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We continue our blog series to delve into each aspect of what a thorough website audit covers. This time we are breaking down the subject of browser compatibility and how that can greatly affect your website.

The first post in this series focused on functionality, expressing how users hate errors and will abandon purchases if they encounter problems.

Browser compatibility testing or browser checking is a logical next step when auditing your website and involves testing your website thoroughly to make sure it displays and works correctly in all of the main web browsers that people use to visit your website.

This browser testing is vital, as websites can display very differently from browser to browser and mean that a user could have an entirely different experience if they use one browser (where the website works), over another browser (where the website does not work).

The same testing should be carried out on each main web browser and so this aspect can be very time consuming, as you are essentially testing your website several times to check it in each browser.

What Are The Main Web Browsers?

We test websites in each of the following browsers as standard although other specific browsers are available on request.

  • Internet Explorer 7 (on PC)
  • Internet Explorer 8 (on PC)
  • Firefox 3.6 (on PC and Mac)
  • Google Chrome 8 (on PC and Mac)
  • Safari 5 (on Mac)

If you are not sure what web browsers you should include as part of your testing then have a look at your analytics to find out which web browsers are used by visitors arriving at your website.

An important point to note is to be aware of new web browsers, new versions of browsers and browsers gaining market share. A lot of people were caught out by Google's Chrome web browser gaining so much market share in the last 12 months as many websites did not work correctly and had not been tested in this relatively new browser.

Econsultancy reported on this in September last year with the launch of a new ecommerce site for Zara where unfortunately the development company forgot to test the website in Google Chrome.

In our Testing Web Sites blog, we had highlighted the very same issue just 2 weeks earlier to ask 'Are You Testing With Google Chrome?'

Similarly, Internet Explorer 9 is currently available as a public beta version and will be fully released shortly. Your website will need to be retested in this new version of Internet Explorer to ensure it works and displays as intended. IE9 will be added to our main browser list as soon as its market share starts to increase.

A resource such as the Browser Statistics from W3Schools will help you to keep updated on the latest browser usage trends.

Common Browser Related Problems

The type of browser related issues found can vary from extremely serious issues that mean the web page cannot be displayed at all or affect the website in such a way that using it is impossible, to more minor problems that show an image out of place or not loading in correctly.

We have found issues where the whole navigation of a website did not display in Firefox and so the visitor could not get past the home page, or product images disappeared when you moved your mouse over them in Internet Explore 8. These are just 2 examples of countless browser related issues we have found in the past.

A thorough audit of the website in each main web browser means testing the site a further 5 times but is guaranteed to pick up browser issues that will improve the quality of the website for your visitors.

If you do not test in a particular major web browser then you run the risk of the website not working correctly for the visitors that use that browser. For a web browser such as Google Chrome 8 that corresponds to over 16% of the visitors arriving at your website (your own website usage may vary). I don't think any website could allow 16% of its visitors to have a poor experience through not checking the site properly over in a particular browser.

Browser Testing Tools

Whilst browser checking is essentially a manual task there are a number of tools available to help us test and make life a little bit easier.

In our Testing Web Sites blog we maintain a list of browser testing tools and they essentially fall into 2 camps - those that allow 'live' testing using that browser and those that give you a screenshot of your website on each browser.

The tools that give you a screenshot, such as Browsershots, are good to test the layout of each page but you will need a testing tool such as Cross Browser Testing to test your website live and be able to check elements such as drop down menus, overlays, moving between pages and anything that uses JavaScript or AJAX or Flash.

The alternative to using tools like those described above is to set up your own 'testing lab' and cover all the operating system and browser versions yourself. We have machines that cover all the main browsers and operating systems we test on including IE7, IE8, Google Chrome and Firefox 3.6 on Windows Vista and Windows 7 plus Firefox 3.6, Google Chrome and Safari 5 on Mac OSX. For any other web browsers that we require we use tools such as those above.

Audit Browser Compatibility Regularly

As new browsers are released or as updates are carried out to your website, you do need to check your website regularly to make sure there are no browser compatibility problems.

This can be completed alongside auditing the functionality of your website, where our recommendation would be that if your website is undergoing site developments on a frequent basis then some browser testing every 3 or 6 months, in addition to the site updates being fully tested, would be suitable.

Key Points

  • Browser testing is vital to pick up potentially serious issues affecting your site visitors
  • Check your website thoroughly in each of the main web browsers
  • Be aware of new web browsers being released, retest your website in browsers gaining market share
  • For any web browsers that you do not have access to, there are browser testing tools that can help
  • Regularly check your browser compatibility - around every 6 months is recommended

Your feedback is greatly appreciated, let me know what you think about checking the browser compatibility of your website in the comments.

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