What is HTML? In Plain English…

HTML is a basis of web development

HTML – HyperText Markup Language – is the language for website creators creating web pages. Strictly speaking, it’s not the only language webmasters should know – far from it – but definitely the most important one. Without knowing it (or XHTML, its variation) nobody can create as much as one webpage looking even slightly prettier than a page of unformatted plain text. The WWW as we know it would never exist without the invention of HTML.

People unfamiliar with web design often ask if HTML is some kind of a programming language. The answer is, no, it isn’t. It’s a markup language that consists of tags and attributes that tell the browser how to render the web page. One of the possible examples of a tag is a <p> tag that means “paragraph”. At the start of every paragraph we should put a <p> tag (and opening tag), and at the end of the same paragraph, the </p> tag (it’s a closing tag). Attributes are placed inside tags to give the browser more information about tags. For example, the following code produces a hyperlink to Google: <a href=”http://www.google.co.uk/”>Google</a>. Here, <a href=”http://www.google.co.uk/”> and </a> are opening and closing tags of the link, and href=”http://www.google.co.uk/” is an attribute telling the browser where the hyperlink should point.

The first version of HTML was suggested by Tim Berners-Lee (a famous person and a genius respected by everyone who works online and specialises in any Internet-related things). It happened in 1990 and 1991, but it wasn’t until 1995 that HTML was officially recognised as a standard to be supported by browsers and other web software. That was HTML 2.0. Currently, the most popular standard is HTML 4.01 (published in 1999), and webmasters are already waiting impatiently for HTML 5.0, which promises to give them a lot of new tools that will make web pages still more elaborate and attractive.

Like everything in the world, HTML develops continuously, and, as the browsers become more sophisticated and support published standards better, webmasters change their approach to how they use HTML. In the past it used to be the norm to use HTML for visual formatting of the web text, and tags like <font> with various attributes setting the size and colour of the font were widely used. Today the accepted approach is that HTML should be responsible mainly for semantic markup (to tell the browsers and other software where the paragraph begins, where it ends, where numbered and unnumbered lists are, etc…) and the presentation should, wnerever possible, be delegated to CSS (Cascading Style Sheets – another language that good webmasters are expected to speak). Using CSS, a webmaster can change the way the texton the whole website looks by changing just one line of code, whereas with pure HTML and font tags it would take changing a lot of tags on a lot of pages – and countless hours to do so. In HTML 4.01 the <font> tag is considered deprecated.

Another example of transition to semantic HTML is gradual rejection of HTML tables (built using <table>, <tr>, <td> and some other tags) as the means of controlling the layout of webpages. A few yers ago table tags were used by nearly everyone to control how many columns the webpage should have and what width, height and colour they should be, as well as the header’s and footer’s design and navigation menus. These days, it’s considered extremely bad coding style, and the accepted approach is this: tables should be used to hold tabular data and nothing else, and the layout of webpages should again be controlled using CSS. This way of coding webpages is not very easy and requires a professional webmaster, but it’s more semantic and accessible and has some other advantages. More and more websites are built this way.

When the search engines analyse the content of web pages, they strip HTML tags to find textual content. They are good at that, but the less HTML code they have to remove, the higher the chances that they will determine the purpose of the webpage correctly. So, good webmasters strive to make their job easier by using “light” HTML markup and keeping the number of tags to the minimum. The idea of semantic markup goes hand in hand with this – that’s why such markup is considered more search-engine friendly, apart from other advantages mentioned above.

Let’s suppose you are seeking to build/rebuild your website, and your prospective webmaster is talking to you about table-free HTML or search engine friendly code. These terms should no longer sound Greek to you – what’s more, now you can assess the importance of these factors for your future project. Our other articles will explain in detail what CSS, JavaScript, PHP and other terms mean to you.

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