The HTML structure of webmail interfaces: Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail

As part of the Zentact project I’ve been working on, we were asked to integrate with various webmail clients. This makes it easy to manage your contacts while sending email.

Doing this was a bit of a pain. Since all code is minified, and they all use Javascript events differently, there was a good bit of working to figure out the details. I wanted to share this info in a blog post for programmers who come along in the future. If you don’t know/care about HTML, Javascript events, the DOM, YUI, or AJAX, this post is not for you. Please enjoy one of my other fine posts, perhaps this post on military code names.

Before I begin: there was a ton of info learned (and already forgotten) about this process. This is not a complete guide, but is mostly a brain dump from implementing UI integration on three different webmail interfaces.

  • Gmail uses 6-character strings, [A-Za-z0-9] for all its classes. These classes remain the same from load-to-load, but I believe that they may change over time with minification. IDs are not as constant, and many are dynamically assigned. These start with a colon.
  • When you’re working with events, you may get inconsistent results. Some events are not fully propagated, they get captured and you can’t find out about them. If onclick doesn’t work, try listening for onmousedown or onmouseup. One of them may get you notified of the event you want. Same advice goes for onkeydown, onkeyup, and onkeypress. That being said, once you get into these, be sure to realize that these three events will occur in particular orders. Make sure you’ll be getting notified at the right time.
  • All of the webmail UIs use iframes. This lets them keep their code for loading the UI separate from the code to display the UI. I know there’s some cross-site scripting implications in this, but I’m not sure of all the details. Gmail’s loading screen (the loading bar they show you) is a different iframe than the one that shows you the inbox. All of these iframes are at the root of the document, and there’s nothing else in there.
  • You could use Firebug break points to pause the code and examine what’s going on, but nearly all JS is minified. Since breakpoints can only be set by line, and there’s multiple functions defined per line, it ends up not being helpful.
  • For its UI, Yahoo seems to use YUI, plus some other stuff on top of that. There’s some weird results because of this. The body of the email editor is a group of DIVs, some are invisible, some are for border decoration, and others are for the background of the editor.
  • When we inserted elements into Yahoo Mail using regular DOM operations, they would appear behind other page elements, until another part of the UI was interacted with, when the screen would redraw and then they would bump into place. YUI seems to have its own redraw/repaint functionality, and it won’t play nice with DOM manipulations.
  • Hotmail is strangely one of the less-exotic interfaces. They use consistent IDs. I don’t think they’re hand-coded, however, because they submit to a naming scheme that seems too machine-generated. But still, they are there, and you should take advantage of them.
  • When you’re using events, and you get notified of an event, use the event.originalTarget property to find out where in the DOM you are. That’s useful information when you’re dealing with a DOM tree of nonsense class names and IDs.
  • When you’re trying to figure out where in a DOM tree you are, don’t hesitate to go up several levels and check a great grandparent node, or a “cousin” node. Once you get a single point of reference, you can generally work out where everything else is, relative to it.
  • Some UIs open each message in its own iframe, which means that IDs are consistent since they’re in their own namespace.

Also, thanks to Nate Koechley for helping me get through some of the Yahoo details.

If you’ve got other questions, shoot me an email. I remember more stuff, but might need a good question to shake it loose.