Using data-* attributes in JavaScript and CSS

When HTML5 got defined one of the things that was planned for was extensibility in terms of data that should be in the HTML, but not visible. The data-* attributes allow us to store extra information on HTML elements without needing to use a non-semantic element or pollute the class name. In essence this is what we did with custom attributes before.

These data attributes can be used in many ways, some are a bad idea but others are a good plan. The rule of thumb is that content that should be visible and accessible should not be stored in them. The reason is that assistive technology is not likely to be able to access them and search crawlers don’t index them either.

The syntax is dead easy. Say you have an article and you want to store some extra information that doesn’t have any visual representation. Just use data attributes for that:


Reading those out in JavaScript is also very simple. You could use getAttribute to read them but the HTML5 standard defines a simpler way: a DOMStringMap you can read out via a dataset property:

var article = document.querySelector('#electriccars'),
              data = article.dataset;
// data.columns -> "3"
// data.indexnumber -> "12314"
// data.parent -> "cars"

Each property is a string (even if you omit the quotes in the HTML) and can be read and written. In the above case setting article.dataset.columns = 5 would change that attribute.

Now, as data-attributes are plain HTML attributes you can even access them from CSS. For example to show the parent data on the article you can use generated content in CSS:

article::before {
  content: attr(data-parent);

You can also use the attribute selectors in CSS to change styles according to the data:

  width: 400px;
  width: 600px;

You can see all this working together in this JSBin example.

Data attributes can also be stored to contain information that is constantly changing, like scores in a game. Using the CSS selectors and JavaScript access here this allows you to build some nifty effects without having to write your own display routines. See the following screencast for an example using generated content and CSS transitions:

The code example shown in the screencast is also on JSBin.

Issues with data-attributes

Sadly enough it seems there is nothing that is so simple and useful that doesn’t come with a price. In this case the main issues to consider are that Internet Explorer does not support the dataset but you’d need to read them out with getAttribute() instead. The other issue is that the performance of reading data-attributes compared to storing this data in a JS data warehouse is bad. Using dataset is even slower than reading the data out with getAttribute().

That said, though, for content that is not to be shown they are a great solution and maybe we can get them into the next IE soon.

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Data attributes rock – as both CSS and JavaScript know them

Currently my better half Kasia is working on a JavaScript training course and wanted to explain the concepts of JavaScript with a game. So we sat down and did a simple game example whilst she was fretting over the structure of the course. As she wanted to explain how to interact with the DOM in JavaScript rather than using Canvas we had some fun using CSS animation in conjunction with simple keyboard controls. More on the game in due time, but here is a quick thing we found to be extremely useful and not really used enough in the wild – the interplay of data attributes, CSS and changing states.

Defining a player element

We wanted to make the game hackable, people playing with HTML could change it. That was more a request by me as Mozilla has the Webmaker project and there will be a lot of game hacking at Mozfest in November.

In order to define a player element the semantic fan in me would do something like this:

<div id="player">
		<li class="name">Joe</li>
		<li class="score">100</li>

This makes sense in terms of HTML, and is accessible, too. However, in terms of accessing this in JavaScript, it is quite annoying as you need three element matches. Also in terms of maintenance it means three elements. In JS you’d need to do something like:

var player = document.querySelector('#player'),
    name   = document.querySelector('#player .name'),
    score  = document.querySelector('#player .score');

In order to change the score value, you’d need to change the innerHTML of the score reference.

score.innerHTML = 10;

Aside: yes I know there are lots of HTML templating solutions and I am sure dozens of jQuery solutions for that, but let’s stick to vanilla JS as this was about teaching that.

A HTML5 player element

Instead of going through these pains, we found it to be much easier to go with data attributes:

<div id="dataplayer" data-name="Joe" data-score="100">

The clever thing here is that HTML5 already gives us an API to change this data:

var player = document.querySelector('#dataplayer');
// read
alert('Score:' + player.dataset.score);
alert('Name:' +;
// write
player.dataset.score = 10;
// read again
alert('Score:' + player.dataset.score);

Re-using attribute values

Another benefit of using data attributes is that CSS gets them. Say for example you want to show the colour of the score value in red when it reaches 10. In the first HTML using a list you’d need to do the testing in JavaScript and add a class to have a different display. You could of course also change the colour directly with the style collection but that is awful in terms of maintenance. It can cause reflows in your rendering and also means another thing to explain to maintainers.

function changescore(newscore) {
	if (newscore === 10) {
	} else {
#player .low {
	color: #c00;

Aside: jQuery has contains(‘foo’) to match elements with the text in their node content in the selector engine, but it has been deprecated as a CSS standard, so that is not the way to go.

When using data attributes you don’t need that – all you need is an attribute selector in CSS:

#dataplayer[data-score='10'] {
	color: #c00;

To display the scores you can use generated content in CSS:

#dataplayer::after {
	content: attr(data-name);
	position: absolute; 
	left: -50px;
#dataplayer::before {
	opacity: 0;
	content: attr(data-score);
	position: absolute; 
	left: 100px;

Check out the following fiddle to see all in action:

The only downside I can think of is that only Firefox allows for transitions and animations on generated content. All in all we found data attributes incredibly useful though.

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