The W3schools Controversy

Imagine pulling up a search on Google for something web tech related. Let's say you look up how the text-align property works in CSS. The two first hits are from w3schools.com. A little further down we find Mozilla Developer Network's (or MDN) article on the subject.

MDN is obviously run by the altruistic, open-web freedom fighters at Mozilla, but what's the deal with w3schools, and why does some people dislike it so much?

3 min read


By Erik Wendel


December 18, 2018

Here's the deal

It's actually being run a by a Norwegian family near the nation's oil capital of Stavanger on the west coast. There, an IT-professional in the 90s suddenly found himself needing to learn some HTML, and decided to make a simple guide on how to create a web page while he was at it. Over time that snowballed into what we know as w3schools today.

In Norwegian newspapers, the family behind it has been at the center of several news stories. In 2017 it was revealed that they had over 45 million unique monthly users, putting them at 186th place over the world's most visited web sites (!). That alone nets them around $350 000 per month in pure ad revenue from Google (w3schools is actually one of Google's biggest ad distributors).

So what's the problem?

The controversy

Critics pointed out that some of the material on the site (and especially the longread tutorials) was full of errors and inconsistencies. Also, some would point out that w3schools did little to make their lacking affiliation with the world wide web consortium (w3c) clear to readers, causing a big misinterpretation that this was actually an official site ran by someone having anything to do with how the web is run.

It went so far that a united web developer elite created the site w3fools.com to bring light to the issue. This is an excerpt from w3fools back in 2011:

"We are passionate about the web, learning, and craftsmanship. We want you, as web designers and developers, to be successful in your careers. We feel, though, that W3Schools is harming the community with inaccurate information. Like any other authoritative educational resource, W3Schools should both hold itself to, and be held to, the highest standards.

We hope we can illuminate why W3Schools is a troublesome resource, why their faulty information is a detriment to the web, and what you (and they) can do about it.

– members of the Front-end Dev Community, January 14th, 2011"

This was signed by well-known people like Addy Osmani of Google, then-maintainer of jQuery Alex Sexton, current V8 engineer Mathias Bynens, @kangax from caniuse.com and lots of other people.

What's happened since

When you're a family business that's raking in $350 000 a month from simply keeping your website up and running, it's in your best interest to respond to the critique when many of the most visible web technology people of the world point at your site and laugh.

As of Dec 18 2018, w3fools.com has changed their message and tone:

"[…] Today, W3Schools has largely resolved these issues and addressed the majority of the undersigned developers' concerns. For many beginners, W3Schools has structured tutorials and playgrounds that offer a decent learning experience. […]"

So, is w3schools worth a visit these days? Should we all keep using MDN instead? I don't know. I don't care. I've always used MDN and will keep using it, partly because it looks nicer and I like Mozilla. You use whichever resource you like!

None the less, this is an interesting story worth remembering.

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