XPath: difference between dot and text()

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My question is about specifics of using dot and text() in XPath. For example, following find_element lines returns same element:

driver.get('http://stackoverflow.com/')
driver.find_element_by_xpath('//a[text()="Ask Question"]')
driver.find_element_by_xpath('//a[.="Ask Question"]')

So what is the difference? What are the benefits and drawbacks of using . and text()?

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There is a difference between . and text(), but this difference might not surface because of your input document.

If your input document looked like (the simplest document one can imagine given your XPath expressions)

Example 1

<html>
<a>Ask Question</a>
</html>

Then //a[text()="Ask Question"] and //a[.="Ask Question"] indeed return exactly the same result. But consider a different input document that looks like

Example 2

<html>
<a>Ask Question<other/>
</a>
</html>

where the a element also has a child element other that follows immediately after “Ask Question”. Given this second input document, //a[text()="Ask Question"] still returns the a element, while //a[.="Ask Question"] does not return anything!


This is because the meaning of the two predicates (everything between [ and ]) is different. [text()="Ask Question"] actually means: return true if any of the text nodes of an element contains exactly the text “Ask Question”. On the other hand, [.="Ask Question"] means: return true if the string value of an element is identical to “Ask Question”.

In the XPath model, text inside XML elements can be partitioned into a number of text nodes if other elements interfere with the text, as in Example 2 above. There, the other element is between “Ask Question” and a newline character that also counts as text content.

To make an even clearer example, consider as an input document:

Example 3

<a>Ask Question<other/>more text</a>

Here, the a element actually contains two text nodes, “Ask Question” and “more text”, since both are direct children of a. You can test this by running //a/text() on this document, which will return (individual results separated by ----):

Ask Question
-----------------------
more text

So, in such a scenario, text() returns a set of individual nodes, while . in a predicate evaluates to the string concatenation of all text nodes. Again, you can test this claim with the path expression //a[.='Ask Questionmore text'] which will successfully return the a element.


Finally, keep in mind that some XPath functions can only take one single string as an input. As LarsH has pointed out in the comments, if such an XPath function (e.g. contains()) is given a sequence of nodes, it will only process the first node and silently ignore the rest.

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