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30 Web Development Best Practices for Beginners

Read Time: 17 mins

There is a lot to learn as a web developer. For starters, you need to know the syntax of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and how these fundamental web languages work together.

However, on top of that, you need to learn how to code well: how to use the web technologies like a professional to create efficient, maintainable, and scalable apps and websites.

In this post, I'll share 30 tips for best practices when you're coding your webpages or web apps.

HTML CSS JavaScript
Always Declare DOCTYPE Avoid Importing Many Stylesheets Position the script Tag Correctly
Only One H1 Tag for a Page Avoid Inline Styles No Inline Scripts
Images Need the alt Attribute Use Inline CSS for Critical Elements Minify the Script
Validate Your HTML Use CSS Preprocessors Avoid Browser Whims
Use Semantic Elements Stick to a CSS Methodology A Plan B for JavaScript
Always Use Descriptive Meta Tags Use media Think About Accessibility
Close All Your Tags Compress CSS Unobtrusive Scripting
Separate IE Fixes Avoid !important Make Use of Browser Developer Tools
Avoid Too Many Comments Beware of Heavy CSS Properties Ensure Wide Browser Support
Lowercase Markup and Indentation Use Shorthand Frameworks Come Last!

Top 10 HTML Best Practices

1. Always Declare DOCTYPE

The DOCTYPE is one of the first few parameters a browser looks for. By definition, it tells the browser the version of the HTML document. If any other markup language is used, the DOCTYPE would specify it. Hence, the browser uses the DOCTYPE to understand how the entire document needs to be interpreted. 

So what would happen if you don't have DOCTYPE in your HTML code? The browser will function in Quirks Mode. It will consider the HTML code as a piece written in the late 90s. As a result, bugs in older browsers will start to appear. Of course, the browser will do its best to parse the HTML document. However, not all elements in your code will be displayed accurately. 

The Quirks Mode is a method used by certain browsers for maintaining backward compatibility. It helps in opening webpages that are written in older standards. In Standard Modes, the code needs to comply with W3C and IETF standards.

With the launch of HTML5, everything became much simpler. You just need to add the following line, before the <html> tag.

2. Only One H1 Tag for a Page

Have you been to Twitter lately? If you pay close attention, you'd realise that the H1 tag is used as a logo, instead of a title. This is not uncommon. However, if you are building a single-page application or a blog, you should save the H1 tag for the title. H1 should be used to describe your page. When you include multiple H1 tags on a single page, the overall search-engine scores will be affected. The W3C Specification advises developers to use only a single H1 tag per page.

3. Images Need the alt Attribute

It is easy to forget to use the alt attribute within image tags. However, the alt attribute plays a crucial role in validation and accessibility. By definition, the alt tag gives alternate text for the image on your page. If the image does not get loaded, the alt text will be shown. Search-engine scores will be affected if you don't use the alt tag in your images. As a result, your page will secure a lower rank. Not only that, but your page will be less accessible to those with screen readers.

4. Validate Your HTML

Validating HTML will help in picking up wrongly written code and defects. There are a couple of validators available on the web to help. W3C supplies one of the most widely used HTML validators. 

5. Use Semantic Elements

HTML semantic elements are used to create webpages with structure. When you assemble a webpage, it would be ideal to use semantic elements, instead of organizing everything into <div>s. For example, avoid the use of <div> to build headers and footers. Instead, make use of the semantic elements <header> and <footer> instead. The <header> semantic element helps in showing the start of a webpage. On the other hand, the <footer> is a spot for showing navigation links and copyright content. 

Other semantic tags include <article> and <nav>.

6. Always Use Descriptive Meta Tags

Meta tags consist of two attributes: the descriptive meta attribute and the keyword meta attribute. This tag is used by search engines to understand the page content and connect searchers with content they are looking for. Search-engine spiders get lots of meaningful information about the webpage from meta tags. 

The descriptive meta attribute is used to summarise the contents and purpose of the webpage. It has to be concise and relevant. Never spam the descriptive meta attribute with repeated phrases. Modern search engines are smart enough to identify this trick.

The keyword meta attribute is a collection of keywords that best describe the page. It can be used to categorise the webpage.

7. Close All Your Tags

HTML is a very forgiving language. Browsers are capable of rendering pages even when there are syntax errors. However these errors—for example, not closing your tags—can make your browser run in Quirks mode. That means your content might not render the way you expect.

Unclosed tags are bad coding practice. According to the W3C specification, all tags must be closed. 

8. Separate IE Fixes

It is important to build a webpage that works on all browsers. But one of the trickiest browsers to develop for is Internet Explorer. If you are having issues with IE, then you need to build modular code with adequate comments.

For example, in the below piece of code, only the .css file has to be modified to adapt to the IE version. 

Mixing IE compatibility fixes with the rest of your code is asking for trouble. Your code will be harder to maintain and understand.

9. Avoid Too Many Comments

This isn't advice you'll hear too often in development!

