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Technology issues that affect your business

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Can't We All Just Get Along?

Why some browsers may be misreading your website, and what to do about it.

by Heather Gooch, PositiveYarn.com (October 4, 2009)

(Note: Heather Gooch is Vice President of Gooch & Gooch LLC, an editorial and social media marketing firm. At www.positiveyarn.com, you can sign up for her free monthly e-newsletter, Positive Yarn's Tips & Tricks, which she attempts to make viewable on all browsers.)

Retailers who are communicating with their customers via frequent website updates and email newsletters are to be commended, because it's not always an easy task. There's a matter of choosing content that keeps suppliers happy (no playing favorites) and readers interested ("What's in it for me?"). There's also the issue of browser display compatibility, or making sure the design as it displays on your computer screen looks like it should on all of theirs.

Have you ever opened an email and found it nearly impossible to read because of question marks or other symbols where a quote mark should be, or found the text breaking up in weird places, off to the side or words simply missing completely? Rest assured, that's not how it looked to the sender when he or she sent it.

HTML is a programming language, and like any language, has its own rules. Too often, users inadvertently break them. Sometimes it's the software that displays the email newsletters that break the rules. HTML5, a new set of standards being put forth by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG, http://www.whatwg.org) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, http://www.w3.org) is supposed to fix a lot of these problems.

Microsoft has said that it will support HTML5, which is a huge boon to the potential implementation of the new standards. Back in the late 1990s, when Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser was one of the few choices users had, Microsoft used its own version of HTML. Some of this code, while forward-thinking, did not follow the then-agreed upon standards of the W3C. This led to the majority of websites being designed for optimal viewing only on Internet Explorer. Remember back just a few years ago when every site you visited had a disclaimer saying "Viewed best on Internet Explorer"? They weren't kidding.

Now that Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and other browsers -- including those on smart phones -- are becoming more popular, there are more incompatibility issues than ever. And unfortunately, HTML5 has been at the "Last Call" stage of review since 2008. The Internet is still operating under HTML 4.01 standards, which were issued in 1999 and updated in 2001. That's way before YouTube, Twitter and other Internet phenomena entered the fray.

If that weren't problematic enough, one of today's most popular email clients, Microsoft Office Outlook, used to use Internet Explorer to render HTML-based emails. But with the distribution of Outlook 2007, they began to use Microsoft Word's 2007 HTML renderer, due to security concerns. That created even more issues, such as animated gifs not animating, forms no longer able to be embedded in email, etc. On the other hand, any messages composed in Microsoft Word's HTML renderer were nearly guaranteed to look the way the author intended.

So, what's a small business to do?

The best line of defense is to do a multi-platform test of your e-newsletter or Web page before it gets mailed/goes live. Is it as accurate on a Mac in Safari, Firefox, and Chrome as it is on a PC in Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome? How does it look on an iPhone or Blackberry? See whether some family or staff members are willing to be your guinea pigs, at least at the onset. Once you get a template down, it's unlikely you'll have future issues -- at least until the next browser update debuts.

When you do discover issues, either at the test phase or by feedback from your customers, you'll have to decide whether the differences are negligible enough to live with. In fact, this is where knowing your audience can be a great help. If you know most of your customers are opening your e-newsletters on a Windows PC, Mac-related bugs may not be worth wringing your hands over. In fact, many companies are choosing to limit their Web presence to a Facebook page to reach a wide audience on a platform that's already been tested to view just fine, regardless of browser.

Blame it on a free market: Different pages are going to look the best on the browsers for which they're designed. But by doing some homework and following the rules, you can rest assured that you'll have mass appeal.

(Note: Heather can be contacted at heather@goochandgooch.com .To read previous Tech Topic reports, click on the titles in the right-hand column.

xxx

 

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