact, the pendulum has swung pretty far in the other direction and now legions of non-geeks are allowed to get their hands dirty in the site's CMS and the resulting code can give self-respecting web standardistas cold chills.

A Middle Ground

Expecting content contributors to learn HTML flies in the face of making web publishing dummy proof. The problem with making things dummy proof is that it allows dummies to use them. But hey, we're not talking about dummies, we're talking about skilled, paid employees. All of their resumes surely have points about being computer-literate. Why not expect them to be HTML literate? It is the web's de facto language and seeing as we live in a world where the web is pervasive, shouldn't people who publish to websites know something about it? Is it such a huge step to expect them to learn to mark up headings and sub-headings as h1, h2, h3 etc.? Having them be aware of the content's semantic structure (and web-writing in general) could help the overall quality because it makes you think of the logical flow of the content. Better semantic structure = easier and better reading.

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