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Back/forward cache

Back/forward cache

Optimize your pages for instant loads when using the browser's back and forward buttons.

Updated

Back/forward cache (or bfcache) is a browser optimization that enables instant back and forward navigation. It significantly improves the browsing experience for users—especially those with slower networks or devices.

As web developers, it's critical to understand how to optimize your pages for bfcache across all browsers, so your users can reap the benefits.

Browser compatibility

bfcache has been supported in both Firefox and Safari for many years, across desktop and mobile.

Starting in version 86, Chrome has enabled bfcache for cross-site navigations on Android for a small percentage of users. In Chrome 87, bfcache support will be rolled out to all Android users for cross-site navigation, with the intent to support same-site navigation as well in the near future.

bfcache basics

bfcache is an in-memory cache that stores a complete snapshot of a page (including the JavaScript heap) as the user is navigating away. With the entire page in memory, the browser can quickly and easily restore it if the user decides to return.

How many times have you visited a website and clicked a link to go to another page, only to realize it's not what you wanted and click the back button? In that moment, bfcache can make a big difference in how fast the previous page loads:

Without bfcache enabled A new request is initiated to load the previous page, and, depending on how well that page has been optimized for repeat visits, the browser might have to re-download, re-parse, and re-execute some (or all) of resources it just downloaded.
With bfcache enabled Loading the previous page is essentially instant, because the entire page can be restored from memory, without having to go to the network at all

Check out this video of bfcache in action to understand the speed up it can bring to navigations:

In the video above, the example with bfcache is quite a bit faster than the example without it.

bfcache not only speeds up navigation, it also reduces data usage, since resources do not have to be downloaded again.

Chrome usage data shows that 1 in 10 navigations on desktop and 1 in 5 on mobile are either back or forward. With bfcache enabled, browsers could eliminate the data transfer and time spent loading for billions of web pages every single day!

How the "cache" works

The "cache" used by bfcache is different from the HTTP cache (which is also useful in speeding up repeat navigations). The bfcache is a snapshot of the entire page in memory (including the JavaScript heap), whereas the HTTP cache contains only the responses for previously made requests. Since it's quite rare that all requests required to load a page can be fulfilled from the HTTP cache, repeat visits using bfcache restores are always faster than even the most well-optimized non-bfcache navigations.

Creating a snapshot of a page in memory, however, involves some complexity in terms of how best to preserve in-progress code. For example, how do you handle setTimeout() calls where the timeout is reached while the page is in the bfcache?

The answer is that browsers pause running any pending timers or unresolved promises—essentially all pending tasks in the JavaScript task queues—and resume processing tasks when (or if) the page is restored from the bfcache.

In some cases this is fairly low-risk (for example, timeouts or promises), but in other cases it might lead to very confusing or unexpected behavior. For example, if the browser pauses a task that's required as part of an IndexedDB transaction, it can affect other open tabs in the same origin (since the same IndexedDB databases can be accessed by multiple tabs simultaneously). As a result, browsers will generally not attempt to cache pages in the middle of an IndexedDB transaction or using APIs that might affect other pages.

For more details on how various API usage affects a page's bfcache eligibility, see Optimize your pages for bfcache below.

APIs to observe bfcache

While bfcache is an optimization that browsers do automatically, it's still important for developers to know when it's happening so they can optimize their pages for it and adjust any metrics or performance measurement accordingly.

The primary events used to observe bfcache are the page transition eventspageshow and pagehide—which have been around as long as bfcache has and are supported in pretty much all browsers in use today.

The newer Page Lifecycle events—freeze and resume—are also dispatched when pages go in or out of the bfcache, as well as in some other situations. For, example when a background tab gets frozen to minimize CPU usage. Note, the Page Lifecycle events are currently only supported in Chromium-based browsers.

