Optimizing CSS: ID Selectors and Other Myths
Still, there’s something to be said about the topic, especially to weed out some of the myths and legends surrounding them. So let’s dive right in.
The Basics of CSS Parsing
First, to get on the same page — this article isn’t about the performance of CSS properties and values. What we’re covering here is the performance cost of the selectors themselves. I’ll be focusing on the Blink rendering engine, specifically Chrome 62.
The selectors can be split into a few groups and (roughly) sorted from the least to most expensive:
|4.||General and adjacent sibling||
|5.||Child and descendant||
|8.||Pseudo-classes and elements||
Does this mean that you should only use IDs and classes? Well … not really. It depends. First, let’s cover how browsers interpret CSS selectors.
Browsers read CSS from right to left. The rightmost selector in a compound selector is known as the key selector. So, for instance, in
#id .class > ul a, the key selector is
a. The browser first matches all key selectors. In this case, it finds all elements on the page that match the
a selector. It then finds all
ul elements on the page and filters the
as down to just those elements that are descendants of
uls — and so on until it reaches the leftmost selector.
Therefore, the shorter the selector, the better. If possible, make sure that the key selector is a class or an ID to keep it fast and specific.
Measuring the Performance
Ben Frain created a series of tests to measure selector performance back in 2014. The test consisted of an enormous DOM comprising 1000 identical elements, and measuring the speed it took to parse various selectors, ranging from IDs to some seriously complicated and long compound selectors. What he found was that the delta between the slowest and fastest selector was ~15ms.
However, that was back in 2014. Things have changed a lot since then, and memorizing rules is all but useless in the ever-changing browser landscape. Always remember to do your own tests, especially when performance is concerned.
These selectors are among the slowest possible. ~500 slower than something wild like “div.box:not(:empty):last-of-type .title”. Test page http://jsbin.com/gozula/1/quiet
The test was bumped up a bit, to 50000 elements, and you can test it out yourself. I did an average of 10 runs on my 2014 MacBook Pro, and what I got was the following:
|Selector||Query Time (ms)|
The results will of course vary depending on whether you use
querySelectorAll, and the number of matching nodes on the page, but
querySelectorAll comes closer to the real use case of CSS, which is targeting all matching elements.
Even in such an extreme case, with 50000 elements to match, and using some really insane selectors like the last one, we find that the slowest one is ~20ms, while the fastest is the simple class at ~3.5ms. Not really that much of a difference. In a realistic, more “tame” DOM, with around 1000–5000 nodes, you can expect those results to drop by a factor of 10, bringing them to sub-millisecond parsing speeds.
What we can see from this test is that it’s not really worth it to worry over CSS selector performance. Just don’t overdo it with pseudo selectors and really long selectors. We can also see how Blink improved in the last two years. Instead of the stated ~500x slowdown for a “quantity selector” (
.box:nth-last-child(n+6) ~ div) compared to an “insanity selector” (
.box:not(:empty):last-of-type .title), we only see a ~1.5x slowdown. That’s an amazing improvement, and we can only expect browsers to get better, making CSS selector performance even less impactful.
You should, however, stick to using classes whenever possible, and adopt some sort of namespacing convention like BEM, SMACSS or OOCSS, since it will not only help your website’s performance but vastly help with code maintainability. Overqualified compound selectors, especially when used with tag and universal selectors — such as
.header nav ul > li a > .inner — are extremely brittle and a source of many unforeseen errors. They are also a nightmare to maintain, especially if you inherit the code from someone else.
Quality over Quantity
A bigger problem of simply having expensive selectors is having a lot of them. This is know as “style bloat”, and you’ve probably seen the problem a lot. Typical examples are sites which import entire CSS frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation, while using less than 10% of the transferred CSS. Another example is seen in old, never-refactored projects whose CSS has devolved into, as I like to call them, “Chronological Style Sheets” — CSS with a ton of appended classes to the end of the file as the project has changed and grown, now looking more like an overgrown garden full of weeds.
Not only does a large CSS file take longer to transfer, (and network is the biggest bottleneck in website performance), they also take longer to parse. As well as constructing the DOM from your HTML, the browser needs to construct a CSSOM (CSS Object Model) to compare it with the DOM and match the selectors.
So, keep your styles lean and DRY, don’t include everything and the kitchen sink, load what you need and when you need it, and use UNCSS if you need to.
If you want to dig more into how the browsers parse CSS, check out Nicole Sullivan’s post on Webkit, Ilya Grigorik’s article on how Blink does it, or Lin Clark’s article on Mozilla’s new Stylo CSS engine.
The Elephant in the Room: Style Invalidation
What we’ve covered so far is fine, but we’ve only discussed a single rendering pass. Today’s websites are no longer static documents, but resemble apps with dynamic content users can interact with.
This complicates things, since parsing CSS is only a single step in the browser rendering pipeline. Here’s a render-oriented view of how a browser renders a single frame to the screen (source: Google):
After constructing the DOM and CSSOM, the browser needs to combine the two into a render tree before finally painting it on the screen. In that step, the browser needs to figure out the computed CSS for each matching element. You can see this yourself in the Elements > Styles panel of the developer tools. It takes all the matching styles, the cascade, and browser-specific user agent styles to construct the final, computed CSS for the element.
It can then proceed to the layout (also known as reflow) step, where it computes the geometry, and constructs the box model of the page, placing each element on its respective position on the viewport. Layout is the most computationally intensive part of this process.
Finally, the browser converts each node in the render tree to actual pixels on the screen in the paint stage.
Now, what happens when we mutate the DOM by changing some classes on the page, adding or removing some nodes, modifying some attributes, or in any way messing with the HTML (or the stylesheets themselves)?
We invalidate the computed styles and the browser needs to invalidate everything down the tree of the matched selectors. While today’s browsers are much smarter, it used to be the case that if you changed a class on the
body element, all the descendant elements needed to have their computed styles recalculated.
One way to avoid this issue is to reduce the complexity of your selectors. Instead of writing
#nav > .list > li > a, use a single selector, like
.nav-link. That way, you reduce the scope of style invalidation, since if you modify anything inside the
#nav, you won’t trigger recalculations for the entire node.
Another way is to reduce the scope — such as the number of invalidated elements. Be specific with your CSS. Keep this in mind especially during animations, where the browser has only ~10ms to do all the work required.
If you want to get down to the nitty gritty details of style invalidation, I recommend reading Style Invalidation in Blink.
To sum it up, you shouldn’t worry about selector performance, unless you really go overboard. While the topic was all the rage in 2012, browsers have gotten a lot faster and smarter since. Even Google doesn’t worry about it anymore. If you check out Google’s Page Speed Insights page, you won’t see the rule “Use efficient CSS selectors” which was removed in 2013.
Instead, focus on making your CSS maintainable and readable. Your colleagues and your future self will thank you for it. Try to optimize the CSS delivery by including only the used styles. And after that, get to know the rendering pipeline. Unlike selectors, styles themselves can be expensive, and the difference between a janky site and a smooth one can often be found in how the CSS is implemented.
And as a final note: always do your own tests.
Don’t just believe what someone wrote on the internet a few years ago. The landscape is changing drastically and at an incredible pace. What’s relevant today might become obsolete sooner than you know.