Unlike other languages, HTML is self-explanatory. If you use the right semantic elements and naming conventions, you don't need to add too many comments. If you are forced to enter many comments, you should revisit your code.

10. Lowercase Markup and Indentation

Finally, in HTML you should stick to lowercase characters. Here, we are not dealing with code standardisation. Instead, our primary focus is code readability, which translates to better maintainability and readibility. In addition to lowercase markup, the code has to be well-indented.

Top 10 CSS Best Practices

1. Avoid Importing Many Stylesheets

Heard of a critical rendering path? The moment a response is sent from the server to the browser, the browser starts to paint the page. It always has the DOM to build. But if your code is loaded with many imported CSS files, the overall time required to build the page increases. This is because the browser builds a CSSOM (CSS Object Model) for the CSS in your HTML page. Until the CSSOM of the page is constructed, the browser will not render the page. This is why CSS is considered a render-blocking resource. 

Here is a simple example to demonstrate the effect of imported CSS in a simple piece of HTML code, which displays some text and an image. As you can see, the entire page took only around 40ms to be displayed. Even with an image, the time taken for the page to be displayed was less. This is because images are not treated as critical resources when it comes to making the first paint. Remember, the critical rendering path is all about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Even though we must try to get the images displayed as quickly as possible, they are not going to block the initial rendering. 

loading a page with no CSSloading a page with no CSSloading a page with no CSS

Now, let’s add CSS to the piece of code.

loading a page with external CSSloading a page with external CSSloading a page with external CSS

As you can see, an extra request is being fired. Even though the time taken for the HTML file to load is less, the overall time for processing and displaying the page has increased nearly tenfold. Plain HTML doesn’t involve much fetching and parsing. But with a CSS file, first the HTML has to be fetched, then the CSS file has to be fetched, and then the CSSOM (as given above) has to be constructed. Both the HTML DOM and the CSS CSSOM have to be built. This is definitely a time-consuming process.

2. Avoid Inline Styles

This is a golden rule for all developers. Try to avoid the use of inline styles as much as possible. It can be extremely tempting to introduce inline styles now and then. But though it appears harmless, it is a poor separation of concerns and will be seen as an error in your coding practice. 

3. Use Inline CSS for Critical Elements

We just read that inline styles have to be avoided. Now, let's understand when inline CSS is actually essential. Always place the CSS required by the browser to complete the first paint on the top. This tells the browser what it needs for rendering the page quickly. So inlining critical CSS helps the browser complete DOM and CSSOM rendering as quickly as possible. 

Critical CSS is defined as the minimum collection of styling required by the page when a user first lands on it.

4. Use CSS Preprocessors

CSS preprocessors are built with many utilities and tools for modularising, avoiding repetition and organising CSS. Three commonly used CSS preprocessors would be LESS, Sass, and Stylus. The best thing about these CSS preprocessors is that a new way of styling is not introduced. Instead, you get basic CSS with more features and more expressive syntax.

5. Stick to a CSS Methodology

Choosing the right CSS methodology for your project will help with maintenance and scaling. There are three CSS methodologies I can recommend: BEM, ITCSS, and OOCSS.

BEM is also known as Block, Element, Modifier methodology.

  • Block represents a standalone entity or component with its own meaning.
  • Element is not a standalone component, but a sub-entity of the block.
  • Modifier is used to represent flags, states, and the appearance of the elements.

ITCSS is inverted triangle CSS, where files are organised based on specificities. As you go deeper in the triangle, you will become more specific. 

OOCSS is Object-Oriented CSS, where you separate the view and the structure. 

6. Use media

If your page has to load on both web and mobile, you should make use of media queries. Also, it would be wise to begin with mobile-first CSS. This is widely known as progressive enhancement. 

7. Compress CSS

Compressing CSS gets rid of whitespaces, and even comments. This reduces the overall size of bundles and reduces the time taken for the browser to complete its first paint. There are a few interesting tools for compressing CSS. Here are three to begin with:

8. Avoid !important

Have you heard about CSS specificity? If you are forced to use !important, there is a serious issue with your CSS order or hierarchy. You could be playing around with inline styles. Or you could have become extremely specific with the selectors. Or you might be overriding styles from a third-party library. If that is the case, you should learn more about CSS specificity, and even try to get rid of third-party libraries to begin with.

Specificity is a technique used by browsers to identify the right CSS property for an element. The final outcome depends on the rules created in the code for the selectors. 

9. Beware of Heavy CSS Properties

Modern browsers are definitely fast. However, if your website is complicated, even the town's fastest browser will take some time. Widely used expensive CSS properties are filter, border-radius, and box-shadow. In fact, width and height are relatively expensive if you perform animations and constantly change these values. Why? Every time you change these values, the browser needs to recalculate the layout and repaint. Every nested child in the view will be affected by these recalculations. This is why you should be careful when you use these expensive properties.

10. Use Shorthand

Last but certainly not least, make use of shorthand. Commonly used properties like border, padding, margin, and background have shorthand properties. Using shorthand will let you style HTML markup in a more concise manner. 