Observe when a page is restored from bfcache

The pageshow event fires right after the load event when the page is initially loading and any time the page is restored from bfcache. The pageshow event has a persisted property which will be true if the page was restored from bfcache (and false if not). You can use the persisted property to distinguish regular page loads from bfcache restores. For example:

window.addEventListener('pageshow', function(event) {
if (event.persisted) {
console.log('This page was restored from the bfcache.');
} else {
console.log('This page was loaded normally.');
}
});

In browsers that support the Page Lifecycle API, the resume event will also fire when pages are restored from bfcache (immediately before the pageshow event), though it will also fire when a user revisits a frozen background tab. If you want to restore a page's state after it's frozen (which includes pages in the bfcache), you can use the resume event, but if you want to measure your site's bfcache hit rate, you'd need to use the pageshow event. In some cases, you might need to use both.

See Implications for performance and analytics for more details on bfcache measurement best practices.

Observe when a page is entering bfcache

The pagehide event is the counterpart to the pageshow event. The pageshow event fires when a page is either loaded normally or restored from the bfcache. The pagehide event fires when the page is either unloaded normally or when the browser attempts to put it into the bfcache.

The pagehide event also has a persisted property, and if it's false then you can be confident a page is not about to enter the bfcache. However, if the persisted property is true, it doesn't guarantee that a page will be cached. It means that the browser intends to cache the page, but there may be factors that make it impossible to cache.

window.addEventListener('pagehide', function(event) {
if (event.persisted === true) {
console.log('This page *might* be entering the bfcache.');
} else {
console.log('This page will unload normally and be discarded.');
}
});

Similarly, the freeze event will fire immediately after the pagehide event (if the event's persisted property is true), but again that only means the browser intends to cache the page. It may still have to discard it for a number of reasons explained below.

Optimize your pages for bfcache

Not all pages get stored in bfcache, and even when a page does get stored there, it won't stay there indefinitely. It's critical that developers understand what makes pages eligible (and ineligible) for bfcache to maximize their cache-hit rates.

The following sections outline the best practices to make it as likely as possible that the browser can cache your pages.

Never use the unload event

The most important way to optimize for bfcache in all browsers is to never use the unload event. Ever!

The unload event is problematic for browsers because it predates bfcache and many pages on the internet operate under the (reasonable) assumption that a page will not continue to exist after the unload event has fired. This presents a challenge because many of those pages were also built with the assumption that the unload event would fire any time a user is navigating away, which is no longer true (and hasn't been true for a long time).

So browsers are faced with a dilemma, they have to choose between something that can improve the user experience—but might also risk breaking the page.

Firefox has chosen to make pages ineligible for bfcache if they add an unload listener, which is less risky but also disqualifies a lot of pages. Safari will attempt to cache some pages with an unload event listener, but to reduce potential breakage it will not run the unload event when a user is navigating away.

Since 65% of pages in Chrome register an unload event listener, to be able to cache as many pages as possible, Chrome chose to align implementation with Safari.

Instead of using the unload event, use the pagehide event. The pagehide event fires in all cases where the unload event currently fires, and it also fires when a page is put in the bfcache.

In fact, Lighthouse v6.2.0 has added a no-unload-listeners audit, which will warn developers if any JavaScript on their pages (including that from third-party libraries) adds an unload event listener.

Warning: Never add an unload event listener! Use the pagehide event instead. Adding an unload event listener will make your site slower in Firefox, and the code won't even run most of the time in Chrome and Safari.

Only add beforeunload listeners conditionally

The beforeunload event will not make your pages ineligible for bfcache in Chrome or Safari, but it will make them ineligible in Firefox, so avoid using it unless absolutely necessary.

Unlike the unload event, however, there are legitimate uses for beforeunload. For example, when you want to warn the user that they have unsaved changes they'll lose if they leave the page. In this case, it's recommended that you only add beforeunload listeners when a user has unsaved changes and then remove them immediately after the unsaved changes are saved.

