Searching: getElement* and querySelector*

DOM navigation properties are great when elements are close to each other. What if they are not? How to get an arbitrary element of the page?

There are additional searching methods for that.

document.getElementById or just id

If an element has the id attribute, then there’s a global variable by the name from that id.

We can use it to access the element, like this:

<div id="elem">
  <div id="elem-content">Element</div>
</div>

<script>
  alert(elem); // DOM-element with id="elem"
  alert(window.elem); // accessing global variable like this also works

  // for elem-content things are a bit more complex
  // that has a dash inside, so it can't be a variable name
  alert(window['elem-content']); // ...but accessable using square brackets [...]
</script>

That’s unless we declare the same-named variable by our own:

<div id="elem"></div>

<script>
  let elem = 5;

  alert(elem); // the variable overrides the element
</script>

The behavior is described in the specification, but it is supported mainly for compatibility. The browser tries to help us by mixing namespaces of JS and DOM. Good for very simple scripts, but there may be name conflicts. Also, when we look in JS and don’t have HTML in view, it’s not obvious where the variable comes from.

The better alternative is to use a special method document.getElementById(id).

For instance:

<div id="elem">
  <div id="elem-content">Element</div>
</div>

<script>
  let elem = document.getElementById('elem');

  elem.style.background = 'red';
</script>

Here in the tutorial we’ll often use id to directly reference an element, but that’s only to keep things short. In real life document.getElementById is the preferred method.

There can be only one

The id must be unique. There can be only one element in the document with the given id.

If there are multiple elements with the same id, then the behavior of corresponding methods is unpredictable. The browser may return any of them at random. So please stick to the rule and keep id unique.

Only document.getElementById, not anyNode.getElementById

The method getElementById that can be called only on document object. It looks for the given id in the whole document.

getElementsBy*

There are also other methods to look for nodes:

  • elem.getElementsByTagName(tag) looks for elements with the given tag and returns the collection of them. The tag parameter can also be a star "*" for “any tags”.

For instance:

// get all divs in the document
let divs = document.getElementsByTagName('div');

This method is callable in the context of any DOM element.

Let’s find all input inside the table:

<table id="table">
  <tr>
    <td>Your age:</td>

    <td>
      <label>
        <input type="radio" name="age" value="young" checked> less than 18
      </label>
      <label>
        <input type="radio" name="age" value="mature"> from 18 to 50
      </label>
      <label>
        <input type="radio" name="age" value="senior"> more than 60
      </label>
    </td>
  </tr>
</table>

<script>
  let inputs = table.getElementsByTagName('input');

  for (let input of inputs) {
    alert( input.value + ': ' + input.checked );
  }
</script>
Don’t forget the "s" letter!

Novice developers sometimes forget the letter "s". That is, they try to call getElementByTagName instead of getElementsByTagName.

The "s" letter is absent in getElementById, because it returns a single element. But getElementsByTagName returns a collection of elements, so there’s "s" inside.

It returns a collection, not an element!

Another widespread novice mistake is to write like:

// doesn't work
document.getElementsByTagName('input').value = 5;

That won’t work, because it takes a collection of inputs and assigns the value to it, rather to elements inside it.

We should either iterate over the collection or get an element by the number, and then assign, like this:

// should work (if there's an input)
document.getElementsByTagName('input')[0].value = 5;

There are also other rarely used methods of this kind:

  • elem.getElementsByClassName(className) returns elements that have the given CSS class. Elements may have other classes too.
  • document.getElementsByName(name) returns elements with the given name attribute, document-wide. Exists for historical reasons, very rarely used, we mention it here only for completeness.

For instance:

<form name="my-form">
  <div class="article">Article</div>
  <div class="long article">Long article</div>
</form>

<script>
  // find by name attribute
  let form = document.getElementsByName('my-form')[0];

  // find by class inside the form
  let articles = form.getElementsByClassName('article');
  alert(articles.length); // 2, found two elements with class "article"
</script>

querySelectorAll

Now goes the heavy artillery.

The call to elem.querySelectorAll(css) returns all elements inside elem matching the given CSS selector. That’s the most often used and powerful method.

Here we look for all <li> elements that are last children:

<ul>
  <li>The</li>
  <li>test</li>
</ul>
<ul>
  <li>has</li>
  <li>passed</li>
</ul>
<script>
  let elements = document.querySelectorAll('ul > li:last-child');

  for (let elem of elements) {
    alert(elem.innerHTML); // "test", "passed"
  }
</script>

This method is indeed powerful, because any CSS selector can be used.

Can use pseudo-classes as well

Pseudo-classes in the CSS selector like :hover and :active are also supported. For instance, document.querySelectorAll(':hover') will return the collection with elements that the pointer is over now (in nesting order: from the outmost <html> to the most nested one).

querySelector

The call to elem.querySelector(css) returns the first element for the given CSS selector.

In other words, the result is the same as elem.querySelectorAll(css)[0], but the latter is looking for all elements and picking one, while elem.querySelector just looks for one. So it’s faster and shorter to write.

matches

Previous methods were searching the DOM.

The elem.matches(css) does not look for anything, it merely checks if elem matches the given CSS-selector. It returns true or false.

