Identify a Site's CMS by the "Head" Element

Reveal the WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal Under the Hood

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Many big sites are built with a CMS like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal, but they often try to mask their identity. With a little close attention, you can usually spot the truth. Here are the easier things to check.

First, Check the Obvious Hints

Sometimes, the site builder hasn't removed the obvious signs that come built with the CMS. For instance:

  • An actual CMS credit appears in the footer or sidebar

  • The page icon in the browser tab is the CMS logo

The Joomla logo seems especially frequent as an icon. Often, you can tell that the site owners spent a fair bit of money getting a custom site built, but no one's noticed yet that the default Joomla icon is still cheerfully sticking around.

Next, Examine the <head> element

Have you ever seen headlines like, "WordPress powers over 50 million websites," and wondered how they know? Sometimes, these headlines refer to how many times the CMS has been downloaded, which is easy enough to count. But it's fairly easy to estimate the actual site count because most CMSs include hidden tags that identify it.

These hidden tags are in the "head" element, which comes at the top of the page, before the <body> tag.

Use the "Inspect Element" Tool

You can view the <head> element with View Source, but it's much easier if you have or get the "Inspect Element" tool. This lovely little tool lets you examine the HTML source of particular parts of the page in a quick, structured way.

It's much faster than wading through screens of HTML with View Source.

To see the <head>, right-click near the top of the page and choose Inspect Element on the pop-up menu. You'll see the HTML code of the page. At the top of the code, you'll see <head> … </head>, or in Firebug, + <head>.

The or + means that this section is folded.

Click to expand it, and you'll see something like this:

<head>
  <base href="http://www.joomla.org/index.php">
  <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8">
  <meta name="robots" content="index, follow">
  <meta name="keywords" content="joomla, cms, open source, 1.7, new, version, releases">
  <meta name="title" content="Joomla 1.7">
  <meta name="author" content="Kyle Ledbetter">
  <meta name="description" content="Joomla! is all-new with version 1.7. Updates, language and platform are the focus of this release.">
  <meta name="generator" content="Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management">

That's from joomla.org. There's a lot more, but the important line is:

<meta content="Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management" name="generator">

The Tell-Tale "Meta Generator" Element

You might think this line is there because this is joomla.org. But let's pick one of the thousands of government sites using Joomla. How about www.coastalamerica.gov? No Joomla icon as the logo, but a quick Inspect Element reveals ...

<head>
  <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8">
  <meta name="robots" content="index, follow">
  <meta name="keywords" content="Coastal America">
  <meta name="description" content="Coastal America">
  <meta name="generator" content="Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management">

Pretty neat.

On WordPress, you'll see a line like:

<meta content="WordPress 3.1.3" name="generator">

For Drupal, it's interesting. I can't seem to find the "generator" tag for Drupal 6, but on Drupal 7, you'll see:

<meta content="Drupal 7 (http://drupal.org)" name="Generator">

Of course, WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal aren't the only CMSs to use the <meta generator> element. Here's line tag for MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia:

<meta content="MediaWiki 1.18wmf1" name="generator">

However, you won't actually see that element on Wikipedia. For some reason, they removed it, even though they have a big "Powered by MediaWiki" button on the footer of every page.

I had to get this line from the MediaWiki site.

What if the "Meta Generator" Element Is Removed?

Although this "generator" tag is quick and helpful, it's fairly easy for site builders to remove. And, sadly, they often do, probably from venerable superstitions about security, SEO, or even branding.

Fortunately, each CMS has several identifying features that are much harder to mask. If you're still curious, let's dig deeper for CMS clues.

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