A large majority (I hope) of university sites are using a content management system to control the thousands of pages which make up a single university web presence. I am willing to guess that multiple people are editing the content on those pages and they are using some sort of WYSIWYG editor.
CMS’s come in a million different shapes and sizes but their primary goal is to mash up a template with the content for each page. It doesn’t matter if you use a single template for every page (unlikely and ill advised in my opinion) it still has to be combined with the writers content.
Content editors can be your worst enemy (sometimes)
The difficulty comes when you cannot control the elements and formatting that a content editor puts in the CMS. As a designer or developer have their ideals, it rarely turns out that way.
I have seen web content editors who are not web writers by trade, they are usually secretaries, tech support or just the most tech savvy person in the department. And often they do not edit web pages every day, so when they do maybe they forget to hit the “Paste as Plain Text” or “Paste from Word” button and now their site is filled with a bunch of HTML junk.
Are you planning for all this junk?
I recommend a two prong approach, first using HTML Tidy to clean up the HTML on the server end before it even gets to the browser. Now this will create some clean code but it will also give the user a misrepresentation of what they may have thought they put in. But it is for their benefit so make sure its brought up during CMS training.
The second is to make sure you style ALL HTML elements that could possibly be entered. A designer or developer would hate to get caught with some naked <dl>’s or <address> tags.
I have been using the XHTML, CSS Style Guide by Ross Johnson which allows you to import a CSS style sheet and see how it reacts to every HTML element out there (I am pretty sure he covers all of them). It can work one of two ways, either view the style on his site or you can just copy and paste the HTML into a new page on your site and style away!
Planning ahead for these types of things can avoid embarrassments down the road when you have an under or over active web writer on your hands.
Last but not least I cannot end without mentioning CSS resets which are either loved or despised by developers out there. Worst comes to worst you can use Eric Meyer’s CSS Reset or Yahoo YUI Reset to obtain a completely flat style less content area to build upon. Although it will add some weight to your CSS pages it will give you the finest control of all your elements.
What’s your strategy?
Are you a designer making sure you account for all this content? A developer endlessly styling tags hoping you don’t forget any? Or a writer trying to clean up your Word pasted HTML?