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people were using tables in HTML for formatting instead of just expressing tabular data

Yep, and there are algorithms that try to distinguish between ‘data’ tables versus ‘layout’ tables for precisely that reason[1][2]. It’s unfortunate that they have to exist, but the web has routed around past mistakes.

Now people sometimes use divs to represent tabular data.

Yes, and that’s wrong and a simple fix. But regardless of whether some ill-informed people do that it’s still no worse than Gopher, and when they get it right it’s a lot better.

Regarding search, that’s great if you have exact keywords for what you’re looking for. Less good if you just want e.g. a list of headers on the page so that you can narrow in on the part that interests you.

[1] https://dxr.mozilla.org/mozilla-central/source/accessible/ht...

[2] https://cs.chromium.org/chromium/src/third_party/WebKit/Sour...

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