The Great Debate: Semantic HTML vs. Custom "Div Soup" Components for Accessibility

October 13, 2023


In the ever-evolving landscape of web development, the debate between using semantic HTML and custom components often referred to as "div soup," is a hot topic. This discussion is not just a matter of preference or aesthetics; it has significant implications for web accessibility. In this blog post, we will delve into the pros and cons of both approaches, drawing insights from various experts in the field, including Tetralogical, Erik Kroes, and Rob Dodson.

The Extended Benefits of Semantic HTML

Improved Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Semantic HTML elements provide better context to search engines about the content on the page. Elements like <header>, <footer>, <article>, and <section> help search engines understand the structure and importance of content, potentially improving your site's SEO rankings.

Lower Maintenance Costs

Semantic HTML is easier to maintain and update. The clear labeling of elements means that developers can quickly understand the structure and content of a webpage, making it easier to debug, update, or scale the website. This results in lower long-term maintenance costs and less technical debt.

Enhanced Mobile Responsiveness

Semantic HTML elements are naturally more adaptable to different screen sizes, contributing to better mobile responsiveness. This is increasingly important as mobile web usage continues to rise, and it ensures a consistent user experience across all devices.

Better Collaboration Among Teams

The self-explanatory nature of semantic elements like <nav> for navigation or <figcaption> for image captions makes the codebase easier to understand for everyone involved in the project. This facilitates better collaboration between designers, developers, and content creators, streamlining the development process.

Progressive Enhancement

Semantic HTML is built on the principle of progressive enhancement, which means that content is accessible and functional across all browsers and devices. Even if certain CSS or JavaScript features are not supported, the core content remains accessible, providing a baseline level of user experience.

Faster Page Load Times

Well-structured, semantic HTML can contribute to faster page load times. Browsers can render semantic HTML more efficiently, leading to quicker page loads, which is a key factor in user experience and SEO.

Inherent Accessibility Features

As mentioned earlier, semantic HTML comes with built-in accessibility features that comply with WCAG 2.2 Level AA standards. This includes native keyboard interactivity, screen reader support, and other accessibility features that make the web more inclusive by default.

By leveraging the full range of benefits that Semantic HTML offers, developers can create robust, accessible, and efficient websites that not only look good but also function seamlessly for everyone.

The Limitations of Semantic HTML

Styling Challenges

While semantic HTML elements are powerful, they come with limitations, particularly when it comes to styling. For instance, styling an <input type="file"> element can be a cumbersome process, often leading developers to create custom elements to overcome these limitations.

Enhanced Flexibility in Design: The Creative Potential of Custom Components

Unbounded Creativity

One of the most compelling reasons developers opt for custom components is the virtually limitless creative freedom they offer. Unlike semantic HTML elements, which come with predefined styles and behaviors, custom components are like blank canvases waiting to be transformed. This allows for the creation of unique, brand-specific user interfaces that can set a website apart in a crowded digital landscape.

Complex Interactions and Animations

Custom components enable developers to implement complex interactions and animations that may be challenging—or even impossible—to achieve with semantic HTML alone. Whether it's a multi-level dropdown menu, a draggable slider, or an interactive 3D model, custom components offer the flexibility to bring such intricate designs to life.

Consistent Cross-Browser and Cross-Platform Experience

While semantic HTML elements are rendered differently across browsers and platforms, custom components allow for a more consistent user experience. By controlling every aspect of the component, developers can ensure that it looks and behaves the same way, regardless of the user's browser or device.

Component Reusability

Another advantage is the reusability of custom components. Once created, these components can be reused across different parts of a website or even across multiple projects. This not only speeds up the development process but also ensures a consistent look and feel throughout the digital ecosystem.

Tailored User Experiences

Custom components also allow for the creation of tailored user experiences. For example, a custom video player could offer additional features like speed control, custom captions, or in-video annotations, providing an enhanced user experience that goes beyond the capabilities of the native HTML <video> element.

While the design flexibility of custom components is a significant advantage, it's crucial to implement them responsibly. The absence of built-in accessibility features means that developers must take extra care to ensure these components are accessible, adhering to WCAG 2.2 Level AA standards.

By understanding the full range of possibilities that custom components offer, developers can make more informed choices that balance both aesthetic desires and accessibility needs

The Need for Explicit Accessibility

However, these custom elements come with no built-in semantics or keyboard support. Developers have to manually add these features, making it a labor-intensive process to reach parity with native equivalents.

The Future: Accessibility Object Model (AOM)

The Accessibility Object Model (AOM) is a promising development that could make custom elements as accessible as their semantic counterparts. AOM allows an element to define its semantics directly in the accessibility tree, making <input type="slider"> and <custom-slider> indistinguishable at the semantic level.

A Strong Caution: The First Rule of ARIA

Before diving into best practices for custom components, it's crucial to issue a strong word of caution. Custom components should only be used when absolutely necessary. The first rule of ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is, "Don't use ARIA if you don't have to." Native HTML elements come with built-in accessibility features that are hard to replicate. When you opt for custom components, you're taking on the responsibility of manually adding these features, which can be both labor-intensive and prone to errors. Therefore, always consider whether a native HTML element can fulfill your requirements before resorting to custom components.

Robust Considerations for Implementing Custom Components

Keyboard Accessibility

Ensure that your custom components are navigable and usable via the keyboard. Implement key event listeners that mimic the behavior of native elements. For example, a custom dropdown should open when the 'Enter' or 'Space' key is pressed and allow navigation through the list items using the arrow keys.

Semantic Roles and Attributes

Use ARIA roles and attributes to convey the purpose and state of your custom components. For instance, a custom slider should have the role="slider" attribute, and its current value should be indicated with aria-valuenow.

Focus Management

Proper focus management is crucial for accessibility. Make sure that focus moves logically through the custom component and doesn't get trapped or lost. Utilize tabindex and JavaScript to manage focus where necessary.

Screen Reader Support

Test your custom components with various screen readers to ensure they are announced correctly. Use ARIA labels and descriptions to provide additional context and instructions for screen reader users.

Dynamic Content Updates

If your custom component involves dynamic content changes, use ARIA live regions to announce these updates to screen reader users. This ensures that the user is aware of any changes that occur after the initial page load.

High Contrast and Theming Support

Ensure that your custom components are usable under different themes and high-contrast settings. This is particularly important for users with visual impairments who rely on specific color contrasts for readability.

Mobile Accessibility

Don't forget about touch interactions when designing custom components. Ensure that your components are usable on touch devices and that touch targets are sufficiently large and spaced apart.

Testing and Validation

Regularly test your custom components for accessibility compliance. Use automated testing tools, manual testing, and real-world user testing to ensure that your components meet WCAG 2.2 Level AA standards.


Provide thorough documentation for each custom component, outlining how to implement it accessibly. This not only helps other developers but also serves as a checklist to ensure that all accessibility considerations have been addressed.

By taking these robust considerations into account, you can mitigate some of the risks associated with using custom components and come closer to achieving the level of accessibility that native HTML elements offer. However, always remember that the safest route to ensuring accessibility is to use semantic HTML wherever possible.

Conclusion: Striking a Balance

Both semantic HTML and custom components have their merits and drawbacks. While semantic HTML offers built-in accessibility features, it often falls short in terms of design flexibility. On the other hand, custom components offer design freedom but require a concerted effort to implement accessibility features.

The key is to strike a balance. Use semantic HTML where possible and supplement with custom components where necessary, always keeping accessibility at the forefront. By doing so, we can create web experiences that are not only visually appealing but also accessible to all, in line with WCAG 2.2 Level AA standards.

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