One of the primary responsibilities of a business owner or manager is to keep up with the competition. Before computers, that might have meant a physical visit, investigation of news coverage and advertising, and anything else that could provide a scrap of pertinent information. Today, the Internet is a treasure trove of useful data that can be utilized in many important ways.
A technique called web scraping, often referred to as web crawling, data scraping, data crawling, data mining, or web content extraction, can scour the Internet and gather this data. While there are some technical differences between scraping and crawling, the terms are generally synonymous.
Crawling is more general and focuses on links and overall organization. Scraping collects structured data in a more focused, defined way. In the end, whatever you call it, it changes the way you do business.
What is Web Scraping
To gather data, you could visit competitors websites, cut-and-paste what was useful, and store it in a convenient format. Since most are dynamic and continuously changing, you would have to perform this tedious task repeatedly, which would prove very time consuming and inefficient even if the competition was minimal. Web crawling lets you accomplish this task quickly, completely, and without error.
This task can be done on a regular schedule or whenever the information is needed. It's automated, so it doesn't take a great deal of effort to set up a session. It analyzes the code on the target website(s), compiles it in a meaningful way, and presents it in a useful format. You can use an off-the-shelf product, or create one that's tailored to meet your specific needs.
A Programmer's Perspective
There are many programming languages. Node.js, Ruby, Python, and PHP are five especially well suited to web crawling. If you know one of these languages, it's a good idea to start with it. Once you gain experience, you can learn to use a more powerful language or one better suited to your unique requirements. Most lists of languages mention Python. It's widely recognized as one of the best for this application.
These languages include several features and built-in libraries that make them useful for this purpose. There are also numerous third-party libraries.
Whatever language you select, it should be simple for you to code, flexible, scalable, and maintainable. It should be an effective crawler and be able to feed a database. Make sure you know what you want to accomplish before deciding because each language has a distinctive approach to solving problems. If you're new to this application, there are plenty of tutorials. Many of them are free, too. Some even provide complete examples.
There are many tools available many of which are free. They are limited in scope, but they're an easy way to get started quickly. Even those who don't program can use some of them. Some of the more powerful ones are more complicated to use and could prove excessively challenging to non-programmers. There are a few that are specifically for use inside a designated browser, including Scraper, which is a Chrome extension and OutWit Hub, which is a Firefox add-on.
Some of the free crawlers include Getleft, Cyotek WebCopy, HTTrack, Visual Scraper, and Octoparse. These are some other popular web crawlers that will let you get started right away, whether you are an experienced programmer or not.
The information gathered can be displayed in several formats, including XML, RSS, JSON, or CSV files.
How Web Scraping Can Be Used
The Internet would be virtually useless without bots, sometimes referred to as spiders. They perform a variety of tasks. Chances are, you use many of the services they make possible. Portals that compare things or offer products and services make use of this technique. For instance, if you like travel services that compare prices, credit card sites that compare features, or purchasing tickets to events, those things would not be available without bots and web crawling.
You can learn everything you need to know about your competitors, so you will be able to make your business more successful. Such knowledge is vital both when starting and maintaining a business. It's more difficult to function without embracing this technology.
You can even look at your website to make sure it is meeting your expectations as well as get ideas for improvement and innovation. This can be an important component of your business model. This technology can help you protect your reputation by looking for comments about your company and website all over the Internet. That allows you to address small problems before they become big problems. Don't forget that your competitors are looking at you, too.
The Bad Side of Web Scraping
Unfortunately, web crawling can be used as a weapon. An unscrupulous competitor can gather information about your business and use it in a way that will harm you. Perhaps a competitor will learn about your prices and undercut them long enough for you to lose customers. They can get information about your business practices, and use them against you. They might be able to examine your database, get a list of your customers, and send them special offers.
What can you do to protect yourself? There are companies that specialize in placing barriers in the way of bots. If you offer a credit card, you want that information available to beneficial portals, but you want to protect your customers and other proprietary information. There are ways to control what happens on your website.
The Question of Legality
Unfortunately, the law has not caught up with technology, and it probably never will. Lawsuits and court decisions are beginning to set legal precedents. If you plan on using web crawling as part of your business plan, and you should either learn the law or hire a company with the proper credentials.
It's safe to say, if you're doing something you don't mind having done to you, you're probably safe. If you suspect there is a potential for harm, and you wouldn't welcome a similar intrusion on your site, it's probably better to be safe than sorry. A lack of intent to harm won't always protect you.
Ultimately, web crawling and bots will be part of your business model. You have no choice if you have an Internet presence. Do your homework, consult the experts, and make a proactive decision that will let it be a productive, positive experience. Technology will continue to progress at a relentless pace. Keeping up is preferable to catching up.
WebScraping.AI provides tools for software developers. We solve a few most frequent technical issues of web scraping:
- We automatically manage proxies to allow your scrapper not being blocked because of too many requests from the same IP.
- You can request our API to return only a needed part of the target page, and we will handle HTML parsing on our side.
That allows developers to focus on working with data instead of continually fixing technical issues.