By definition, CSS shorthand is a collection of CSS properties. You will be able to set and update the value of multiple related properties on a single line, simultaneously. 

Top 10 JavaScript Best Practices

1. Position the script Tag Correctly

Most of the time, developers place their scripts at the end of the entire document. Technically, the script tag has to be present in the head. A primary reason why it is placed at the bottom is to delay download and execution. The browser always reads and interprets a document line by line. When it sees a script in the head, the DOM will not be rendered until the script is fetched and parsed. This could be a long delay for large JavaScript files. Hence, moving to the bottom makes sense. But there are better ways of loading the script:

Preloading

This is used when the file is important and rendering should wait until the file is loaded. The browser will download the resource, and execution will happen the moment the resource is available.

Deferred Loading

When you use defer, the JavaScript resource will be downloaded while the HTML rendering happens. However, this will not happen as soon as the script is downloaded. Instead, it waits for the HTML file to be completely rendered.

Async Loading

When you use async, you will be allowing the browser to do something else while a JavaScript resource gets downloaded.

2. No Inline Scripts

Inline scripts will make your code look bad. But this is not the real problem. The problem is that inline scripting will increase the overall size of your HTML code. Try it out: inline your JavaScript. You will see the size of the code increases. Also inline scripts can never be cached. This way, your webpage will lose the whole concept of caching. When external scripts are cached, loading the page for the second time becomes faster. By adding inline scripts, you can never leverage this feature found in most modern browsers. 

So keep your CSS in a dedicated CSS file and your JavaScript in a dedicated script file.

3. Minify the Script

When you publish your website, you need to minify your script to reduce the overall file size. If you look at any npm package, you will come across two versions. One is the complete sourcecode. The other version ends with .min.js—the minified version. This version will not have any comments, semicolons, or even whitespace. All functions and variable names will be replaced with shorter ones. Here is a simple example, to help you understand minified JavaScript.

4. Avoid Browser Whims

Do you have the habit of writing for a specific browser? If yes, this practice needs to change. Writing code for a specific browser will definitely backfire one day. The code will soon become obsolete and difficult to maintain. Going around the web, you will come across many scripts that stop working with newer browser releases. The effort and time invested in building a page for certain browsers will become void. So develop pages to web standards and test them across browsers. Never rely on a single platform.

5. A Plan B for JavaScript

A lot of users have turned JavaScript off in their browsers. For example, do you know that the NoScript Firefox Extension has 31 million downloads at time of writing? In addition to intentional disabling, many users are unable to load JavaScript due to external circumstances. These users have no control over factors like company-enforced proxy servers, poor internet access, and even harsh firewalls. In such cases, you need to have a plan B. 

Don't forget to include a <noscript> section. In this section, give a message that the user will see when JavaScript is not enabled.

6. Think About Accessibility

Accessibility is never limited to CSS. There are a couple of cases where JavaScript can break accessibility. When you are designing a page, ensure that you use the right elements for the job. Also, content must be available to the user in the form of text. In a situation where you cannot control the markup, make use of WAI-ARIA to support non-semantic JavaScript-enabled widgets. And enable the use of keyboard controls in your script. This will help non-mouse users. 

WAI-ARIA is a technical specification which helps developers create webpages that are highly accessible. 

7. Unobtrusive Scripting

This is an interesting topic. Developers should always keep obtrusive scripting in mind. That means that the existing script should be enhanced with newer and better functionalities. However, the entire script should not be built from scratch. As confusing as it sounds, it is a wise coding practice to not reinvent the wheel. The basic elements of the page must function with and without scripts. Great examples of obtrusive scripting would be:

  • Build websites with client-side validation. Do you remember the point where we stressed constant validation of HTML? If a user is entering the wrong data in the form, you must not wait for server responses. Instead, client-side validation would be adequate.
  • Leverage the features of HTML5. This includes the use of custom controls like <video>.

8. Make Use of Browser Developer Tools

This might be a no-brainer. But sometimes we miss out on the amazing features offered by the modern developer tools in our browsers. Whether you're debugging a script or fixing a layout problem, browser developer tools can give lots of information. Also, debugging source code has become extremely simple and interesting with the newer Chromium-based browsers.

9. Ensure Wide Browser Support

Browsers have evolved drastically in the past few years. But that doesn't mean you build solutions only for newer ones. New features in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript might not be available across all browsers. Hence, you need to test compatibility before using the framework's newest release.

For example, if you are planning to host a page that could be used by someone with an old browser, consider polyfills. Older browsers don't support many new methods like Array.includes, Promise.allSettled, and more. In any case, knowing which features are commonly available across modern browsers can be helpful. The Can I Use website is a great resource to help decide whether a feature is widely enough available for use in your application.

10. Frameworks Come Last!

Last but certainly not least, you need to master JavaScript concepts. There are many inspiring frameworks in the industry, but all these frameworks would be meaningless without knowing JavaScript. Learning JavaScript will increase the chances of you using every framework to its best. So don't waste time on frameworks before learning to code in vanilla JavaScript and CSS!

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