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Ultimate Guide to Selectors: XPath vs CSS Selectors

xpath vs css selectors

When it comes to test automation, one of the most important decisions testers have to make is choosing the right locator to identify elements on web pages. XPath and CSS selectors are the two most popular options, each with its own syntax, features, and advantages.

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive deep into XPath and CSS selectors, compare their differences, and help you make an informed decision on which locator to use for your test automation needs.

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What is a Locator?

Before we delve into the details of XPath and CSS selectors, let's first understand what a locator is and why it is crucial in test automation.

Locators are used to select specific elements in the Document Object Model (DOM) tree of a web page.

Test automation tools rely on these locators to locate and interact with elements during test execution. A locator expression is used to match the desired element based on its attributes, such as id, class, name, or other HTML attributes.

XPath: XML Path Query Language

XPath stands for XML Path Query Language - it's a query language used to navigate and query XML documents, including HTML. It allows testers to define expressions that describe a path to the desired XML/HTML node.

XPath expressions can select nodes from the DOM, including elements, attributes, and text. It provides a powerful and flexible way to traverse the hierarchical structure of a document and locate specific elements.

Check also The Ultimate Xpath Cheat Sheet.

XPath Syntax

XPath expressions follow a specific syntax that allows testers to construct precise queries. Expressions can start with a forward slash (/) to select nodes from the root of the document or with a double forward slash (//) to select nodes from anywhere in the document.

XPath also provides axes, which are keywords used to select nodes relative to the current node in the context. These axes allow for more complex traversal and selection of elements.

Here are some examples of XPath expressions and their meanings:

  • /tagname: Select all nodes with the specified tag name.

  • //tagname: Select nodes from anywhere in the document that match the tag name.

  • @attribute: Select attributes of the current node.

  • ..: Select the parent of the current node.

  • *: Select any element node.

  • node(): Select any node.

XPath also supports predicates, which are conditions enclosed in square brackets that can be used to further refine element selection. Predicates allow testers to select specific nodes based on attributes, values, or other conditions.

Check also our No-code XPath Selector Builder

Advantages of XPath

XPath offers several advantages that make it a popular choice for element selection in test automation:

  • XPath is widely supported by test automation libraries and programming languages, making it compatible with a wide range of tools and frameworks.

  • It supports bidirectional traversal of the DOM tree, allowing testers to navigate from parent to child or child to parent elements.

  • XPath provides a rich set of built-in functions and operators, such as contains(), text(), and count(), which enable advanced element selection and data processing tasks.

  • It supports both absolute and relative search paths, giving testers flexibility in constructing XPath expressions.

  • XPath is compatible with both XML and HTML documents, making it a versatile choice for element selection.

Disadvantages of XPath

Despite its many advantages, XPath does have some drawbacks that testers should be aware of:

  • XPath syntax can be complex and challenging to learn, especially for beginners. Constructing precise queries may require a deep understanding of the XPath syntax and document structure.

  • XPath queries can be computationally expensive, especially with complex expressions or on large documents. This can impact the overall performance of test suites.

  • Different versions of XPath are available, with XPath 1.0 being the most widely supported. Testers should ensure compatibility with their specific tools and environments.

CSS Selector: Selecting Elements with Style

CSS selectors, or Cascading Style Sheets selectors, are another popular option for element selection in test automation. CSS selectors allow testers to select elements based on their HTML tags, classes, attributes, or other CSS properties.

CSS selectors are widely used in web development to apply styles to specific elements, but they can also be used for element selection in test automation.

CSS Selector Syntax

CSS selector syntax is more straightforward compared to XPath. It uses string representations of HTML elements, tags, classes, and attributes to uniquely identify elements on a web page. CSS selectors follow specific rules and syntax to construct precise queries.

Here are some examples of CSS selectors and their meanings:

  • tagname: Select all elements with the specified tag name.

  • #id: Select the element with the specified id attribute.

  • .class: Select elements with the specified class name.

  • [attribute=value]: Select elements with the specified attribute and value.