The method comes handy when we are iterating over elements (like in array or something) and trying to filter those that interest us.

For instance:

<a href="http://example.com/file.zip">...</a>
<a href="http://ya.ru">...</a>

<script>
  // can be any collection instead of document.body.children
  for (let elem of document.body.children) {
    if (elem.matches('a[href$="zip"]')) {
      alert("The archive reference: " + elem.href );
    }
  }
</script>

closest

All elements that are directly above the given one are called its ancestors.

In other words, ancestors are: parent, the parent of parent, its parent and so on. The ancestors together form the chain of parents from the element to the top.

The method elem.closest(css) looks the nearest ancestor that matches the CSS-selector. The elem itself is also included in the search.

In other words, the method closest goes up from the element and checks each of parents. If it matches the selector, then the search stops, and the ancestor is returned.

For instance:

<h1>Contents</h1>

<div class="contents">
  <ul class="book">
    <li class="chapter">Chapter 1</li>
    <li class="chapter">Chapter 1</li>
  </ul>
</div>

<script>
  let chapter = document.querySelector('.chapter'); // LI

  alert(chapter.closest('.book')); // UL
  alert(chapter.closest('.contents')); // DIV

  alert(chapter.closest('h1')); // null (because h1 is not an ancestor)
</script>

Live collections

All methods "getElementsBy*" return a live collection. Such collections always reflect the current state of the document and “auto-update” when it changes.

In the example below, there are two scripts.

  1. The first one creates a reference to the collection of <div>. As of now, it’s length is 1.
  2. The second scripts runs after the browser meets one more <div>, so it’s length is 2.
<div>First div</div>

<script>
  let divs = document.getElementsByTagName('div');
  alert(divs.length); // 1
</script>

<div>Second div</div>

<script>
  alert(divs.length); // 2
</script>

In contrast, querySelectorAll returns a static collection. It’s like a fixed array of elements.

If we use it instead, then both scripts output 1:

<div>First div</div>

<script>
  let divs = document.querySelectorAll('div');
  alert(divs.length); // 1
</script>

<div>Second div</div>

<script>
  alert(divs.length); // 1
</script>

Now we can easily see the difference. The static collection did not increase after the appearance of a new div in the document.

Here we used separate scripts to illustrate how the element addition affects the collection, but any DOM manipulations affect them. Soon we’ll see more of them.

Summary

There are 6 main methods to search for nodes in DOM:

Method Searches by... Can call on an element? Live?
getElementById id - -
getElementsByName name -
getElementsByTagName tag or '*'
getElementsByClassName class
querySelector CSS-selector -
querySelectorAll CSS-selector -

Please note that methods getElementById and getElementsByName can only be called in the context of the document: document.getElementById(...). But not on an element: elem.getElementById(...) would cause an error.

Other methods can be called on elements too. For instance elem.querySelectorAll(...) will search inside elem (in the DOM subtree).

Besides that:

  • There is elem.matches(css) to check if elem matches the given CSS selector.
  • There is elem.closest(css) to look for a nearest ancestor that matches the given CSS-selector. The elem itself is also checked.

And let’s mention one more method here to check for the child-parent relationship:

  • elemA.contains(elemB) returns true if elemB is inside elemA (a descendant of elemA) or when elemA==elemB.

Tasks

importance: 4

Here’s the document with the table and form.

How to find?

  1. The table with id="age-table".
  2. All label elements inside that table (there should be 3 of them).
  3. The first td in that table (with the word “Age”).
  4. The form with the name search.
  5. The first input in that form.
  6. The last input in that form.

Open the page table.html in a separate window and make use of browser tools for that.

There are many ways to do it.

Here are some of them:

// 1. The table with `id="age-table"`.
let table = document.getElementById('age-table')

// 2. All label elements inside that table
table.getElementsByTagName('label')
// or
document.querySelectorAll('#age-table label')

// 3. The first td in that table (with the word "Age").
table.rows[0].cells[0]
// or
table.getElementsByTagName('td')[0]
// or
table.querySelector('td')

// 4. The form with the name "search".
// assuming there's only one element with name="search"
let form = document.getElementsByName('search')[0]
// or, form specifically
document.querySelector('form[name="search"]')

// 5. The first input in that form.
form.getElementsByTagName('input')
// or
form.querySelector('input')

// 6. The last input in that form.
// there's no direct query for that
let inputs = form.querySelectorAll('input') // search all
inputs[inputs.length-1] // take last
importance: 5

There’s a tree structured as nested ul/li.

Write the code that for each <li> shows:

  1. What’s the text inside it (without the subtree)
  2. The number of nested <li> – all descendants, including the deeply nested ones.

Demo in new window

Open a sandbox for the task.

Let’s make a loop over <li>:

for (let li of document.querySelector('li')) {
  ...
}

In the loop we need to get the text inside every li. We can read it directly from the first child node, that is the text node:

for (let li of document.querySelector('li')) {
  let title = li.firstChild.data;

  // title is the text in <li> before any other nodes
}

Then we can get the number of descendants li.getElementsByTagName('li').

Open the solution in a sandbox.

Tutorial map

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