The woeful web

The web is in a terrible state. I found this out the hard way recently. I was tasked with scraping some data off various sites in Thailand. It was not a pleasant experience.

Exhibit A: the Grand Old Daddy of Bangkok malls inflicts this beauty on customers.

What's more, every time you load a page you'll see this character, for probably a lot longer than you'd like:

MBK rabbit

Trust me, that rabbit gets real annoying after two or three page loads.

It gets worse.

There's this site. The company that owns this one is a $2 billion a year company. So not exactly a fly-by-night outfit. You would have thought they could put together something better than this.

Slow, slow, slow

First, these sites are SLOW. Check out this data for the Central Plaza site tested via the excellent pingdom:

Central Plaza Pingdom

Yep, you are looking down the barrel of 46 second page load times. While testing the site I was, even with page caching, very often looking at 29 second page load times. Most definitely a 'D' for performance! Sure, your mileage may vary, depending where you are in the world, but it's still slow in my book.

By contrast, this pathetic site you are reading loads in around a second, and that is largely due to the fact I have not yet minimized my CSS file. I will be making that part of my website building script in due course. If I fixed that, page load would be milliseconds.

Poor navigation

Setting aside the less than blistering performance issues, the sites just aren't very good at doing what websites are supposed to do - provide relevant information.

Again with Central, event articles and promotions that are often out of date as soon as they are uploaded is one issue I've noticed more often that I'd like. There's also no RSS feed of events - more on this topic later. It's almost like these things are an afterthought, rather than part of an integrated approach to delivering a business platform.

Take another example - location information. First you've got to try and find that Locations page - Central don't make that a top menu item - it should be. What you really want is a web crawler friendly page of mall names, nicely formatted address information, postcodes, and consistently formatted phone numbers.

What you get (if you can find it) is a Google map. The trouble is that the drop down list of locations on the Locations page means nothing unless you already have some experience with Thailand, and you basically know which area you are in (sometimes people don't). And you might not have location-based services switched on (for legitimate security reasons), so that's no help.

To test this out, try getting the address for Central Plaza Rama 3BACKSLASH. Do you know what "Rama 3" is? I know this mall quite well as it's one of my favourites, but without that insider info I'd be struggling. It's often quite nice to be able to print out the address to give to a taxi driver. On this page you can't, at least without going through various shenanigans.

You can probably scrape together some information from this, but it's fiddly, regardless of whether you are a human or a machine.

I am not especially "picking" on these sites, they are sympomatic of what's out there generally. I've also dealt with a lot worse, believe me.

It's not all bad

By contrast here's a site that gets the location-based information right. On the Contacts page which is probably where you'll look first, they have good quality information laid out in plain text. They even double up, taking a belt-and-braces approach, and put the information on the bottom right corner of the Location page. And if you really want a map that's there too on another page.

Generally, the site loads at a reasonable speed too, and has good navigation, with a simply laid out top menu - nothing fancy - but effective. Nice and web crawler friendly, so Google likes you (they also have a sitemap) - and so do the poor unfortunates like me who have to try and crawl these pages too, and make some kind of sense of them.

Furama even include their various hotel codes such as their Amadeus code. These are useful pieces of data for uniquely identifying hotels. Well done Furama! Nice job. (As an aside I actually stayed in that hotel in 2003 when it was Tower Inn. Furama have done a great job of improving it.)

Why are things so bad?

I think there are three main reasons why things are so bad:

  1. HTML
  2. Wordpress
  3. Data hoarding

Let me explain.

1. HTML is presentational

Here's the thing everyone forgets about HTML - it is a presentational format, not a semantic format. This problem is best illustrated by a simple example. Imagine you are a web spidery thing for a moment and you saw this:

<b>Brooklyn Beckham</b>

What would you make of that text? Is it a place? Is it a name? How the hell would you know? The point here is you just know it's something that's in bold. You don't know what the thing in the bold tags actually means. If you are a human though, you can make an educated guess, based on your knowledge, that this is David Beckham's son, not a place, restaurant, hotel, or anything else. You would at the very least guess that it is the name of a person.

Now consider this:

<person>
  <firstname>Brooklyn</firstname>
  <lastname>Beckham</lastname>
</person>

You can clearly see that we are defining what the "thing" means, not how it looks - we couldn't give a fig whether it's bold or not - let CSS decide that. This markup is most definitely semantic. A machine reading this, such as a semantic indexer, would know that this is a person - it's explicitly marked up as such.

As the web mostly consists of HTML pages, the markup is mostly presentational. This lack of semantic information is tragic. It means that a lot of the information on the web today is lost - humans never see a lot of it. Machines could, but they have a hard time making sense of data in a soup of presentational markup, when what they need is semantically keyed information.

There are some companies like diffbot who are using artificial intelligence and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to try and figure out what this mess means - but they have their work cut out for them.

Microformats

There are microformats like hCard too that allow you to put semantic markup into HTML. Again this is best explained by example.

Rather than this:

<!-- Copied from Wikipedia -->
<ul>
    <li>Joe Doe</li>
    <li>Jo</li>
    <li>The Example Company</li>
    <li>604-555-1234</li>
    <li><a href="http://example.com/">http://example.com/</a></li>
</ul>

You would have this:

<!-- Copied from Wikipedia -->
<link rel="profile" href="http://microformats.org/profile/hcard">
...
</head>
...
<ul class="vcard">
    <li class="fn">Joe Doe</li>
    <li class="nickname">Jo</li>
    <li class="org">The Example Company</li>
    <li class="tel">604-555-1234</li>
    <li><a class="url" href="http://example.com/">http://example.com/</a></li>
</ul>

Without knowing much about vCard or its HTML equivalent hCard, you can see that semantic markup has been used to give the content meaning.

