It’s likely that you have heard before about the term web scraping or one of its synonyms such as, data scraping or data extraction. It’s a very common technique on the Internet that is used to extract information from web pages.
This is very useful for almost any type of business and there is almost certainly not a single successful company that hasn’t used it — or at least considered it.
Did you know that Google is the company that uses this technique the most since it is essential for its search engine to function properly?
However, in the same way, that it provides benefits, web scraping can also cause problems for some companies, so much so that today, there is a legal and ethical debate on the use of this technique.
Today, you’ll learn with this short, precise and easy to understand guide, everything you need to know about web scraping.
What is web scraping?
In short, it is a technique for extracting and analyzing data from web pages.
Using this technique, the data extracted from many web pages is stored and analyzed for later use elsewhere. The type of data extracted is usually mainly HTML code, data in text format such as:
- Contact information
- Email addresses
- Telephone numbers
- Search terms
- URL addresses
But you can also use the technique to extract and analyze images on the web, in which case it’s called image scraping.
How does web scraping work?
In reality, the scraping technique is quite old; it was already used in the 90’s with the appearance of the first web browsers, and its simplest form is what you do when you manually copy content from the Internet, and then paste it elsewhere — something that every Internet user has done at least once.
However, this is quite inefficient and nowadays, the different scraping techniques are executed automatically using specialized programs, among which we can find:
- Syntactic analyzers (parsers) – They’re used to convert text into a new structure type — storing HTML in a database, for example.
- Bots – These specialized programs are used to browse web pages and collect information.
- Text – You can use the command line on Unix/Linux to search for certain terms on the web using Python or Perl.
What is web scraping used for?
Since scraping basically collects information, its practical applications are only limited to what you can imagine. Here are just a few of the most common applications.
It consists of bringing together news or offers from different websites in a single site.
Thanks to social media, it’s possible to analyze the sentiment of users towards brands — something that can also be extended to review platforms, forums, blogs, news sites, etc.
Hunt for trends
In addition to using scraping to find out what users think of a brand, you can also use it to find out what brands and products are going to be talking about in the near future.
Analyzing the prices of the competition and their behavior allows you to offer a more optimized price to your own customers.
Not only the price, but it’s also possible to analyze the behavior of the competition including their catalogs, website updates, blog posts, etc.
Scraping can help you choose which image to display for your products, which category suits them best, and which niche you can exploit in your eShop, for example.
Legality of web scraping
Even with all the positive aspects it can provide to a business or organization, scraping is not always legal. Web scraping can have very negative consequences for some businesses if it affects the organic positioning of their websites.
On the other hand, in some cases scraping techniques can extract information protected by copyright.
For these reasons, it’s common to see companies entering into legal conflicts against comparison websites and other similar sites, to try to avoid being “victims” of the various scraping techniques.
Simply put, scraping is legal as long as the data collected is freely available to third parties on the web; otherwise, you cannot collect and publish it elsewhere.
You, as a website owner, have the right to use different techniques to avoid scraping if it is negatively affecting your business. In this regard, it’s also important to know that scraping can be used for destructive and even illegal purposes, and it is considered malicious when data is extracted without the permission of website owners.
For example, many people and companies use this technology to send spam messages thanks to the accumulation of email addresses.
Price Scraping is another inappropriate use of this technique and occurs when an attacker launches hundreds of scraping bots to continually inspect competition’s databases. This is with the goal of accessing pricing information, almost instantly updating their own prices, and driving sales.
On the other hand, Content Scraping is the large-scale theft of content from a given website, usually for use in spam campaigns or for resale. For websites that rely on digital content to power their business, such an attack can be devastating.
Consequences of web scraping
In addition to what we already mentioned, take into account that, when a scraping technique is applied on a certain website, the visit of a user is being simulated. If the web service receives too many “hits” and doesn’t have enough capacity, it could end up crashing.
On the other hand, if the bots activate a web analytics tool — such as Google Analytics — in the process, this can make it difficult for that tool to analyze real traffic and consequently, it will end up providing less accurate data.
On top of that, it’s also possible for bots to login to the website, which can affect audience level numbers and contaminate data for certain user segments, providing inaccurate information.
How to combat web scraping?
Website operators can take different measures to prevent web scraping, preventing bots from blocking the web and taking advantage of their data.
Many companies are providing their websites with bot detection and blocking systems that are capable of detecting if the same IP address is making too many requests in a row to be a human being — and blocking such an IP if necessary.
However, to avoid this, bot developers can apply additional tricks such as IP rotation and random pauses between automatic clicks to simulate human behavior on the web, making their detection more difficult.
For this reason, many companies employ a combination of several security layers, including masking of sensitive data and anti-bot payment services that can establish a firewall against these programs, in addition to other techniques.
Web scraping is a widely used Internet technique for data collection and analysis, but just as it may benefit some, it may also harm others.
Since the security of an online business is essential for its success, it’s very important to take the necessary measures to prevent being a victim of unscrupulous people who want to make use of web scraping without thinking about the damage they can do.