To Dream, Weave, or Read The Front Page?

Written by Jamie Harrop

What You See Is What You Get Editors (referred to as WYSIWYG editors from here after) are programs that have been written specifically to aid in the development of Websites and their components, I say components as in this day and age database management and script setup have major parts to play within the editors.

Many beginners to the Web development scene believe WYSIWYG editors are a real lifesaver, so did I when I first stepped upon this impressive adventure, (that some call Web development), and I hate to say it, but I guess eight or nine out of ten people were in the same situation as me. As you begin to advance and talk to fellow Web developers, of whom have a little more experience than yourself, you begin to wonder if WYSIWYG editors are the way to go. The aim of this rant is to save you from wasting time learning the ins and outs (and shake it all abouts if you like) of WYSIWYG editors, instead, skip this stage, in the next ten minutes you will realise that WYSIWYG editors are not the way to go.

What do they do?

In the simplest terms, they allow the end user to ‘drag and drop’ elements of a Website including images, text and scripts. ‘Drag and drop’ is quite a broad term to use as it covers things such as the standard insert picture tool. By all means, there are methods of dragging a button and inserting it on your Website to insert something specific such as an effect or script but it also covers those other things.

Despite the main aim of WYSIWYG editors been to allow the end user to see their Web page developing as they develop and make the whole process simpler (some may argue, me included as you will find out) they also have a ‘coding’ tab where you can hardcode your web site. This hard coding within the editor is fine with me and most other web developers, just as long as you don’t mix the WYSIWYG interface with the hard coding interface.

Examples!

There are many different WYSIWYG editors around. The two that are considered to be the most well known are Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia Dreamweaver. FrontPage comes now with most Microsoft Office packages whereas Dreamweaver is available for download at a hefty cost of $400 from Macromedia’s web site.

Before I go on let me put things straight regarding Macromedia Dreamweaver. Macromedia have done a very good job, compared to Microsoft with Frontpage, in abiding by standards and accessibility guidelines. I certainly won’t go and say they haven’t because it isn’t true, I am also aware that Dreamweaver can be configured to produce valid code amongst other things. Therefore, I will say here, as long as the developer knows how to handle Dreamweaver to get it to abide by the things I rant about here, I have no problem with it.

Why Am I Against Them?

I am a firm believer in abiding by W3C’s Web standards as well as trying my best to allow for maximum accessibility within Websites. Generally, WYSIWYG editors, upon designing in the WYSIWYG interface rather than hard coding, do not stick to these beliefs I, and many other Web developers have. A side note, it is not me and the other developers been awkward, we are, in theory, doing the correct thing by developing Websites according to standards and taking accessibility issues in to account. By doing this we do much more than help the user, often we actually help ourselves in matters such as the possibility of a visitor suing the Web developer as they cannot access the Website. This can be, and has been done successfully.

Take Microsoft FrontPage for example, I am not ‘attacking’ Microsoft here at all (that is my next rant) but because FrontPage and Internet Explorer are both Microsoft products, many of the features that FrontPage harnesses are built in to the system to work specifically and solely within Internet Explorer and no other browsers.

Based on published figures, Internet Explorer harnesses somewhere in the region of 90% of all Web users (as I and many developers have said before, we would love to challenge this figure, but, as of yet, there is no information to back our opinions, partly the reason why Microsoft and others can continue to present the 90% figure). So, that is at least 10% of your visitors down the drain, bang, bye bye. Now, lets put this in to perspective, 10% may not seem like a great deal. But, think, lets say a Website receives 10,000 visitors per month (may sound a lot, in fact, quite an achievable number). That is 1000 visitors the site could miss out on per month. Now, lets say that the web site is an online store, before hand, the company had done some research and worked out that on average 65% of their visitors to their web site bought a product, that means the company would have lost out on 650 sales in each month if their Website is accessible via Internet Explorer alone. Now, if you are a positive thinking person and are still not convinced that FrontPage is a bad thing, lets assume the company did some more research, they worked out that on average a product from them costs $15. So, 650 multiplied by 15 is 9750. That means the company will lose out on $9750, on average, each month. That is $117,000 (One Hundred and Seventeen Thousand Dollars) per year. Here is the killer punch, the average lifespan of a business is 100 years (or so some people say), so, 117,000 multiplied by 100 equals: $1,170,000 (One Million One Hundred Seventy Thousand Dollars). This is how much a business could lose out on during its lifespan. In shock yet? Here is the number for your local emergency services, 911.

