Web scraping — it’s a term you may have heard before, but what does it mean? Before we explain, let us say this: it’s a fantastic way of saving heaps of time, collecting highly valuable data sets, and gaining a huge advantage over your business’ competitors.
However, while web scraping offers numerous benefits, many business owners fail to capitalize on them — either due to a lack of understanding, or a failure to recognize how web scraping can help. While the topic may seem extremely technical on the surface, we’re here to tell you that this isn’t the case. Keen to learn more? Read on, as we explain the fundamentals of web scraping, along with a few key use cases.
The origins of web scraping
The World Wide Web Wanderer, created by Matthew Gray at MIT in 1993, was the very first web robot. Its purpose? To measure the size of the internet. This groundbreaking web robot (or to use modern terminology, ‘web crawler’) was a major milestone in the evolution of web scraping, and the internet as we know it today. This plucky little bot paved the way for many of the technologies and techniques we now rely on. Think of the Wanderer as one of the very first cartographers in the vast and unexplored new world of the internet.
Only a few months after the World Wide Web Wanderer was introduced, the first crawler-powered web search engine, JumpStation, was developed. This robot indexed millions of web pages, enabling people to search the internet in a new and more efficient way. Before JumpStation, websites relied on human administrators to gather and organize links manually. Unbelievable, we know — but human-powered search engines really did exist! Thankfully, JumpStation’s crawler technology saw an end to this practice and laid the foundation for modern search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
Of course, web scraping has evolved significantly since it was first introduced in the 1990s, but its main purpose remains the same — to gather useful data as efficiently as possible. The process typically involves two components: a crawler and a scraper. The crawler is an AI algorithm that explores the internet, following links to locate the data specified by the user. The scraper is a tool used to extract this data from the website, often using specialized methods to quickly and accurately gather the information.
It’s entirely possible to manually scrape websites for data via a self-built program, but we’d keep in mind that constructing a powerful web scraper can prove difficult for those with no coding knowledge, and even if you’re particularly scrupulous, human error is an ever-present danger. By using a pre-built web scraping service, you’re likely to gather high-value information in high volumes — without any of the hassles involved in manual scraping. Some pre-packaged scrapers even come loaded with additional features. For example, the ScrapingBee API can handle issues such as IP rotation, CAPTCHAs, and browser emulation, which can often be a barrier to web scraping and are difficult for businesses to implement on their own.
Overview of the web scraping process
In a nutshell, here’s how the web scraping process works:
- Either the scraper extracts all data it rendered, or the user sifts through and extracts specific data points.
- The extracted data can then be saved in different formats like Excel or CSV for further analysis. Some web scrapers can even convert the data into a JSON file that can be used as an API.
Types of web scraping
As we’ve already touched on, there’s more than one way to scrape the web for information. Before we discuss the use cases for web scraping, let’s go over the different ways we can gather data from the web.
Self-built vs. pre-built scrapers
A self-built web scraper is typically constructed using programming languages such as Python or Java. While this type of scraper does allow complete flexibility and control, building one requires an advanced level of coding knowledge.
On the other hand, a pre-built web scraper is ready to use ‘out of the box’, with no need for manual configuration or customization. Pre-built web scrapers often come with a set of predefined features, and while they may not offer as much flexibility as a self-built scraper, they’re undoubtedly the best option for those new to scraping the web.
Local vs. cloud-based scrapers
As you might expect, local web scrapers are run directly from the user’s PC. This is a relatively old-fashioned way of doing things. Some scraping tasks can be extremely resource-intensive and would require a powerful (and expensive) machine to complete the task promptly.
Cloud-based web scrapers are a far more elegant solution. These scrapers run on off-site servers, freeing up the user’s local computer and allowing them to perform other tasks while the scraper runs in the background. Cloud-based scrapers may also offer additional features too, such as IP rotation, which can help prevent websites from blocking the scraper.
Browser extensions vs. stand-alone scrapers
Browser-extension web scrapers are undeniably handy. Instead of having to navigate an entire program, these scrapers run directly from your web browser. They’re incredibly easy to use, but their capabilities are limited, especially when compared to a fully featured stand-alone solution.
Stand-alone web scraping programs may require more time and effort to learn compared to other tools, but the skills learned can be valuable and worth the investment. We’d recommend browser extensions for a broad overview of a website’s data, but for deeper analysis, it’s always best to use a powerful, dedicated scraper.
Web scraping use cases
We’ve examined what web scraping is, where it comes from, and why you might want to use it. Now, let’s take a look at a few business use cases of web scraping:
- Price optimization: Gathering data on prices of products or services offered by competitors to inform a business’s pricing strategy.
- Market research: Extracting data on market trends, consumer behavior, and other relevant information to inform business decisions.
- Lead generation: Scraping websites and social media platforms to find potential leads and customer contact information.
- Brand monitoring: Tracking mentions of a brand or product on the web to identify customer sentiment and potential issues.
- SEO: Analyzing the content and structure of competitor websites to inform search engine optimization strategies.
- Competitor analysis: Gathering data on a competitor’s products, prices, and marketing strategies to inform a business’s own decision-making.
- Product development: Identifying market demand and trends through web scraping to inform the development of new products.
- Supply chain management: Tracking the availability and pricing of raw materials or finished goods to inform purchasing decisions.
- Financial analysis: Scraping financial news and data websites to inform investment decisions.
- Recruitment: Searching job boards and company websites for job openings and candidate information.
Web scraping pros and cons
Web scraping is undeniably useful — hopefully, we’ve made that clear by now! However, as with anything in life, there are drawbacks, and before you dive into the world of web scraping, it’s pertinent to be aware of the whole picture. Below, we’ll examine the advantages and limitations of web scraping.
Web scraping benefits
- Web scraping can save time and resources — instead of downloading all the data from a website, a scraper allows you to specify what you’re looking for, and extract only what you need.
- Web scraping can be used to gain a crucial advantage over your competition, from monitoring price changes to uncovering hidden data and insights buried deep in a website’s coding.
- Web scraping is a great tool for lead generation, as you can quickly and easily scour websites and social media platforms to identify potential leads and gather contact information.
- Web scrapers can use automation to take care of data collection with minimal human input — perfect if you’ve other, more pressing tasks to attend to.
Web scraping drawbacks
- Some web scrapers can be prohibitively technical and may take many hours of training to be used effectively. This is particularly true for self-built scrapers.
- Certain websites are capable of blocking any attempt at scraping, and you may need to contact the site owner for permission before you can gather data.
- Depending on how your scraper is configured, the data you collect may not be relevant or up-to-date. If this is the case, you’ll need to manually cleanse the data before putting it to use.
- Some forms of web scraping can be considered unethical — especially if the data gathered includes sensitive or personal information. Collecting such data may also land you on the wrong side of the law, so be careful!