This article, updated in 2020, was originally based on a chapter from HTML5 & CSS3 for the Real World, by Alexis Goldstein, Louis Lazaris and Estelle Weyl.
As you learn HTML5 and add new techniques to your toolbox, you’re likely going to want to build yourself a boilerplate from which you can begin all your HTML5-based projects. We encourage this, and you may also consider using one of the many online sources that provide a basic HTML5 starting point for you.
In this article, we’ll look at how to get started with this. Let’s start simple, with a bare-bones HTML5 page:
<!doctype html> <html lang="en"> <head> <meta charset="utf-8"> <title>The HTML5 Herald</title> <meta name="description" content="The HTML5 Herald"> <meta name="author" content="SitePoint"> <link rel="stylesheet" href="css/styles.css?v=1.0"> </head> <body> <script src="js/scripts.js"></script> </body> </html>
With that basic template in place, let’s now examine some of the significant parts of the markup and how these might differ from how HTML was written prior to HTML5.
What Is HTML5?
- HTML5 is the current active specification for HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language.
- HTML forms the content layer of the web, providing a way to structure information in a way that can be rendered by browsers and processed by search engine crawlers.
- HTML5 was initially released in 2008, and has added additional features since then. It improves on earlier versions by enabling native multimedia content, support for SVG and MathML vector graphics, and new semantic document elements.
First, we have the Document Type Declaration, or doctype. This is simply a way to tell the browser — or any other parser — what type of document it’s looking at. In the case of HTML files, it means the specific version and flavor of HTML. The doctype should always be the first item at the top of any HTML file. Many years ago, the doctype declaration was an ugly and hard-to-remember mess. For XHTML 1.0 Strict:
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd">
And for HTML4 Transitional:
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/loose.dtd">
Although that long string of text at the top of our documents hasn’t really hurt us (other than forcing our sites’ viewers to download a few extra bytes), HTML5 has done away with that indecipherable eyesore. Now all you need is this:
Simple, and to the point. The doctype can be written in uppercase, lowercase, or mixed case. You’ll notice that the “5” is conspicuously missing from the declaration. Although the current iteration of web markup is known as “HTML5,” it really is just an evolution of previous HTML standards — and future specifications will simply be a development of what we have today.
Because browsers are usually required to support all existing content on the Web, there’s no reliance on the doctype to tell them which features should be supported in a given document. In other words, the doctype alone is not going to make your pages HTML5-compliant. It’s really up to the browser to do this. In fact, you can use one of those two older doctypes with new HTML5 elements on the page and the page will render the same as it would if you used the new doctype.
Next up in any HTML document is the
html element, which has not changed significantly with HTML5. In our example, we’ve included the
lang attribute with a value of
en, which specifies that the document is in English. In XHTML-based syntax, you’d be required to include an
xmlns attribute. In HTML5, this is no longer needed, and even the
lang attribute is unnecessary for the document to validate or function correctly.
So here’s what we have so far, including the closing
<!doctype html> <html lang="en"> </html>
The next part of our page is the
<head> section. The first line inside the
head is the one that defines the character encoding for the document. This is another element that’s been simplified since XHTML and HTML4, and is an optional feature, but recommended. In the past, you may have written it like this:
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8">
HTML5 improves on this by reducing the character encoding
<meta> tag to the bare minimum:
In nearly all cases,
utf-8 is the value you’ll be using in your documents. A full explanation of character encoding is beyond the scope of this article, and it probably won’t be that interesting to you, either. Nonetheless, if you want to delve a little deeper, you can read up on the topic on W3C or WHATWG.
Note: to ensure that all browsers read the character encoding correctly, the entire character encoding declaration must be included somewhere within the first 512 characters of your document. It should also appear before any content-based elements (like the
<title> element that follows it in our example site).
There’s much more we could write about this subject, but we want to keep you awake — so we’ll spare you those details! For now, we’re content to accept this simplified declaration and move on to the next part of our document:
<title>The HTML5 Herald</title> <meta name="description" content="The HTML5 Herald"> <meta name="author" content="SitePoint"> <link rel="stylesheet" href="css/styles.css?v=1.0">
In these lines, HTML5 barely differs from previous syntaxes. The page title (the only mandatory element inside the
head) is declared the same as it always was, and the meta tags we’ve included are merely optional examples to indicate where these would be placed; you could put as many valid
meta elements here as you like.
The key part of this chunk of markup is the stylesheet, which is included using the customary
link element. There are no required attributes for
link other than
type attribute (which was common in older versions of HTML) is not necessary, nor was it ever needed to indicate the content type of the stylesheet.
Leveling the Playing Field
When HTML5 was introduced, it included a number of new elements, such as
section. You might think this would be a major problem for older browser support for unrecognized elements, but you’d be wrong. This is because the majority of browsers don’t actually care what tags you use. If you had an HTML document with a
recipe tag (or even a
ziggy tag) in it, and your CSS attached some styles to that element, nearly every browser would proceed as if this were totally normal, applying your styling without complaint.
Of course, such a hypothetical document would fail to validate and may have accessibility problems, but it would render correctly in almost all browsers — the exception being old versions of Internet Explorer (IE). Prior to version 9, IE prevented unrecognized elements from receiving styling. These mystery elements were seen by the rendering engine as “unknown elements,” so you were unable to change the way they looked or behaved. This includes not only our imagined elements, but also any elements that had yet to be defined at the time those browser versions were developed. That means (you guessed it) the new HTML5 elements.
The good news is that, these days, usage of IE has dropped right off, with IE11 having fallen to around 2.7% global usage (as of 2018), and versions prior to that virtually having dropped off the map. (You can view stats on browser usage and support for HTML5 features in heneral on the Can i use site.)
main element. However, for those browsers you can still use this element, as long as you add approraite styling (such as setting it to be a block element.)
The Rest is History
Looking at the rest of our starting template, we have the usual
body element along with its closing tag and the closing
Much like the
link tag discussed earlier, the
<script> tag does not require that you declare a
type attribute. If you ever wrote XHTML, you might remember your
script tags looking like this:
type attribute is unnecessary in HTML5 documents:
We’ve put the
In some cases, however, (such as with the HTML5 shiv) the script may need to be placed in the head of your document, because you want it to take effect before the browser starts rendering the page.
One way to take your HTML5 to the next level is to try out the HTML5 Boilerplate. This regularly updated resource provides a handy starting point for your projects, containing all the latest best practices established by hundreds of the world’s best programmers. It’s worth downloading and checking out even if you just want to pick through the code and look at how certain elements are being used these days, such as the various meta elements found in the document’s head.
Start getting more comfortable with hand-coded HTML5 and CSS3 with our resource, HTML5 & CSS3 for the Real World. You’ll learn everything from the basics of semantic HTML markup to appealing styling techniques.
Another way to take your website or web app development to the next level is to try one of the modern frameworks that are in wide use today. For example, check out SitePoint’s extensive resources on React and Angular.
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