The Guide to Ethical Web Scraping
You want to help your business be a good corporate citizen. That means that you need to pay attention to the ethical consequences of your decisions. Some types of moral choices have a clear answer: it’s wrong to lie to your customers or regulatory agencies. Other issues are a little trickier.
For example, web scraping is a subject that has recently been the subject of ethical debates. This may surprise you – after all, web scraping seems harmless. It’s just research, right?
Well, that’s not entirely the case. Web scraping can have unintended consequences. If you don’t use an ethical scraping solution, your research can actually harm the sites you’re studying.
Luckily, ethical web scraping doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s what you need to know about the importance of ethical scraping, how to tell if you’re using an ethical service, and how to avoid unethical practices in your own business.
Why is Ethical Web Scraping So Important?
To understand why web scraping ethics are in the news, you need to know how it affects target websites. Scraping is the process of using a bot, a type of automated software, to collect information from a website. These bots are called web scrapers, and sometimes they can be a little rough on their targets.
Since web scrapers are software programs, they can act hundreds of times faster than a human. A web scraping bot gathering information from a site can visit hundreds of pages per minute. While some busy sites can handle that amount of traffic without a problem, smaller businesses can’t. Getting that many hits, that quickly, can overwhelm a server, causing the website to break or crash entirely. That’s obviously harmful to the site owner.
Furthermore, some people use web scrapers to copy websites wholesale. These malicious users clone the original site and try to steal sales and visits from the original site. That’s not only bad for the server; it can ruin the business’s reputation.
Still, web scraping is one of the best ways to collect data off the internet. The practice itself isn’t unethical — it’s how some people do it that raises concerns. You can still choose to scrape sites for information without hurting anyone by using an ethical scraping tool and following a few best practices.
How to Tell If Your Scraping Tool Is Ethical
So, web scraping can have a major impact on websites if you do it unethically. If you want to keep your conscience clean, you need to take every step of the scraping process into account. That starts with the web scraping software you choose to use.
There are plenty of scraping solutions online, but they’re not created equally. You want to choose a tool that’s built with ethics in mind. When you’re trying to choose your tools, ask these questions:
Does it target public APIs first?
Some websites understand that people will want to scrape them for information. These sites set up application programming interfaces (APIs) offering data to potential web scrapers. An ethical web scraper will look for these public APIs before actually scraping them.
Why? Because collecting information from an API doesn’t affect the website the same way as scraping it. The software only needs to connect to the API once to get all of the information, instead of many times. It’s much easier on the server supporting the site.
Similarly, when a site offers a public API, you know for a fact that they don’t mind you using that data. The existence of the API is permission to collect the information and study it. If a scraper service targets APIs first, it’s a good sign that the program cares about consent and web scraping ethics in general.
Does it offer a user agent string?
Many savvy system administrators will notice web scraping activity and get worried. Ethical and unethical data collection look pretty similar to the business being studied. System administrators are supposed to prevent data leaks and site outages. When they see the signs of a web scrape, they get understandably upset.
The easiest way to avoid that is to identify yourself when you scrape a site. You’ll need to use a proxy to collect your information, so you can’t rely on your IP address to transmit your identity.
An ethical web scraper will offer you the chance to set up a user agent string as a way to make yourself known. A user agent string is essentially a calling card letting the site you’re scraping know who you are. You can set up your user agent string to tell the reader who you are and what information you’re collecting. This ensures that you’re making good requests to the site and you’re not attempting a brute-force hack or DDoS attack
Does it operate at a reasonable speed?
If you’re using web scraping to collect data, you obviously want results quickly. Still, you don’t want to damage the server you’re accessing. Remember, too many visits in too short a time can cause a website to stop working correctly.
Ethical web scrapers will let you decide how quickly you’ll scrape a site. You don’t need to slow down too much, either. The difference between overwhelming your target server and simply gathering data may only be a minute or two. It’s worth waiting just a tiny bit longer to avoid crashing the site you want to study, and it’s ethically safer, too.
What kinds of information does it keep?
Finally, there are web scraping programs out there that collect much more information than you need. Some scrapers even use private searches like yours to gather sensitive information without you knowing. Before you use a web scraper, always make sure that it only collects the information that you tell it to. Otherwise, you might be doing more harm than good.
How to Avoid Unethical Scraping Practices
The web scraping tool you use is only half of the solution. You’re just as responsible for maintaining ethical scraping practices. A tool is just a tool, after all. A crowbar can be used to open crates and facilitate demolition, or it can be used to break into a car. It’s all about how you use it.
That means that you need to follow a few best practices to keep your web scraping ethical.
Check the rules
Some sites will discuss the web scraping practices they do and don’t allow in their terms of service (TOS). Always double-check these rules before you scrape a site.
Platforms that disallow web scraping in their TOS have occasionally tried to file lawsuits against groups that collect data anyway. However, these platforms are typically trying to monopolize their data, which is itself unethical. As long as information is publicly available, it shouldn’t matter how you choose to collect it. Still, checking the TOS and seeing how the owner prefers you use the data can help you decide whether this is a site you’re willing to scrape.
Scrape during off-hours
Since even slower scraping can still stress a server, be polite about your timing. Avoid targeting a website during peak hours. For example, it’s probably best to avoid scraping an E-commerce store mid-afternoon on the weekend since that’s when it will be experiencing the most traffic. Instead, scrape at night or in the early morning to avoid compounding normal traffic loads.
You can use data you’ve scraped from other websites for everything from personal projects to business research to academic studies. If you’re using the information for something that you’ll show to other people, give credit to the sites you scraped. You only collected that data; you didn’t generate it. Giving credit where credit is due is just polite.
Along with offering credit, try to give something back to the site you’ve scraped. If you’re publishing your results, try to direct good traffic back to the places you collected data. That’s a great way to make up for the stress you put on the server by offering value to the sites you scrape.
Finally, you can collect a ton of data when you scrape sites. If you don’t need specific information, though, you shouldn’t keep it. Collect only the data you need and delete the rest. After all, you’re trying to learn, not to copy someone else’s site.
The Ethical Benefits of Blazing SEO
When you’re looking for an ethical scraping solution, look no further than Blazing SEO. By pairing an ethical scraping tool with high-quality, reliable proxies, you can quickly gather the data you need without stressing your target’s servers.
What sets Blazing SEO apart? A few things. First, we only work with clients who have pre-approved use cases. We take the time and put in the effort to make sure our proxies are never used for unethical services.
We put in the same amount of effort to screen our proxy partners. We only work with groups who adhere to our same level of ethics. You can trust that there’s no risk to yourself or the sites you’re studying when you rely on Blazing SEO to proxy your scraping services.
Make Ethical Choices Easy with Blazing SEO
No matter what you want to learn from the internet, ethical web scraping is a great tool. You can collect all the data you could ever need without harming anyone as long as you use ethical scrapers and proxies. No matter how large or small your business may be, Blazing SEO is the perfect proxy for your scraping needs.
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