Really, this is the difference between the "dumb" web that we have now, and the "smart" web that we should have had.

The sad fact of the matter is Microformats (and there are numerous flavours) has had very little take up.

There are some good people, like schema.org who are trying to move things in the right direction with standards such as RDFa, Microdata and JSON-LD. But many sites don't take advantage of these standards.

This is a shame because Google and Microsoft (Bing), the big search engine players today, will make use of this information if their web crawlers see it.

Some of the big sites do use some kind of semantic markup, but most web sites out there don't. Trip Advisor for example uses JSON-LD, but I'm guessing mostly so Google and Microsoft can do a better job of indexing their site.

2. Wordpress

The second problem I want to talk about is Wordpress.

Even back in 2015 Wordpress powered 25% of the web.

This fact is not a good thing.

Wordpress is not only slow (unless you throw lots of metal and replication database systems at it), but it is potentially insecure too.

I remember a few years back testing Wordpress powered sites for fun and lost count of how many sites never removed the install.php file after installing - you could literally run that and reinstall their website for them, wiping out all their data - I suspect there are more than a few of those sites around still.

The bigger problem is that it allows people that have very little web training create sites that are both slow and insecure, as well as just poorly designed from an informational point of view. They often use a "one click install" facility, and never get near a MySQL database, unless things go horribly wrong (which they sometimes do).

Often the focus for desginers is on getting up some glossy pics (that should have been compressed more or resized) and "creating a brand" than actually providing useful information.

When the "web masters" manually test the site, they often assume that any perceived slowness (if they perceive it at all) is because "the Internet is slow", or that's "just the way the Internet is". It may well be, but their site isn't helping things.

Very often there is no information flow too, so content is manually entered by someone into a WP site, but then updates are an after thought - there is often no automatic process in place to update data. This problem is exacerbated when a third-party developer is responsible for the site - there is often a poor communication channel between this agency and the parent company, if they talk to eachother at all.

Now Wordpress is an awesome Content Management System for very large artcile-based websites. Look at QZ for a Wordpress site done right. But you are looking at a site that cost over a million dollars to develop and costs a shedload of money each month to keep running. They are using Wordpress VIP and it depends on your level of service but I believe that costs around $10k a month - not exactly chump change.

My point is many sites built with Wordpress shouldn't have been. Sure Wordpress makes it easy to make a site, it also makes it easy to make a bad site.

In this respect I believe the resurgence of static sites and static site generators (Hugo, Octopress, Jekyll) is actually A Good Thing (TM), and not the step backwards many people seem to think it is.

3. Data hoarding

There's a problem at play here that you maybe only really notice when you come to extract data from the web. The web is becoming stratified into the data "haves" and "have nots".

There is a constant battle in play to control information on the web. Many of the big outfits, are intent on hoarding as much data as they can. You see this reflected in removal of RSS feeds of data, and APIs, that would let external programs access this data.

Now, while I fully support an organization's right to protect its hard won data, right now we don't have a level playing field. The big players like Google and TripAdvisor, Booking.com and hotels.com have the potential to monopolize data.

Some of the big data players built their databases by (at least partially) scraping the web, and then deny the same right to others as they hoard their scraped data.

The general problem is that "data hoarding" in the wider web is not a good thing.

Hello APIs

But there is a possible plus side here. APIs.

For example, Trip Advisor do at least offer an API (currently). You can get the following data from their site:

This is a very useful subset of data. But...

Goodbye APIs

The above APIs are all well and good as long as they are maintained. And there's the rub.

Google long since abandoned its own Search API, and many of Google's search-related APIs have been closed down over the years. Google Custom Search only searches your site.

Google are also closing down their flight search API too.

Yahoo too has become notorious for closing down APIs.

This loss of API coverage exacerbates the issue of data hoarding. Data silos are order of the day.

In this respect Microsoft are increasingly becoming the "good guys" these days. Bing has a very nice API you can use to access Bing's search results.

The case of the disappearing RSS feeds

As people move away from blogs and websites and into the smothering embrace of "social media" their data disappears into a walled garden - accessible no more, unless you are into advertising and fake news. This is a shame. RSS feeds were one of the best inventions of the web - they allowed you to suck in data from a variety of sources, process it to your own ends, and store it for posterity. These days a lot of sites don't bother with RSS feeds, which I think it a real shame. Back to Trip Advisor again and this thread about how they closed down their RSS feeds. Data disappearing into the walled garden again?

I think all websites should have RSS feeds to provide a data feed where it makes sense to do so.

And before you say it - yes it is on my TODO list for this site. Give us a chance precious, give us a chance...

Why does any of this matter?

This stuff is important, not only for the customer's sense of satisfaction, but for much bigger reasons. Websites should be fast and responsive and have the information we need. Semantic markup should be widespread and sites should be designed with web spiders and indexing at least partly in mind.

All these problems - slowness, poor design, poor training, lack of semantic markup, removal of RSS feeds and lack of APIs, data hoarding, it all leads to one thing - the woeful state of the web.

Things could be so much better.

Updates:

  1. In a future article I'll take a look at what can be done to improve things.

  2. James pointed me at Webflow, which I'd not seen before. It looks awesome. I also notice one of the first words they use on their website is "semantic". Nice.