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

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Many big sites are built with a CMS (content management system) like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal, but they often try to mask their identity. Paying closer 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

. 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

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

That's from

joomla.org

. There's a lot more, but the important line is:

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 ...

Pretty neat.

On WordPress, you'll see a line like:

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

Of course, WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal aren't the only CMSs to use the

<meta generator>

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.