With that said I will continue to talk about WYSIWYG editors in general rather than singling out FrontPage. Another reason for my hatred is the fact they generate code that, well to put it simply, is a shambles. It is not so much the fact that the code they produce is not valid, although that would improve it significantly, but it is the way there is so much pointless coding and useless nonsense inserted within the source. I often see Web pages designed with WYSIWYG editors that contain so many tables they wouldn’t fit in to The Queens dining room! I often wonder to myself whether it is the program that sucks big time or whether it is the programmers who inserted the commands to create the source that suck, I suppose, thought about accurately, it has to be the programmer behind the editor that is poor as it is the programmer that creates the program, I am sure that will be challenged by the programmers themselves though.

Despite all my ranting about accessibility issues, Dreamweaver, for one, has attempted to do something about it, certainly a lot more than what FrontPage has. Macromedia’s web site has a whole section dedicated to Dreamweaver’s accessibility. It’s quite ironic though that Macromedia’s order section does not allow the user access while using Opera.

Specific Advantages Of WYSIWYG Editors

Not many, but I have managed to come up with a few:

Efficiency – Some will say that it improves efficiency, I tend to disagree from my level as I would always have the need to come back and correct the code and bugs, therefore increasing the time taken to develop the Website. For those not bothered with accessibility and standards (I’m tempted to say you must not care about your visitors either, woops, I just did) then this probably won’t affect you, God forbid if you take this route even after my rant above.

Education Of HTML – Valid point, it does not require the need for the end user to know or even understand HTML and its subsidiary languages. But, if you ask me, learning HTML is far less complicated than dealing with customer complaints in the form of them not been able to access your Website.

Specific Disadvantages Of Using WYSIWYG Editors

Notice how these outweigh the advantages:

Standards – Most, if not all WYSIWYG editors do not comply with Web standards. I haven’t actually gone through the advantages of complying with standards but here is an interesting one I found from an external source,

“Complying with Web standards can give your Web pages greater visibility in Web searches. The structural information present in compliant documents makes it easy for search engines to access and evaluate the information in those documents and they get indexed more accurately.”
Source: Webstandards.org

This could once again come down to revenue, depending on your business type, been high in search engine rankings could effect how much revenue you receive, complying to standards, according to the source above, helps search engines access and evaluate the information within your Website.

Accessibility – If you decided you would only read this section of the rant be sure to add another to the read list, the ‘Why Am I Against Them?’ section has a very clean idea on how accessibility issues can cost you and your company big bucks.

Half-Baked Coding – As explained above, the coding is usually pretty shoddy. This may not be a big deal for the likes of a beginner but within the Web development industry, visual design is not everything. The underlying brick and mortar is your key to the first half of success.

Valid Coding – To add to the poor coding you could try running a Website made in a WYSIWYG editor through a validator. I could almost bet my left hand (I need it to keep boring so many people with rants like this) that you would be thrown a handful of ugly errors. Obviously those Dreamweaver gurus who understand and use the program effectively can argue with good grounds on this point.

So, the question still remains, ‘To Dream, Weave, or Read The Front Page?’ My answer, none, open notepad and learn HTML!

Anyway, that’s me nearly over for another day. In return for you listening to me mumble on about endless things I have provided a list of very useful links.

http://www.webstandards.org – The Web Standards Project
http://www.iwdn.net – The International Web Developers Network
http://www.htmlhelp.com – The Web Design Group, Making The Web Accessible To All
http://www.meyerweb.com/eric/css/edge/ – Eric Meyer’s CSS/Edge
http://www.w3.org – The W3C

Thanks for reading!