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Performance tradeoffs of querySelector and querySelectorAll

wlytle
Former outdoor educator with a background in earth and climate sciences. Enthusiastic about using code to implement solutions to environmental and social challenges.
・5 min read

I recently became curious about the subtle differences in use and performance between the various methods of accessing the DOM in Javascript. Here I'm going to take a look at getElementById, querySelector, getElementsByClassName, getElementsByTagName, and querySelectorAll and try to sort out the differences. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that querySelector and querySelectorAll accept a wide range of search terms and can be far more precise than the other functions. While each of the other functions is a specialist (they only search by one selector) querySelector and querySelectorAll can make use of all of the fancy CSS selecting magic; check out this article for a more complete list.

Single Element Search

Let's begin with the functions that only return a single element from the DOM: getElementById, querySelector. Both of these functions return the HTML element matching the given search term or null if no there is no matching element in the DOM. getElementById will return the one element with the provided ID and querySelector will return the first node it finds that matches the search criteria. Let's take them for a spin and see which is faster!

<div id="div1"></div>
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// use querySelector 5 million times and time it
 function querySelectorLoop() {
  let t0 = console.time("querySelector");
  for (let i = 0; i < 5000000; i++) {
     document.querySelector("#div1");
  }
  let t1 = console.timeEnd("querySelector");
}

// use getElementById 5 million times and time it
function getByIdLoop() {
  let t0 = console.time("getElementById");
  for (let i = 0; i < num; i++) {
    const query = document.getElementById("div1");
  }
  let t1 = console.timeEnd("getElementById");
}

querySelectorLoop();
// => querySelector: 653.566162109375 ms

getByIdLoop();
// => getElementById: 567.281005859375 ms
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(Note: All tests were done on Chrome version 87.0.4280.67 non-reported tests were also done on safari with similar results.)

Well, that settles it, querySelector is slower than getElementById.... sort of. It took querySelector about 86ms longer to access the DOM 5 million times. That is not a lot of time. The reason for the discrepancy is likely because many browsers cache all of the ids when the DOM is first accessed and getElementById has access to this information while querySelector performs a depth-first search of all nodes until it finds what it's looking for. This suggestss that searching for a more complexly nested HTML element might increase the performance discrepancy.

Multiple Element Search

Before we investigate getElementsByClassName, getElementsByTagName, and querySelectorAll we need to talk about what each of these functions returns. getElementsByClassName, getElementsByTagName, each return an HTML Collection and querySelectorAll returns a Node List. These are both array-like, ordered, collections of values. They both have a length method and can be accessed via numbered indices. The major difference between an HTML Collection and a Node List is that an HTML Collection is a Live collection while a Node List is not. A live collection accurently reflects the current state of the DOM, while a not-live collection serves a snapshot. For example:

<ul>
  <li id= "first-li" class=list> Cheddar </li>
  <li class=list> Manchego </li>
  <li class=list> gruyere </li>
</ul>
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let htmlCollection = document.getElementsByClassName("list");
let nodeList = document.querySelectorAll(".list");
htmlCollection.length // => 3
nodeList.length // => 3

// Remove the first li
document.getElementById("first-li").remove();
// Re-check lengths
htmlCollection.length // => 2
nodeList.length // => 3
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As we can see the HTML Collection made with getElementsByClassName was updated simply by updating the DOM while our Node List remained static.

Now let's see how our functions measure up on speed.

<div id="div1"></div>
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// Make a div to hold newly created elements
const div = document.createElement("div");
let p;
// Create 5,000 new <p></p> elements with class="p" and append them to a div.
  for (let i = 0; i < 50000; i++) {
    p = document.createElement("p");
    p.className = "p";
    div.appendChild(p);
  }

// Append our 5,000 new p elements in a div to our existing div on the DOM
const oldDiv = document.getElementById("div1");
oldDiv.appendChild(div);

// Time getElementsByClassName creating an HTML Collection w/ 5,000 elements
function getByClass() {
  let t0 = console.time("Class");
  for (let i = 0; i < 5000; i++) {
    document.getElementsByClassName("p");
  }
  let t1 = console.timeEnd("Class");
}

// Time getElementsByTagName creating an HTML Collection w/ 5,000 elements
function getByTagName() {
  let t0 = console.time("Tag");
  for (let i = 0; i < 5000; i++) {
    document.getElementsByTagName("p");
  }
  let t1 = console.timeEnd("Tag");
}

// Time querySelectorAll creating an Node List w/ 5,000 elements
function getByQuery() {
  let t0 = console.time("Query");
  for (let i = 0; i < 5000; i++) {
    document.querySelectorAll("p");
  }
  let t1 = console.timeEnd("Query");
}

// Now run each function
getByQuery(); // => Query: 458.64697265625 ms
getByTagName(); // => Tag: 1.398193359375 ms
getByClass();// => Class: 2.048095703125 ms
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Now there's a performance difference!
Tortoise running a race

So what's going on here? It all has to do with the difference between Node Lists and HTML Collections. When a Node List is made each element is collected and stored, in order, in the Node List; this involves creating the Node List then filling it up within a loop. Whereas the live HTML Collections are made by simply registering the collection in a cache. In short, it's a trade-off; getElementsByTagName and getElementsByClassName have very low overhead to generate but have to do all of the heavy lifting of querying the DOM for changes every time an element is accessed (More detailed info about how this actually done here). Let's run a quick experiment to see this. This is pretty simple to do if we modify our code above to have return values.

//modifying the above functions to return collections like so...
...
return document.getElementsByClassName("p");
...
return document.getElementsByTagName("p");
...
return document.querySelectorAll("p");
...
// Assigning the returns to variables 
const queryP = getByQuery();
const tagP = getByTagName();
const classP = getByClass();

// See how long it takes to access the 3206th element of each collection
console.time("query");
queryP[3206];
console.timeEnd("query");// => query: 0.005126953125 ms

console.time("tag");
tagP[3206];
console.timeEnd("tag");// => tag: 0.12109375 ms

console.time("class");
classP[3206];
console.timeEnd("class");// => class: 0.18994140625 ms

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Tortoise running a race with rockets
As expected accessing an element fromquerySelectorAll is much faster - accessing an element fromgetElementsByTagName and getElementsByClassName is nearly 100 times slower! However, being 100 times slower than something really fast isn't necessarily slow, a tenth of a millisecond is hardly something to complain about.

Wrapping It Up

querySelector and querySelectorAll are both slower than other functions for accessing the DOM when they are first called; although querySelector is still not slow. querySelectorAll is much faster than getElementsByTagName and getElementsByClassName when accessing a member of the collection because of the differences in how live and non-live collections are stored. But again, getElementsByTagName and getElementsByClassName are not slow.

So which selectors to use? That will depend on your particular use case. The querySelector functions are much more versatile and have the ability to be far more precise but it may come with a performance cost and some situations are more suited for live collections than others.

Discussion (2)

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zoedreams profile image
☮️✝️☪️🕉☸️✡️☯️

for performance on large datasets consider looking into xquery syntax
w3schools.com/XML/xquery_flwor_htm...

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wlytle profile image
wlytle Author

Thanks for the tip!