Why You Need to Know HTML/CSS
Last week I posted an article entitled “5 Skills Every Bloggers Needs to Excel” spelling out five skills that I consider essential for every blogger to either have or be willing to obtain if they want to truly excel.
Overall, the article was well-received but several commenters took issue with the second item on my list: HTML/CSS Skills.
Several felt that the power of WordPress/Blogger and other blogging platforms made the need to know HTML obsolete. Others pointed out, correctly, that you can outsource much of this work if you’re willing to pay.
That being said, there’s still no substitute for having at least some basic HTML skills in your mental toolbox. You don’t have to be a virtuoso, but you need to be able to customize your blog and fix any mistakes or you will find yourself at a severe disadvantage.
If you don’t see the need, consider the problems not knowing HTML/CSS raises, especially down the road.
Theme Are Not Enough
The official WordPress Theme Directory currently lists just over 1,200 free themes and there are probably many times that on other sites not in the official repository. Without paying a dime or changing one line of code any blogger can have one of thousands of looks for their site.
In fact, with recent upgrades to WordPress, you can even change the header image, the background and a few other elements without editing the code, instead just altering theme options.
The problem is that, of the available themes, very few are actually good and only a fraction of those are relevant. Most themes available are mediocre or worse and there tends to be a group of a few dozen themes that get used over and over again. Even with the basic customizations any site using one of these themes, unmodified, will look like dozens of other blogs out there, including many that are more popular and more strongly associated with that look.
A big part of being a successful blogger is branding and it is almost impossible to build a good brand when your site reminds many of your visitors of another blog. This isn’t to say that you can’t use themes, I certainly do, by that you have to customize them and make them your own.
However, this is the part you can easily outsource, including getting a completely custom theme. This takes much of the edge off of not having any HTML/CSS skills but it can be very expensive, especially for a blogger not looking to make a profit, and, even worse, it only fixes part of the problem.
If you outsource your theme development or decide that you’re comfortable using a relatively stock theme, you’re still going to have to make small changes to it as you go. Whether it’s Twitter buttons, new sidebar elements, font changes, etc. you’re going to want tweak your site at some point.
This tweaking is crucial to respond to visitor’s wishes, fix minor problems and add new features. Virtually every site or blog is under near-constant construction, even if the changes aren’t readily visible.
However, if HTML scares you and you received outside help in building your theme, you can’t make these changes on the fly. Instead, you have to farm them out and this means spending more time and more money on making relatively simple changes. This really slows down the evolution of your site, hurts your ability to adopt new tools and puts you at the mercy of others, who may have other clients and bigger projects, to make any changes on your site.
The other effect is that this actually adds more work to your blogging workload, especially for simple changes. Rather than altering a few lines of code, you have to hammer out an email to your friend or designer, explain what you want done, go back and forth to make sure it’s done right and then, at long last, follow up on completion. A simple change in HTML only takes a few minutes but having someone else make the change can take hours to get it done right and involve waiting weeks.
Bad Things Happens
But while the waiting can be annoying and discouraging when dealing with routine maintenance and updates, it can be murder when something goes wrong with your site.
And things do go wrong. Though not editing your HTML reduces one of the major sources of trouble, human error, there are still plugins that can update and go askew, malicious hacks and other sources of headaches that you may need to jump on immediately.
What happens when your image host goes down or that company with that great new tool you loved closes up shop? What happens when a spammer attacks your site and inserts a bunch of garbage links into the template? If you don’t know HTML the answer is you’re going to be waiting for some time while you seek out someone else to clean up the mess for you or you need to learn quickly.
Things go wrong all the time with Web sites. Services die, hosts make changes on their end, hacks happen and you need to be prepared. If you can’t edit code and perform basic triage, you’ll find yourself with a lot of late nights waiting for someone else to step in or, even worse, losing data as you’re forced to restore from backups when it could have been repaired.
Do you absolutely 100% need to have HTML/CSS skills to be a successful blogger? Probably not. But do you have a reasonable chance at being successful without those skills? No.
You can certainly get a lot farther without HTML/CSS than you once could but just because one can set up a site without looking at code doesn’t mean one can build a successful one without doing it.
Not knowing HTML/CSS is a huge handicap and it is almost impossible to overcome. The vast majority of bloggers definitely need at least some basic level of HTML knowledge and will eventually struggle if they don’t have it.
Your energy is best spent on running your site, not waiting on others to help you out or finding workarounds for easy-to-solve problems. The time and energy it takes to get the level of HTML knowledge you need is less than what you’d likely spend trying to work around or get help on on just one situation.
You don’t need to be a maestro of code, but you need to be able to look at your HTML without being scared and understand how to format CSS.
After all, you might be able to get by for a while without the knowledge, especially if you’re willing to pay a price, but a day will eventually come you’ll regret not knowing it and that regret will be in a very big way.
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