Why does Wordpress have separate 'usersmeta' and 'users' SQL tables. Why not combine them?

Alongside the users table, Wordpress has a usersmeta table with the following columns

  • meta_id
  • user_id
  • meta_key (e.g. first_name)
  • meta_value (e.g. Tom)

Each user has 20 rows in the usersmeta table, regardless of whether or not the rows have a filled-in meta_value. That said, would it not be more efficient to add the always-present meta rows to the users table?

I'm guessing that the information in the users table is more frequently queried (e.g. user_id, username, pass), so it is more efficient to keep those rows smaller. Is this true? And are there other reasons for this separation of tables?


Entity Attribute Value

It's known as the Entity Attribute Value (EAV) data model, and allows an arbitrary number of attributes to be assigned to a given entity. That means any number of meta-data entries per user.

Why use it

By default there are a few keys that wordpress sets (20 stated in the question) but there can be any number. If all users have one thousand meta data entries - there are simply one thousand entries in the usermeta table for each user - it doesn't have (in terms of the database structure) a limit to the number of meta data entries a user can have. It also permits one user to have one thousand meta data entires, whilst all others have 20 and still store the data efficiently - or any permutation thereof.

In addition to flexibility, using this kind of structure permits the main users table to remain small - which means more efficient queries.


The alternatives to using EAV include:

  • Modify the schema whenever the number of attributes changes
  • Store all attributes in a serialized string (on the user object)
  • Use a schemaless db

Permissions is the biggest problem with the first point, it is not a good idea to grant blanket access to alter the schema of your database tables, and is a (sane) roadblock for many if not most wordpress installs (hosted on wordpress.com or on a shared host where the db user has no alter permissions). Mysql also has a hard-limit of 4096 columns and 65,535 bytes per row. Attempting to store a large number of columns in a single table will eventually fail, along the way creating a table that is inefficient to query.

Storing all attribute in a serialized string would make it difficult and slow to query by a meta-data value.

Wordpress is quite tied to mysql, and therefore changing datastore isn't a realistic option.

Further WP info

If you aren't using any/many plugins it's possible you will have a constant number of rows in the usermeta table for each user, but typically each plugin you add may need to add meta-data for users; the number added may not be trivial and this data is stored in the usermeta table.

The docs for add_meta_user may add some clarity as to why the database is structured that way. If you put code like this somewhere:

add_user_meta($user_id, "favorite_color", "blue");

It will create a row in the usermeta table for the given user_id, without the need to add a column (favorite_color) to the main users table. That makes it easy-ish to find users by favorite color without the need to modify the schema of the users table.

This is really a question about database normalization. You can look for information on that topic in many places.

Basic answer Since there is a huge literature about this, and there are a lot of differences, I will just give some examples of why this might happen - it boild down to trade-offs; Speed versus storage requirements, or ease of use versus data duplication. Efficiency is multidimensional, and since wordpress does a lot of different things, it may have various reasons to keep them separate - space could be an issue, speed of queries may depend on this, it may be easier to look at just the meta table instead of the full table for some purposes, or vice versa.

Further reading This is a deep topic, you may want to learn more - there are hundreds of books and thousands of scholarly papers on these issues. For instance, look at this previous SO question about designing a database: Database design: one huge table or separate tables?, or this one: First-time database design: am I overengineering? or Database Normalization Basics on About.com.

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