  • element element: Select elements that are descendants of the specified element.

  • element > element: Select elements that are direct children of the specified element.

  • element + element: Select elements that are immediately preceded by the specified element.

  • element ~ element: Select elements that are preceded by the specified element.

CSS selectors offer a wide range of options for element selection based on various criteria, making them a flexible choice for test automation.

Advantages of CSS Selectors

CSS selectors offer several advantages that make them a popular choice for element selection in test automation:

  • CSS selectors are generally faster compared to XPath, as they are unidirectional and can search for elements in the DOM tree more efficiently.

  • The syntax of CSS selectors is simpler and more readable compared to XPath, making it easier for testers to construct and maintain selector expressions.

  • CSS selectors are widely supported by modern browsers, making them compatible with a wide range of web applications and frameworks.

  • They provide direct support for some attribute-based selectors, such as selecting elements by id or class, which can simplify element selection in many cases.

  • CSS selectors are reliable and stable, as they are often tied to specific HTML elements and are less likely to break due to changes in the DOM structure.

Disadvantages of CSS Selectors

While CSS selectors offer many advantages, they also have some limitations and drawbacks:

  • CSS selectors are unidirectional, meaning they can only traverse from parent to child elements. This can make it difficult to construct selectors for more complex scenarios that require traversing the DOM tree in different directions.

  • CSS selectors don't provide methods for handling complex element locators like XPath axes. This can limit their capabilities in certain use cases.

  • If an application does not include attributes for elements in the DOM tree, constructing a CSS selector can be challenging, and it may result in unreliable locators.

  • CSS selectors cannot be constructed based on visible text, which may be a limitation in some testing scenarios.

XPath vs CSS Selector: A Detailed Comparison

Now that we have explored XPath and CSS selectors individually, let's compare them in detail to help you choose the right locator for your test automation needs.

Syntax and Readability

One of the key differences between XPath and CSS selectors lies in their syntax and readability.

XPath syntax can be complex, especially for beginners, using axes, predicates, and different expression types. Constructing precise XPath queries may require a deep understanding of the syntax and document structure.

On the other hand, CSS selector syntax is simpler and more readable, making it easier for testers to construct and maintain selector expressions. CSS selectors use familiar HTML tag, class, and attribute representations, which are easier to understand and work with.

Performance

Performance is another important factor to consider when choosing between XPath and CSS selectors. In general, CSS selectors are faster compared to XPath.

CSS selectors are unidirectional, allowing them to search for elements in the DOM tree more efficiently.

XPath queries, especially complex ones or those applied to large documents, can be computationally expensive and impact the overall performance of test suites.

If performance is a critical factor in your test automation, CSS selectors may be the preferred choice.

Flexibility and Features

XPath offers more flexibility and advanced features compared to CSS selectors.

XPath provides axes, which allow for bidirectional traversal of the DOM tree and more complex element selection. XPath also offers a rich set of built-in functions and operators, enabling advanced selection and data processing tasks. It supports both absolute and relative search paths, giving testers more flexibility in constructing expressions.

CSS selectors, while less flexible, offer direct support for some attribute-based selectors like id and class, which can simplify element selection in many cases.

Compatibility

Both XPath and CSS selectors are widely supported in test automation libraries, programming languages, and modern browsers. However, XPath enjoys wider compatibility with different document types, including both XML and HTML.

CSS selectors, on the other hand, are primarily designed for HTML documents and may not work as expected with XML. When working with XML documents or applications that use XML-like structures, XPath may be the better choice.

Use Cases

The choice between XPath and CSS selectors ultimately depends on the specific use case and the attributes available in the DOM tree.

XPath is well-suited for complex scenarios that require bidirectional traversal, advanced selection features, or working with XML documents.

CSS selectors, with their simplicity and direct support for attribute-based selectors, are a good choice for most common use cases. If an element can be uniquely identified by its id, class, or other attributes, CSS selectors provide a reliable and efficient way to select the element.

