We were told that real Web content contained multimedia! and links! and interactivity! Well, yeah. Content on the Web containing those features is truly Web-like. But, just as inverted-pyramid blurbettes aren't the only acceptable form of Web writing, there's more to life than Flash and chat.


With HTML metadata, you can add layers to static text without recourse to animated GIFs or anything produced by Macromedia.

For most Web-surfers, the metadata we're talking about are "Hey, neato!" features. Suddenly a balloon pops up with more information, for example. It's impossible in print. It's intrinsically Web-like. Even if all your site presents is words, you can add Webness through these tags.


At the page level, there's actually a tag called <LINK>. You place it inside <HEAD> and before <BODY>. You can specify relationships between the current page and pages below it in hierarchy (<LINK REL>) and above it (<LINK REV>). You can keep these straight pretty easily: REV means REVerse, so when you use <LINK REV> you're going up in hierarchy.

The NUblog you are reading, for example, has a relationship to the homepage above it and the Background page below it. We'd show the relationship this way:

<LINK REV="Homepage" href="home.html" title=" homepage">
<LINK REL="AbouttheNUblog" href="nublogbackground.html" title="Background on the NUblog">

Who cares? Well, suddenly you're able to navigate from one page to another without using text navigation coded into the Web page. Try that in print.

(There's actually a list of LINK types you can use, including LINKs for author, copyright, start, end, next, previous, and more.)

The problem? Pretty much the only browsers that support LINK metadata are Lynx and iCab, which next to no one uses.


Did you know you can slap a TITLE on nearly anything? An image, a link, a table row?

Why would you want to? To add an extra dimension. If you're using pretty much any browser other than Netscape, you'll find that nearly every link on this page contains hidden TITLE text. In Explorer, a balloon or ToolTip pops up with the TITLE text. In iCab, you see it on the status line. In Lynx, you have to hit L.

Now, we do condone the practice of adding a bit of fun or cheekiness through TITLE. Example:

<a href="" title="Alertbox, proof that freedom of the press belongs to the high-priced consultant who owns one">

For images, in HTML 4 you must provide an ALT text for users who cannot see the graphic, and you should so so for every single graphic image even if you aren't coding to the HTML 4 standard. (ALT="" is perfectly valid for spacer GIFs.) It's an accessibility thing. You can add a TITLE, and the ALT and TITLE can be different. We put our image TITLEs in brackets as a differentiator.

Smart operators like Blast Radius, who insist on throwing big, graphical pages at you, use the TITLE tag to give you something to look at while the massive image loads. (You can do something similar with Javascript, but we'll leave that for another day.)

You can enTITLE table rows. We do it here, actually, and the effect can be somewhat annoying, because, in Explorer, a balloon follows your cursor around like a lost puppy at a picnic. We consider TITLE on TR a bit of an experiment. (We've played around with the settings today. Try mousing around. Good for a laugh.)

Abbreviations and acronyms

What HTML desperately needs is an EXPLANATION tag, so that you could embed explanatory text around a passage that would appear when you selected the text. (We could have used it in the preceding sentence, for example.) In HTML 4, there are two close analogues, ABBR and ACRONYM. You can cause an expansion of an abbreviation or acronym to appear:

<ACRONYM title="frequently-asked questions">FAQ</acronym>

<ABBR title="independent">indep</abbr>

We use those tags consistently here. Again, try mousing around. (Explorer does not indicate which abbreviations and acronyms are graced by that metadata, so you have to stab in the dark. iCab underlines such text.)


Remember LINK, virtually unsupported by browsers? It gets worse.

By far the most obscure of the metadata tags, LONGDESC is used to link to a textual description of an image – a long textual description, much longer than ALT, which theoretically has a maximum length of 1,000 characters. You add it inside the IMG tag: LONGDESC="picture-LD.html".

LONGDESC is an HTML 4.0 tag meant to provide accessibility for blind and visually-impaired net-surfers. Though well-intentioned, LONGDESC is replete with problems:

  1. Of browsers currently available, only iCab supports it. (Control-click on an image. Select Description from the Image submenu.) Even two browsers alleged to support the entire HTML 4 spec, Mozilla and Macintosh Explorer 5, ignore it altogether, putting the lie to compatibility claims.
  2. Many screen readers used by blind and visually-impaired people support LONGDESC, but few authors bother to include such information. (Still today, in the year 2000, we find Web authors who can't be bothered to enter ALTs.)
  3. Writing a description of an image, to paraphrase Lester Bangs, is akin to dancing about architecture. It can be done; the skills are cognate with those taught to audio describers. Pretty much no one walks in the door with those skills.
    1. The problem, as ever, is that Web development is typically carried out by two kinds of people: Designers and programmers. Neither designers nor programmers can necessarily write – and we mean write vivid, concise English.
    2. What few content experts there are in the world – contenunians among them – rarely know anything about accessibility. Even if they had the skills to sum up a photo in 300 words, few would even know it was necessary.
    3. Authoring tools do not prompt you to include a LONGDESC, though Homesite has been upgraded to make LONGDESC addition at least possible. (If no shipping browsers had supported LONGDESC, that would not be the case, according to the consultant who oversees feature additions.) That will change after U.S. federal government regulations kick in. Any vendor who hopes to sell authoring tools to the American feds will have to upgrade the tools to prompt for or otherwise automate accessibility features, which will cause rage throughout the land as designers and programmers are forced to work extra seconds crafting ALTs, and extra minutes crafting LONGDESCs, for every image, time they could spend producing Flash-only splash pages.
  4. Practically no sites outside of the disability field even bother to include LONGDESC, so the tag has no profile among surfers at all, not that browsers could even expose the tag to people.

You can see just how difficult accessibility to imagery actually is by looking at the Break This Page! experiment, which pitted four access approaches against one another, LONGDESC included.

Any image on this site not consisting of text, which is fully encapsulable in an ALT, is accompanied by a LONGDESC. For good measure, a D. link, overtly visible to all browsers, is also provided. Hey, we're cutting-edge. (You can find examples in the archives.)

Posted on 2000-06-20