W3Schools and Fools

i-Commaclast logoI STARTED out to write a comparison of several free HTML and CSS tutorials on the web aimed at beginners like me. One of the sites I wanted to review was W3Schools, but when I started to look at what others had to say about it, I quickly got bogged down in the controversy surrounding W3Schools that was started in 2011 by a site styling itself as W3Fools.

I have come late into this controversy, over which a great many bits and bytes of internet space have already been used. As an amateur and outsider, I may not be entitled to an opinion on many technical matters, but as a lifelong supporter of the sceptics movement, I know the difference between respect for authority and respect for evidence, and it seems to me that the critics on W3Fools rely too heavily on their self-proclaimed authority and offer too little evidence.

The W3Fools site is an attractively designed rant supported apparently by a good number of professional developers who have allowed their Twitter feeds to be linked to the site, presumably so they can be identified as real people. But the authenticity of the critics is not the same as the proof of their message.

The arguments

On the W3Fools site itself, the main complaints are:

      1. W3Schools does not prominently display any message to
        distinguish itself from W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium), and many innocents continue to believe it is either part of W3C or carries the imprimatur of W3C.
      2. The page ranking for W3Schools is so high that it’s
        impossible to avoid it when searching for help with any kind of coding. Millions of people apparently use W3Schools, so even if the site’s SEO is behind the times, it always comes top in organic search results.
      3. Most damning, the site is said to be full of errors and does not promote the best, standards-based practices for web
        development.

On the first point, W3Fools carries some real weight because anyone can check the W3Schools site to see that its ownership is displayed only in the smallest print in the footer. (See the linked W3Schools declaration from its page footer.) This notice was allegedly added only after the controversy erupted.

It would be easy to make an erroneous connection between W3Schools and W3C. In a quick search, I came up with a site that confidently recommended W3Schools as an offshoot of W3C:

Top Five Sites to Learn CSS Online

W3Schools is a great site. They have lots of tutorials from HTML to PHP and you can be sure that everything you read is up to standards since the site is maintained by the W3C, responsible for the web standards of today.

That article was written in 2009. Although it seems unlikely that anyone would gush over W3Schools after the controversy of 2011, the article remains unchanged, like so much uncorrected flotsam and jetsam on the web.

For the record, Refsnes Data is the company that claims ownership of W3Schools. Wikipedia says it is a family-owned Norwegian company. (I have to admit to some bias here because I’m well disposed towards most things Norwegian except their appalling entries in the Eurovision Song Contest. Bring out those Hardanger fiddles, lads; they’ll go down better than Riverdance.)

In a forum discussion on Sitepoint.com an Australian source, Stephen J Chapman, has said W3Schools is basically maintained by “two ordinary people” who have no authority to issue certificates of competence in any web discipline. Considering that the site runs to hundreds of pages and covers a great many coding environments, these “two ordinary people” must nevertheless have put in a bit of earnest work. In the circumstances, mistakes are not surprising.

On the second point, the views of the people behind W3Fools look a lot like sour grapes. It really annoys the authors of this site that W3Schools is so prominent in search results. In a section titled The Road Ahead, W3Fools recommends two tricks that will filter W3Schools out of your search results. This begins to look less like healthy criticism than common censorship.

The third point, on which JavaScript experts are the loudest and most credible critics, is clearly the most important and deserves most attention. If the coding exercises in W3Schools are full of errors, these should be catalogued and exposed by critics. Even some typical examples would help. Unfortunately, the W3Fools authors don’t appear to feel any obligation to provide proof. You won’t find any concrete examples, let alone a list, of the claimed errors here. You’re supposed to take the word of these “members of the Front-end Dev Community” as they call themselves, although they don’t even provide a contact link where you can ask for more information.

Their criticisms may be entirely correct, but how is anyone to check errors that are not explicitly quoted?

It’s worth noting that, since this controversy erupted, W3Schools has apparently responded positively to some of the criticisms levelled against the site and now has a link at the bottom of every page inviting corrections. Whether valid corrections are acted on immediately, or at all, I cannot say.

Sequels

After the W3Fools site appeared, it spawned articles by other people who wanted to stomp their feet to the tunes played on the “W3Schools sucks” bandwagon. There’s Why I’m Killing W3Schools (and you can too); from the same author comes Some Details of the Plan to Kill W3Schools. Or you could try Killing W3Schools on Accidents Happen. There’s even a Why I’m Planning to Kill W3Schools Google group. Another piece is Don’t Be Fooled by W3Schools, while you can read a more conciliatory article in W3Schools: the Ugly, the Bad, and the Good.

Some of these articles are tempered by admissions that, yes, the author has actually used W3Schools and others might be able to learn something there too. Nevertheless, criticisms ranged from the clearly fatuous (W3Schools uses reflective shadows on its logos) to the irrelevant (W3Schools is constructed with outdated code).

W3Schools logo with reflected shadow
The infamous W3Schools reflected shadow

All the critics seemed to be mystified by W3Schools’ continued reign at the top of search results since much of the site looks as if it was just unearthed from a 1999 time capsule. But if you look at the site, it will lead you to one of those “Well, duh” moments: W3Schools is popular because it’s completely free (unless you want one of their certificates), and the site is surprisingly comprehensive. It wouldn’t be my first choice, for reasons I’ll outline in the comparative article I intended to write in the first place, but its popularity is based on the fact that it offers so much for so little. Well, duh.

The fact that W3Schools looks clunky may offend hipsters, but it won’t stop the many people of limited means who just want to learn a bit of HTML, CSS or the many other coding languages offered by W3Schools.

Look briefly at the alternatives to W3Schools offered by the critics. If the site offers tutorials (Code School, Tuts +, PeepCode), it wants your money. If it offers free information, it’s mostly long-winded documentation that allows no practice or onsite student interaction  (Sitepoint, Opera Web Standards Curriculum, Web Platform.org [which is unfinished] and MDN — Mozilla Developers Network). These all appear to be great references, but they’re not hands-on tutorials for beginners. (A few of the low- or no-cost alternatives, such as LearnStreet or Code.org, don’t seem to offer HTML or CSS, which are my primary interests at the moment, so they don’t feature here.)

Lots of experts also solemnly recommend that you should read through all the documentation on the W3C site if you really want to understand HTML and CSS. But let’s be honest, the W3C documentation was not written for casual learners or beginners. Its language is densely technical, almost impenetrable, unless you already know HTML and CSS.

So if you’re planning to use W3Schools, or are already using it, you should certainly take notice of the warnings about it.  But you should also ask for some specific evidence, especially since some of the people complaining about W3Schools admit they used the site to get started themselves. If the W3Schools site is deficient, it requires better constructed criticism.

Catherine Osborn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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