How To Use XPath and CSS Selectors - Best Practices

When working with locators in test automation, it is essential to follow best practices to ensure robust and maintainable tests. Here are some best practices to consider:

- Use unique attributes whenever possible: Select elements based on unique attributes like id or unique class names whenever possible. This ensures that the locator will continue to work even if the DOM structure changes.

- Avoid using absolute selectors: Absolute XPath expressions, starting from the root of the document, are more prone to breaking when the DOM structure changes. Instead, use relative expressions that are more robust and easier to maintain.

- Keep selectors short and concise: Use minimal required information in your selectors to keep them short and concise. Long and complex selectors can be challenging to understand and maintain.

- Regularly review and update selectors: As your application evolves, regularly review and update your selectors to ensure they remain accurate and reliable. Changes in the DOM structure may require updating selectors to match the new structure.

- Leverage browser developer tools: To validate and test your selectors, use browser developer tools. These tools allow you to inspect the DOM structure and highlight the selected elements based on your selector expressions.

Conclusion

CSS and XPath selectors are both powerful tools for element selection in test automation. While XPath offers more flexibility and advanced features, CSS selectors provide simplicity and ease of use.

When choosing between the two, consider factors such as syntax, performance, compatibility, and specific use cases. Follow best practices in test automation to ensure robust and maintainable tests.

By making an informed decision and using the appropriate locator, testers can effectively select elements and build reliable automation frameworks.

Remember, test automation is not just about selecting elements; it is also about designing comprehensive and maintainable tests. By choosing the right locator and following best practices, testers can build robust and efficient automation frameworks that contribute to the success of their projects.

Happy (automated) testing!

XPath or CSS - FAQ

How to Replace XPath with CSS Selector?

To replace XPath with a CSS selector, understand that XPath is used for navigating through elements in the DOM using XPath expressions, whereas CSS selectors use a different syntax. You can convert relative XPath to a CSS selector expression by using CSS selector syntax, focusing on class selectors and element hierarchy.

Which Locator is Faster in Selenium: CSS or XPath?

In Selenium WebDriver, CSS selectors are generally faster than XPath. This is because CSS selector engines are optimized for performance, whereas XPath expressions and CSS selectors are processed differently, leading to slow performance for XPath in some cases.

What is the Difference Between Selector and Locator in CSS?

A selector in CSS is used to target elements on a web page using CSS selector syntax. A locator in Selenium, on the other hand, can be an XPath locator, CSS locator, or others. The difference lies in their use: CSS selectors are specific to styling HTML pages, whereas locators are used in automated testing to find elements.

Can You Use XPath in CSS?

No, you cannot directly use XPath in CSS. XPath and CSS selector expressions are fundamentally different. XPath allows for more complex queries, including navigating up the DOM (with parent element selection), which CSS selectors cannot do.

Why is CSS Selector Preferred Over XPath?

CSS selectors are preferred over XPath in many cases due to their simpler syntax and capabilities, faster performance, and better support across different browsers. CSS selectors only work with elements in the DOM and tend to break less often compared to XPath, especially with changes in the DOM structure.

What Can I Use Instead of XPath?

Instead of XPath, you can use CSS selectors in most cases. CSS selectors are simpler and often more efficient. They are particularly advantageous when dealing with class selectors or targeting child elements.

Which Locator is Better in Selenium?

In Selenium, the choice between CSS selectors and XPath depends on the specific needs. CSS selectors are often better for their speed and simplicity. However, XPath provides more flexibility for complex queries, especially when dealing with relative XPath or absolute XPath queries.

What is the Difference Between CSS Selector and XPath?

The main difference between CSS selector and XPath is their syntax and the type of queries they support. CSS selectors are more straightforward and are limited to selecting elements based on their class, ID, or other attributes. XPath, however, can perform more complex queries, like selecting elements based on their position or content.

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Dominik Szahidewicz

Software Developer

Application Consultant working as a Tech Writer https://www.linkedin.com/in/dominikdurejko/

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