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Highlight the Current Page with CSS: The Body ID/Class Method

Summary: This article shows how to automatically highlight menu items that correspond to the current page using CSS and XHTML. These "you are here" waypoints help orient users and improve usability. Using CSS avoids the need for complex scripting which simplifies maintenance and improves performance.

"Danger, Will Robinson!" For those that remember the TV show "Lost in Space," these words often ring true in the sometimes confusing world of cyberspace. When users navigate through your site you can help avoid those fateful words with "you are here" waypoints. This article shows how to automatically highlight menu items that correspond to the current page using CSS and XHTML. Using CSS avoids the need for complex JavaScript or PHP/JSP scripting which simplifies maintenance and improves performance.

Highlighting Methods

There are a number of ways to highlight the current page in menu items, namely XSSI, with scripting (PHP, JSP, etc.), with CMS template logic, and CSS.

XSSI Active Tab Highlighting

You can highlight the current page with XSSI as we use in WebSiteOptimization.com's navigation (see Figure 1):

website optimization current page example XSSI

Figure 1: Website Optimization XSSI Highlight Example

The XSSI technique uses dynamically assigned "act"ive classes and simplified CSS to minimize the amount of code.

<!--#include virtual="/css/css.html" -->
</head><body>
<!--#include virtual="/css/navmain.html" -->
<!--#include virtual="/cgi-bin/breadcrumb.pl" -->

... navmain.html snippet below ...

<!--#if expr="(${DOCUMENT_URI} = /^\/sitemap\/.*/)" -->
<a class="but" href="/">Home</a> 
<a class="but act" href="/sitemap/">Sitemap</a> ...
<a class="but" href="/services/">Services</a> ... 
...
<!--#elif expr="(${DOCUMENT_URI} = /^\/services\/.*/)" -->
<a class="but" href="/">Home</a> 
<a class="but" href="/sitemap/">Sitemap</a> ...
<a class="but act" href="/services/">Services</a>...

Here we use XSSI to assign the "act"ive class to pages that fall within directories like /publications/ or /sitemap/. We parse the DOCUMENT_URI environment variable to look for URL strings that begin with "/sitemap/" and "/services/" and add the "act"ive class dynamically. Then our CSS uses these rules to highlight the active tab:

#n a.but{padding:1px 6px;text-decoration:none;color:#390390;} 
#n a.but:hover{color:#eee;background:#66339a}
#n a.act:hover,#n a.act{color:#333;background:#dcdcdc;}

cnn current page highlight example

This technique uses less code than the body ID/class method but requires that the XSSI be processed each time a page loads. A classic tradeoff of time for space. CNN.com uses a similar approach to assign a "current" class to the selected section:

<li><div><a href="/LAW/">Law</a></div></li>
<li class="current"><div><a href="/TECH/">Technology</a></div></li>
<li><div><a href="/TECH/space/">Science & Space</a></div></li>

Another method that doesn't require XSSI or scripting is to use what has become known as the body ID/class method.

The BODY ID/Class Method of Highlighting Active Tabs

The body id/class method labels body tags and menu items with IDs or classes and uses grouped selectors to highlight the active tab by matching the body label with the menu label. Here's an example from our sister site OptimizationWeek.com (see Figure 2).

optimization week current page example CSS

Figure 2: Optimization Week Current Page Highlight Example (Body ID/Class Method)

To auto-highlight your current navigation, first label your body tags with an ID or class that matches the section of the site (usually a directory) that the page is in.

<body class="ab">

We label all files in the "/about/" directory with the "ab" class. Note that we use a class here to label the body tags. We found that using an ID in the body did not work consistently in some older browsers. Next we label our menu items so we can target them individually thus:

<div id="n">
<a class="b" id="hm" href="/">Home</a> ...
<a class="b" id="ab" href="/about/">About</a> ...
</div>

Note that we use the "b"utton class to label menu items as buttons and an ID ("ab") to label each unique menu item (in this case about). Now all we need is a CSS selector that matches up the body label with the appropriate menu label like this:

body.ab #n #ab, body.ab #n #ab a{color:#333;background:#dcdcdc;text-decoration:none;}

This code effectively highlights the "About" menu item and makes it appear dark gray. When you label the rest of the site and menu items, you'll end up with a grouped selector that looks something like this:

body.hm #n #hm, body.hm #n #hm a,
body.sm #n #sm, body.sm #n #sm a,
body.is #n #is, body.is #n #is a,
body.ab #n #ab, body.ab #n #ab a, 
body.ct #n #ct, body.ct #n #ct a{color:#333;background:#dcdcdc;text-decoration:none;}

For example when the user navigates to the sitemap section the .sm classed body tag matches the #sm menu option and triggers the CSS highlight of the "Sitemap" in the navigation bar.

AListApart.com Stylesheet Highlights

ALA uses a similar method to highlight the current page/section (see Figure 3).

alistapart.com current page example CSS

Figure 3: AListApart.com Current Page Highlight Example (CSS)

ALA uses the following code in their "base.css" stylesheet. Note the similarity to the code above, a grouped selector matching up the body class with the menu item ID name to highlight the active tab.

#navbar a:hover,
  .articles #navbar #articles a,
  .topics #navbar #topics a,
  .about #navbar #about a,
  .contact #navbar #contact a,
  .contribute #navbar #contribute a,
  .feed #navbar #feed a {
 background: url(/pix/navbarlinkbg.gif) top left repeat-x; color: #555;
}

....

<body class="articles" onload="">

<ul id="navbar">
  <li id="articles"><a href="/articles/" title="Articles">Articles</a></li>
  <li id="topics"><a href="/topics/" title="Topics">Topics</a></li>
  <li id="about"><a href="/about/" title="About">About</a></li>
  <li id="contact"><a href="/contact/" title="Contact">Contact</a></li>
  <li id="contribute"><a href="/contribute/" title="Contribute">Contribute</a></li>
  <li id="feed"><a href="/feed/" title="Feed">Feed</a></li>
</ul>

Conclusion

With the body ID/class method you can use CSS to highlight the navigational item that matches the current page. This "you are here" waypoint helps orient and anchor the user to reduce confusion and increase usability. By using CSS instead of scripting to highlight the active tab you can save on maintenance costs and improve website performance.

CNN.com Technology
CNN uses dynamically assigned classes to highlight the active tab.
Keeping Navigation Current with PHP
Shows how to add a dash of PHP to list-based menus to highlight the current page. By Jason Pearce for AListApart.com.
OptimizationWeek.com
Has a live example of the body id/class method.

By website optimization on 30 Jun 2006 AM

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Last modified: August 26, 2013.

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