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What You Need to Know About Browser Support

Browser compatibility is a never-ending challenge for people who develop and maintain websites. We built a new site, BornToSell.com, from scratch in 2009 and 2010 and learned a few things about browser compatibility.

Browsers by the Numbers
First, let’s look at the market share for each major browser. This data changes every month, so you’ll want to examine it every few months. But according to W3Schools.com, the top five browsers in April 2011 were:

  • Firefox: 42.9 percent
  • Chrome: 25.6 percent
  • Internet Explorer: 24.3 percent
  • Safari: 4.1 percent
  • Opera: 2.6 percent

And if we break it down by version per browser, we find the most popular versions in April 2011 were:

  • Firefox 3.6: 23.8 percent
  • Chrome 10.0: 21.3 percent
  • Firefox 4.0: 15.7 percent
  • IE 8: 14.8 percent
  • IE 7: 4.9 percent
  • Safari 5: 3.7 percent
  • IE 6: 2.5 percent
  • IE 9: 2.1 percent
  • Chrome 11.0: 1.9 percent

The More You Support, the More You Pay
Each browser/operating system combination you support comes with increased cost. The first cost is testing. It takes a lot of time to manually run through every page on your site for a particular browser/OS combination and then take note of any “off by a pixel” or other errors you see. And if your site uses JavaScript (most do), then it takes even longer to test each combination because you have to exercise your site so that all JavaScript code paths are followed for each combination of browser and OS. Once the site is built, you also need to plan for maintenance time and costs, which are higher the more browsers you support.

Speaking from the experience of building a large site, I can tell you that IE 6 is a difficult browser to be compatible with. The way IE 6 renders is not even close to its own big brothers IE 7 and IE 8. Fortunately, IE 6 has a 2.5 percent (and falling) market share.

Know Your Audience
Audience composition makes a difference to your choice of browsers to support. Is your audience mostly made up of students running the latest experimental browsers, or do they use older systems running out-of-date browsers? Do you have a large Macintosh contingent?

As an example, the browser statistics taken from BornToSell.com’s logs are:

  • Internet Explorer: 40.5 percent
  • Firefox: 30.4 percent
  • Chrome: 15.2 percent
  • Safari: 12.5 percent
  • Others: 1.4 percent

So compared to the Internet at large, we have a lower percentage of Firefox and Chrome users, and a higher percentage of IE and Safari. I’m not sure what that says about our audience’s demographics, but it definitely means we have to work well on all four browsers. (And that’s an important note: Rather than guess what browsers your visitors are using, check your logs to get real data.)

Consider Outsourcing the Testing
After you layer in both Mac and Windows versions, you have at least 20 combinations to test. This is an excellent time to hire outsourced help at somewhere like Elance, where you can specify all the browser/OS combinations you want someone to run through for you. That’s what we did. We gave testers access to our online bug database, and they would exercise our site and then file bugs like “On Chrome 11 Macintosh the buttons look odd.” It was a tremendous time-saver.

Think Simple
One good way to minimize browser compatibility issues is to use fewer new-age plug-ins or technologies. Sure, it may look cool on your modern development system, but as soon as you test it on 20 other combinations of browser/OS, you may find that on some it looks terrible or doesn’t work at all. Then, you have to either spend an unknown amount of time trying to fix it 20 times or remove the whiz-bang effect. Keeping it simple creates a consistent -- and good -- experience for all users.

Copyright (c) 2011 Studio One Networks. All rights reserved.


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