Note: Since writing this, I’ve continued vacillating and now support a <main> element. Why I changed my mind about the <main> element.
Trigger warning: contains disagreement about accessibility.
I’ve been vacillating (ooh err, missus) for two weeks from one opinion to the other regarding a proposed (and rejected) <content> element. This weekend, The Mighty Steve Faulkner wrote an unofficial draft of a <maincontent> element.
Dude, where’s my content?
For a while, people have suggested that HTML add a <content> element that wraps main content, because many websites have something like
<div id="content"> surrounding the area that authors identify as their main content, which they then use to position and style that central content area.
Fans of WAI-ARIA also like to hang
role="main" on that area, to tell assistive technology where the main content of the page starts. I do this too.
The editor of HTML.next, Ian Hickson, rejected a new <content> element:
What would the element _mean_? If it’s just “the main content”, then that is what the element’s contents would mean even without the element, so really it means the element is meaningless. And in that case, <div> is perfect, since that’s what it is: a grouping element with no meaning.
The primary argument against a special element is that it isn’t necessary, because the beginning of “main content” can be identified by a process of elimination that I call the “Scooby Doo algorithm”: you always know that the person behind the ghost mask will be the sinister janitor of the disused theme park, simply because he’s the only person in the episode who isn’t Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, or Scooby. (Like most Scooby fans, I’m pretending Scrappy never existed.)
Similarly,the first piece of content that’s not in a <header>, <nav>, <aside>, or <footer> is the beginning of the main content, regardless of whether it’s contained in an <article>, or <div>, or whether it is a direct child of the <body> element.
Authors do need to be able to identify their main content, both for styling (in which case <div> seems to be the most appropriate element) and as a target for “skip links”, in which case, the current <a href=”#main”>Skip nav<a> … <div id=”main”> pattern still does the trick.
It’s worth noting that people often code “skip links” believing it’s required by WCAG 2, but if browsers implemented the Scooby Doo algorithm that is explicitly not the case: “It is not the intent of this Success Criterion to require authors to provide methods that are redundant to functionality provided by the user agent.”
Many assistive technology useragents understand the ARIA role=”main”, so skip links should be unnecessary; ATs can hone in on <div id=”main” role=main> by themselves, even without supporting the Scooby Doo algorithm.
This suggests to me that a new element isn’t required. But…
Paving cowpaths, ease for authors
Chaals (ex-Opera, now Yandex) wrote
To turn the question around, if it is more convenient for authors to identify the main content, and not think about the classification of other parts, should we offer that facility as part of the platform? Or does it make sense to say that only the exhaustive identification of all supplementary content is an appropriate way to mark up a page anyway?
Chaals argues that it makes authoring easier – suddenly you get extra accessibility by just adding one <content> element, rather than adding the other elements that the Scooby Doo algorithm can then exclude. People using CMSs, who only control the textarea that gets lumped in as “main content” and can’t touch the surrounding areas can now add an element, without having to ask others to tweak templates.
But then, they can do this already, by surrounding their content with <div role=”main”> and this already works in assistive technologies.
A flawed argument for a new element is that it paves a cowpath, so should be added to the language. It’s certainly the case that <div id=”main”> and <div id=”content”> are very frequently found in pages – they were #2 and #6 in the most-frequently used ID attributes in the 2008 MAMA: What is the Web made of? report.
But not every cowpath needs paving. If it did, we’d also have a <logo> and a <container> element (#4 and #5 respectively), and we’d be recommending tables for layout. If something can be done automatically, without requiring extra authorial work, shouldn’t that be favoured? In the same way that we like HTML5 form types as they’re baked into the browser, shouldn’t the Scooby Doo algorithm be preferable?
Of course, the Scooby Doo algorithm requires the author to use <header>, <footer> <nav> and <aside> — but if (s)he doesn’t want/ isn’t able to author HTML5, ARIA’s
role="main" is there precisely as bridging technology.
There’s also the argument that authors expect there to be a <content> element, so its absence violates the Principle of Least Surprise. But I’m not sure that’s a valid argument. Implementing the Scooby Doo algorithm would mean that pages whose author does nothing for accessibility can be made so that their main content area may be programmatically determined. ARIA exists for pages that aren’t in HTML5, or until the Scooby Doo algorithm is widely supported, and analysis shows that most ARIA is correctly used by authors.
Why add an extra complexity, which is more to go wrong and thus potentially harms accessibility?
- Léonie Watson made a short video How ARIA landmark roles help screenreader users
- Unmasking the ghost: a script by Mike Taylor to show the the Scooby guess at main content area