How to Find HTML Elements By Class?

When scraping websites, it's important to gather data ethically and legally. Here is a technical overview of how to find HTML elements by class name to selectively scrape public data.

Why Targeting Elements by Class Name Matters

On most modern websites, ID, and class attributes are liberally applied to HTML tags to enable styling and interactivity. As a result, targeting elements by class name has become an essential scraping skill:

  • Classes uniquely identify types of elements, like product listings or comment threads
  • Targeting classes allows scraping only relevant data points on a complex page
  • Specificity is crucial for clean, structured scraped data
  • Avoiding unnecessary data points lightens server load

Let's dive into the different methods available…

CSS Selectors – The Most Common Approach

Without a doubt, CSS selectors are the most popular method for targeting elements by class in web scraping. They offer simple, flexible ways to create very precise selection rules.

Exact Class Match with Dot Notation

The .class-name CSS selector syntax matches HTML elements where the class attribute equals exactly the value provided. For example:

.product-listing {
  /* Matches:
     <div class="product-listing">...</div>

.recommend {
  /* Matches:
    <span class="recommend">

This makes .class notation ideal for scraping when you know the precise class names used on target elements.

Partial Class Match with Attribute Contains

The [class*="name"] CSS selector syntax locates elements where the class attribute contains the provided substring. For example:

[class*="product"] {
  /* Matches:
    <div class="latest-products">
    <div class="product-list">

This approach is extremely useful when class names contain random strings, timestamps, or other variable text:

<div class="product-listing-932029384028">...</div>
<div class="product-listing-583028432093">...</div>

The [class*="product"] rule would match product-listing- elements despite the random suffixes.

Combining Multiple Class Rules

Multiple CSS selector rules can be combined to match elements by multiple conditions. For example, to locate <div> elements with both a certain ID and class name:

div.products#main-listings {
  /* Matches:
    <div id="main-listings" class="products">

Or to find elements matching either rule:

div.products, div.listings {

These combinations provide powerful flexibility to target elements based on multiple class attributes.

CSS Selector Limitations

However, CSS selectors do have some limitations and edge cases to be aware of:

  • Browser quirks – Certain selectors have issues with specificity or compatibility
  • Can only evaluate current element's attributes
  • No traversal to parent or sibling elements
  • Limited to targeting by class, ID, element type, attributes, etc – but not values

For complex logic or traversal, an XPath query may be more robust…

XPath Queries – Advanced Logic & Traversal

XPath is a versatile query language purpose-built for navigating XML and HTML documents. For precise selection based on classes and other criteria, XPath provides advanced logical and traversal syntax beyond CSS.

Exact Class Match

Similar to CSS, XPath can target elements by exact class attribute values using simple string matching:


This locates all elements class="product-listing" regardless of element type.

Partial Class Match

The XPath contains() function allows matching on partial class values, similar to CSS attribute contains:

//*[contains(@class, "product")]

This flexibility is useful for targeting elements with variable or unpredictable class names.

Complex Logical Predicates

Far more advanced logic can be constructed by combining XPath predicates like:

  • Mathematical comparison operators
  • Boolean logic
  • Nested predicates
  • Custom functions

For example:

//div[contains(@class, "listing") and @data-count > 10]

This finds all <div> elements with class names containing "listing", where the data-count attribute is numerically greater than 10. The possibilities are endless for crafting a query to match extremely precise conditions.

Traversal to Other Elements

A key advantage of XPath is the ability to traverse HTML tree relationships, like finding parent, sibling, or descendant elements. For example, this query finds all <span> tags which have an <a> ancestor with matching class:


The flexibility to traverse enables scraping related data points in context, not just isolated elements.

When to Use XPath Over CSS Selectors

With advanced logic and traversal features, it's clear XPath queries are incredibly powerful for matching elements. However, that power comes at the cost of verbosity, complexity, and slower performance.

That's why I generally recommend starting with CSS selectors for most use cases, then leveraging XPath where needed for:

  • Dynamic sites where class names vary
  • Traversing HTML relationships
  • Very complex conditional logic
  • CSS selector fails or has quirks

Evaluate both options on a new site to determine what works best for targeting required elements.

Responsible Web Scraping Guidelines

While the technical details above describe how to find HTML elements by class systematically, it's crucially important we discuss ethics when putting these scraping capabilities into practice.

Respect Robots.txt Restrictions

The first step for any web scraping project should be checking the robots.txt file for access restrictions. Responsible scraping means respecting what data site owners wish to disallow automated access to.

Seek Permission and Scrape Judiciously

Ideally, request formal permission from the site owner to scrape data. If permission isn't possible or feedback is lacking, you may scrape public information judisiciously. But be extremely careful about scale and frequency to avoid overburdening servers.

Use Services with Safeguards

When scraping at scale, leverage commercial services designed with safeguards like usage limits, throttling queues, and proxies to distribute requests. For example, BrightData, ScraperAPI, or ProxyCrawl offer managed solutions to scrape responsibly.

Consult Legal Counsel

To understand rights and responsibilities when scraping public websites, it's wise to consult an attorney specializing in relevant regional laws and precedents. Legality can hinge subtly on intent and scale.

Adhering to these best practices has allowed me to build successful commercial web scraping solutions over years – while respecting data ownership and preventing excessive burden. As technologies and laws progress, so must our ethical standards.


Locating HTML elements by class name underpins precise, efficient web scraping. Mastering CSS selectors and XPath positions in your toolbox enables extracting only the most relevant data points from complex sites.

While simple in concept, scrapers leveraging these technical capabilities have an ethical responsibility to respect site owner wishes and scrape judiciously. Applying the guidelines provided, along with sound judgment as laws and norms evolve, ensures our scraping brings value responsibly.

I hope this comprehensive guide gives all the technical details and context needed to find elements by class proficiently while furthering positive ends.

John Rooney

John Rooney

John Watson Rooney, a self-taught Python developer and content creator with a focus on web scraping, APIs, and automation. I love sharing my knowledge and expertise through my YouTube channel, My channel caters to all levels of developers, from beginners looking to get started in web scraping to experienced programmers seeking to advance their skills with modern techniques. I have worked in the e-commerce sector for many years, gaining extensive real-world experience in data handling, API integrations, and project management. I am passionate about teaching others and simplifying complex concepts to make them more accessible to a wider audience. In addition to my YouTube channel, I also maintain a personal website where I share my coding projects and other related content.

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