Chapter 1: A brief history of web publishing

The early web was designed to be human-centric. Over its history, web content has been redefined by industry and practises – to come full circle in the modern web.

The early web

The history of the web is human-centric. It began with text content published on web pages with web addresses (URLs) providing direct pathways to content and likewise to relevant content links. Content publishers transferred traditional print and desktop publishing techniques to the web, and the web as a whole was driven by the logical structure of content through formatting with headings hierarchy. This enabled complex content to be grouped both logically and visually. Humans could scroll through large pages of content easily and digest context and meaning by skimming through headings and reading simple paragraphs. Machines could turn these formatted documents into logic trees and map context and meaning in much the same way.

Over time these web documents developed publishing patterns that were used by humans and machines to reference and link to related content. These included setting metadata to define keywords and descriptions of documents, along with lists of links to referenced or related content.

The need for the end user – the reader – was to discover content easily. A series of static documents with hyperlinks did not best serve this function. Search engines were created to make content wayfinding human-centric. Humans could enter search terms that were meaningful to them, and receive links to webpages that had content relating to these terms. Simple in its promise, search engines aimed to make finding content and meaning simple and intuitive.

Generally speaking, text-based documents were published, linked to other documents, and were crawled by search engines. The authority of a document to rank higher in search results was based on:

  1. Its relevance to the search terms.
  2. The quality of content, the quality of language used, and the way in which the document was formatted.
  3. Its relationship to other related websites through links, and the relevance of those linked pages to the search term.
  4. The reputation of the website that provided the document – for example, websites published by educational institutions, denoted with a .edu URL, have a higher reputation for quality publishing than a personal blog.

The visual web

The visual web introduced styles and aesthetic structures to these documents. The web moved from individual documents published on websites, to websites that included snippets of content. The web became a tool for marketing to audiences. The use of language with content shifted from longform, technical, and comprehensive article writing to short, sharp, emotive, business orientated language which had the primary goal of broadcasting a message.

Websites generally followed a consistent structure of page hierarchy to make content discoverable. Each website used its homepage to market its business objectives, there was an about page that told the backstory of the business and may have included the biographies or images of team members, and contact information was left to its own page – often with little context.

The industrial web

Industries defined the sort of content that was published on the web. Businesses looked to their competition to set benchmarks for their approach to creating websites, the web became introspective and fragmented primarily based on industry practises. The content consumer was ignored – content was published to game better search engine rankings. Rather than giving the user the content they wanted, businesses and their websites determined what content a user required with little to no consultation with users or research into their needs. The web was industry orientated, the user was secondary, the paradigm had shifted to the detriment of human end users.

As humans required more from their tools, browsers and search engines became more intelligent with their interpretation of content and started abstracting rich-data (contact information, addresses, people, and references) directly into search results. The same philosophies that drove businesses to target and game search keyword terms for their benefit drove their consumers away, instead opting to get content from search engine utilities such as business listings. The search engine is the user’s homepage, websites are deeper content, and maps/business listings are contact pages.

The modern web

Enter new web browsing devices, mobile phones and tablets. The web is portable and geographically aware. Users’ expectations of the web have matured and content is more distributed than before. A brief period division between general and mobile specific web content is born. Unable to shift dramatically to a human-centric web, industry targets their messages to mobile users specifically, using more direct and personal language, simpler navigation, and clearer calls to action, engagement increases and everybody wins… right? Well, not exactly. The expectations of the user for web content on their mobile device is now the expectation for content as a whole. Industry learns from these successes and applies it to their wider web presence and the web goes full circle, the human-centric web is now (once again) the focus.

The web is, at its core, a collective knowledge base written by humans, for humans. It is with this mantra that web publishing should be attempted. Web publishing should be based around clear content objectives that cover the widest group of users possible, and content should provide context as well as meaning. The web is inherently simple – content with meaning and purpose – with layers of complexity through search engines to make it discoverable.