Universal Web Pages

Best Practice:

Information provided through Web pages of Department of Commerce organizations
(including the Web pages themselves) should be in standard hypertext mark-up
language (HTML, XHTML, or XML).


This best practice applies to all Web sites of all Department of Commerce organizations, including Intranet Web sites which are not accessible to the public.


To ensure that information provided through the Department's Web sites is readable and usable by the greatest number of people using the widest feasible variety of equipment and software.


    • Historical documents, where appearance and format may be as important as content
    • Legal or other documents that require accurate reproduction of page numbering, line numbering, or other formatting
    • Documents that, for security purposes, require a specific format
    • Special animation, sound, or video presentations or other non-universal format, if the nature of the information content requires the use of a special format
    • Legacy systems that serve pages in non-universal formats

This is not an exhaustive list of exceptions. See the Discussion section below for some specific examples of appropriate exceptions.


The basic principle

Department of Commerce Web sites must be available to a very broad spectrum of people using a great variety of:

  • hardware (new, old, desktop, laptop, library computer, PDA, low-vision display...);
  • software (operating system, browser, accessibility system...);
  • monitor types and sizes; and
  • connection methods.

Most of these people are looking for:

  • ease of use;
  • speed (avoiding long downloads or startup times for plug-ins);
  • security (avoiding downloads of executables); and
  • ease of maintenance (not having to maintain software just to access certain Web sites).

DOC Web sites providing government information must be designed so that they do not unnecessarily limit, prevent, or slow access by any of these people. Universal formats should be used wherever possible.

According to W3C, the world organization responsible for developing the Web to its full potential, HTML (with XHTML) is the universal language for publishing hypertext on the Web. HTML is a non-proprietary and universal format designed to be readable by all Web browsers on all types of computers. It is compatible with accessibility tools and reshapes itself automatically for all kinds of monitors. HTML is the standard hypertext mark-up language.

For these reasons, all information provided on or through Department of Commerce Web sites should be in HTML (or XHTML), unless there is a good reason for using some other format (i.e., an appropriate exception).

What is the practical effect of this principle?

DOC Web sites should not normally present information in formats other than HTML. The use of the following formats should be limited to specific needs (appropriate exceptions):

  • Macromedia Flash;
  • Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF);
  • Word processing formats, such as WordPerfect (WPD) or MS Word (DOC);
  • MS PowerPoint and other slide show formats
  • Excel, Lotus, or other spreadsheets
  • Video formats such as Apple's QuickTime (MOV), Microsoft's ASF, MPG, and AVI; and
  • Real One's Streaming Video formats.

The download time for Flash or Java navigation and other similar objects, the varying support for them in user software, and the lag time to initiate are all reasons to limit the use of these "bells and whistles." Note that even when, despite these considerations, these non-universal formats are used, the provision of an alternate hypertext version is generally required for 508 accessibility compliance.

In general, whenever design, artistic, or management issues force use of any of the above formats or other non-universal formats, every reasonable effort should be made to provide alternatives for those who lack the associated plug-in software or the hardware or software resources (or the desire!) to read the non-universal format.

Examples of Appropriate Exceptions

Example 1. Here, the pdf format is used to preserve old data records that were hand written, as part of an environmental data rescue project that was done for the NOAA Library. IMPORTANT NOTE: The first link, to the data, is a very large file. Remember, pdfs of this type are essentially large images. This is one reason that their use should be limited to instances where they are required, as in this case.

The data is at: http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/cd139_pdf/LSN0895.PDF
The homepage for the project is: http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/data_rescue_home.html

Guidelines for Exceptions





Department of Commerce Web Advisory Council (WAC)
U.S. Department of Commerce

Send questions and comments about this page to WAC@doc.gov
Page last updated October 12, 2010