User-generated content and DOM clobbering

September 5, 2014 code 4 min read

The web lives and dies by the DOM. It is both a beautiful and horrible thing. Here is just one example; it’s called “DOM clobbering”.

Say you have a site, like, that allows users to place whatever content they want on it. You want to be a hospitable host of that content, so you try to make it as feature-ful as possible. For example, if the content includes an h1 tag, you want to add anchors so anyone can link directly to that header.

There are two ways that browsers support deep-linking to content:

  1. An id attribute on any tag.
  2. an a tag with a name attribute.
<h1 id="problem">The Problem</h1>

<h1><a name="solution">The Solution</a></h1>

With either method, users can link to #problem and the browser will scroll down to that heading. Ok, we all know how links work, so what’s the big deal?

The Problem

id is used by both JavaScript and CSS. Allowing users to create content with arbitrary id attributes means that they could intentionally or unintentionally break functional or styles. So our first option for deep-linking is out. Good thing we have a second option.

Unfortunately, there’s this really uncool interaction between HTML and the DOM where elements with a name attribute are assigned to variables on document. Early cave dwellers would use this “feature” to quickly gain access to form elements, but this appendix hasn’t been needed since the advent of HTML 4.01 when document.getElementsByName was introduced.

But, what’s the harm in leaving this feature around? Somebody might still find it useful.

<a name="addEventListener">Oh, you wanted to bind events?</a>

Consider your DOM clobbered.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Browsers wouldn’t override existing properties like document.addEventListener, would they?”. I know, I had the same thought! I don’t want to name names, but certain non-webkit-based browsers may disappoint you.

Neither option allows us to deep-link to content without the possibility of interfering with the rest of the site.

The Solution

Prefix every id and name attribute coming from a user with user-content-, and use JavaScript to preserve the browser’s scroll on the hashchange event. So…

<a name="addEventListener"></a>

…gets rewritten to…

<a name="user-content-addEventListener"></a>

And then we use this CoffeeScript to preserve the browser’s behavior of scrolling to the hash.

jQuery(window).on 'hashchange', (event) ->
  # We don't need to do anything if there is no hash.
  return unless location.hash

  # We don't need to do anything if the current target exists
  return if document.querySelector(":target")

  # See if a user-content-* element exists and scroll to it
  name = "user-content-#{location.hash.slice(1)}"
  target = document.getElementById(name) ||

Using JavaScript to mimic the browser’s native behavior is usually not ideal. If browsers supported a way to deep-link to content that didn’t have a negative impact on other DOM features, then we wouldn’t even have to worry about it. But they don’t.

We’ve been using this method on for a few months now without any noticeable impact.

This content is open source. Suggest Improvements.


avatar of Brandon Keepers I am Brandon Keepers, and I work at GitHub on making Open Source more approachable, effective, and ubiquitous. I tend to think like an engineer, work like an artist, dream like an astronaut, love like a human, and sleep like a baby.