Don't

window.addEventListener('beforeunload', (event) => {
if (pageHasUnsavedChanges()) {
event.preventDefault();
return event.returnValue = 'Are you sure you want to exit?';
}
});

The code above adds a beforeunload listener unconditionally.

Do

function beforeUnloadListener(event) {
event.preventDefault();
return event.returnValue = 'Are you sure you want to exit?';
};

// A function that invokes a callback when the page has unsaved changes.
onPageHasUnsavedChanges(() => {
window.addEventListener('beforeunload', beforeUnloadListener);
});

// A function that invokes a callback when the page's unsaved changes are resolved.
onAllChangesSaved(() => {
window.removeEventListener('beforeunload', beforeUnloadListener);
});

The code above only adds the beforeunload listener when it's needed (and removes it when it's not).

Avoid window.opener references

In some browsers (including Chrome, as of version 86) if a page was opened using window.open() or from a link with target=_blank—without specifying rel="noopener"—then the opening page will have a reference to the window object of the opened page.

In addition to being a security risk, a page with a non-null window.opener reference cannot safely be put into the bfcache because that could break any pages attempting to access it.

As a result, it's best to avoid creating window.opener references by using rel="noopener" whenever possible. If your site requires opening a window and controlling it through window.postMessage() or directly referencing the window object, neither the opened window nor the opener will be eligible for bfcache.

Always close open connections before the user navigates away

As mentioned above, when a page is put into the bfcache all scheduled JavaScript tasks are paused and then resumed when the page is taken out of the cache.

If these scheduled JavaScript tasks are only accessing DOM APIs—or other APIs isolated to just the current page—then pausing these tasks while the page is not visible to the user is not going to cause any problems.

However, if these tasks are connected to APIs that are also accessible from other pages in the same origin (for example: IndexedDB, Web Locks, WebSockets, etc.) this can be problematic because pausing these tasks may prevent code in other tabs from running.

As a result, most browsers will not attempt to put a page in bfcache in the following scenarios:

If your page is using any of these APIs, it's best to always close connections and remove or disconnect observers during the pagehide or freeze event. That will allow the browser to safely cache the page without the risk of it affecting other open tabs.

Then, if the page is restored from the bfcache, you can re-open or re-connect to those APIs (in the pageshow or resume event).

Using the APIs listed above does not disqualify a page from being stored in bfcache, as long as they are not actively in use before the user navigates away. However, there are APIs (Embedded Plugins, Workers, Broadcast Channel, and several others) where usage currently does disqualify a page from being cached. While Chrome is intentionally being conservative in its initial release of bfcache, the long-term goal is to make bfcache work with as many APIs as possible.

Test to ensure your pages are cacheable

While there's no way to determine whether a page was put into the cache as it's unloading, it is possible to assert that a back or forward navigation did restore a page from the cache.

Currently, in Chrome, a page can remain in the bfcache for up to three minutes, which should be enough time to run a test (using a tool like Puppeteer or WebDriver) to ensure that the persisted property of a pageshow event is true after navigating away from a page and then clicking the back button.

Note that, while under normal conditions a page should remain in the cache for long enough to run a test, it can be evicted silently at any time (for example, if the system is under memory pressure). A failing test doesn't necessarily mean your pages are not cacheable, so you need to configure your test or build failure criteria accordingly.

Gotchas!

In Chrome, bfcache is currently only enabled on mobile. To test bfcache on desktop you need to enable the #back-forward-cache flag.

Ways to opt out of bfcache

If you do not want a page to be stored in the bfcache you can ensure it's not cached by setting the Cache-Control header on the top-level page response to no-store:

Cache-Control: no-store

All other caching directives (including no-cache or even no-store on a subframe) will not affect a page's eligibility for bfcache.

While this method is effective and works across browsers, it has other caching and performance implications that may be undesirable. To address that, there's a proposal to add a more explicit opt-out mechanism, including a mechanism to clear the bfcache if needed (for example, when a user logs out of a website on a shared device).

Also, in Chrome, user-level opt-out is currently possible via the #back-forward-cache flag, as well an enterprise policy-based opt-out.

Caution: Given the significantly better user experience that bfcache delivers, it is not recommended to opt-out unless absolutely necessary for privacy reasons, for example if a user logs out of a website on a shared device.

How bfcache affects analytics and performance measurement

If you track visits to your site with an analytics tool, you will likely notice a decrease in the total number of pageviews reported as Chrome continues to enable bfcache for more users.

In fact, you're likely already underreporting pageviews from other browsers that implement bfcache since most of the popular analytics libraries do not track bfcache restores as new pageviews.

If you don't want your pageview counts to go down due to Chrome enabling bfcache, you can report bfcache restores as pageviews (recommended) by listening to the pageshow event and checking the persisted property.

The following example shows how to do this with Google Analytics; the logic should be similar for other analytics tools:

// Send a pageview when the page is first loaded.
gtag('event', 'page_view')

window.addEventListener('pageshow', function(event) {
if (event.persisted === true) {
// Send another pageview if the page is restored from bfcache.
gtag('event', 'page_view')
}
});

Performance measurement

bfcache can also negatively affect performance metrics collected in the field, specifically metrics that measure page load times.

Since bfcache navigations restore an existing page rather than initiate a new page load, the total number of page loads collected will decrease when bfcache is enabled. What's critical, though, is that the page loads being replaced by bfcache restores would likely have been some of the fastest page loads in your dataset. This is because back and forward navigations, by definition, are repeat visits, and repeat page loads are generally faster than page loads from first time visitors (due to HTTP caching, as mentioned earlier).

The result is fewer fast page loads in your dataset, which will likely skew the distribution slower—despite the fact that the performance experienced by the user has probably improved!

There are a few ways to deal with this issue. One is to annotate all page load metrics with their respective navigation type: navigate, reload, back_forward, or prerender. This will allow you to continue to monitor your performance within these navigation types—even if the overall distribution skews negative. This approach is recommended for non-user-centric page load metrics like Time to First Byte (TTFB).

For user-centric metrics like the Core Web Vitals, a better option is to report a value that more accurately represents what the user experiences.

Caution: The back_forward navigation type in the Navigation Timing API is not to be confused with bfcache restores. The Navigation Timing API only annotates page loads, whereas bfcache restores are re-using a page loaded from a previous navigation.

Impact on Core Web Vitals

Core Web Vitals measure the user's experience of a web page across a variety of dimensions (loading speed, interactivity, visual stability), and since users experience bfcache restores as faster navigations than traditional page loads, it's important that the Core Web Vitals metrics reflect this. After all, a user doesn't care whether or not bfcache was enabled, they just care that the navigation was fast!

Tools like the Chrome User Experience Report, that collect and report on the Core Web Vitals metrics will soon be updated to treat bfcache restores as separate page visits in the dataset.

And while there aren't (yet) dedicated web performance APIs for measuring these metrics after bfcache restores, their values can be approximated using existing web APIs.

  • For Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), you can use the delta between the pageshow event's timestamp and the timestamp of the next painted frame (since all elements in the frame will be painted at the same time). Note that in the case of a bfcache restore, LCP and FCP will be the same.
  • For First Input Delay (FID), you can re-add the event listeners (the same ones used by the FID polyfill) in the pageshow event, and report FID as the delay of the first input after the bfcache restore.
  • For Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), you can continue to keep using your existing Performance Observer; all you have to do is reset the current CLS value to 0.

For more details on how bfcache affects each metric, refer to the individual Core Web Vitals metric guides pages. And for a specific example of how to implement bfcache versions of these metrics in code, refer to the PR adding them to the web-vitals JS library.

As of v1, the web-vitals JavaScript library supports bfcache restores in the metrics it reports. Developers using v1 or greater should not need to update their code.

Additional Resources

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