What Is Web Scraping? (And what do proxies have to do with it?)
A commonly used adage in data science is “garbage in, garbage out,” which simply translates to quality over quantity. If you’re gathering data of subpar quality, you’re not likely to get any insights out of it.
Fortunately, there are some ways to ensure valuable data retrieval from the heaps of available information. One of these methods is web scraping. While it may have been exclusive to data scientists at some point, it is widely used in e-commerce, investment banking, and many other fields.
This extensive guide answers the question “what is web scraping”, its importance in the real world, challenges faced by web scrapers, and how you can use web scraping for the enterprise.
What is Web Scraping?
Web scraping, also called web data extraction, is a technique that automatically extracts large amounts of data from web pages and saves them in a readable format in a database or a file.
Basically, a web scraping tool takes unstructured website data and extracts relevant information, displaying everything in a spreadsheet or a tabular format.
When you access a website, you can also see its data through a web browser. In most cases, websites do not allow you to download or save this data. Seemingly, the only way to collect this data is to copy and paste it manually.
But this is a very tedious job that can take your team days, depending on the size of the website. Plus, there’s always room for human error because web scraping is a precise task.
A quick and automated alternative to manual copying and pasting is web scraping. A web scraper automatically loads, crawls, and extracts data from web pages and records them in a database or the file format of your preference.
Web scrapers may be ready-made or custom-built for a particular business. Today, web scraping is used for a host of purposes in different industries. While the e-commerce sector uses it for price monitoring, marketers use it for lead generation.
What is API web scraping?
An API or application programming interface is a set of communication protocols and procedures that offer access to the data of a service, operating system, or application.
Typically, this is used for developing other applications that utilize the same data.
Suppose there’s a weather forecast company or news channel segment. They can create an API, allowing other developers to use their data and make something else with it. It could be a weather website or a mobile app.
Someone could also use this information for research studies.
The owner of this information, which is the forecasting company in this example, may offer this data for free or a charge. They can also limit the number of requests one user can make on the website or specify the kind of data they can access.
API web scraping lets you get data from a website that has created an API. You can use this data to create another app or website based on the data from the target website.
But how does this differ from regular web scraping? It all comes down to the presence of an API. Not all websites have APIs.
For example, if you want to scrape data from an e-commerce website, they may not have an API. So, you’ll use a web scraping tool to extract information, such as pricing and product descriptions.
How Do Web Scrapers Work?
Since web scrapers are automated, they do pretty much everything on their own. Their working mechanism is simple enough to understand websites built for human use and complex enough to scrape entire web pages in a fraction of the time it would take a human to do the same.
Here’s how web scraping typically works:
- A web scraper is given a URL. You could give it one webpage, multiple web pages, or the whole website.
- The web scraper will then extract the entire data on the web page. If you’ve programmed it to scrape specific data, it will scrape only that information from the webpage or website. For instance, if you’re web scraping for price monitoring, you may program the web scraper to scrape only product prices from your competitors’ websites. But if you don’t specify this condition, the scraper will likely scrape all information, including metadata, product descriptions, customer reviews, etc.
- Finally, the web scraper outputs the data in a format selected by the user. You can choose to see your data in PDF or Excel format if that’s what you’re most comfortable with. In most cases, users prefer the data to be in a tabular form. Excel spreadsheets and CSV files are ideal for this.
Users can then use this data to gather insights about different aspects of business and make informed decisions accordingly. Note that web crawling, although often a part of scraping, is not equivalent to web scraping.
Difference between data crawling and web scraping
A concept somewhat similar to web scraping is web or data crawling. But they’re different in function and benefits.
Web crawling refers to the process search engines and enterprises undertake when they need to index content on the Internet. In simple words, a web crawler or web spider is an automated script that browses the web in an automated and methodical manner.
On the other hand, web scrapers are designed to extract information from a website. Here are three ways in which scrapers differ from web crawlers.
- Scrapers pretend to be web browsers when they’re operational. Meanwhile, crawlers send crawling requests to the website, letting the site know about its purpose. They do not try to trick the website into thinking they’re something they are not.
- Scrapers can also take some advanced actions at times. For instance, they may fill out forms or indulge in other advanced behaviors on a website. Crawlers don’t do this.
- Scrapers don’t necessarily consider the robots.txt file. It’s a file that contains information that tells the crawlers which areas of the website they should avoid and which parts they can scrape. While crawlers steer clear of these areas, scrapers can pull content from these sections of a website too.
What Is The Point of Web Scraping?
Web scraping has made business processes easy for many enterprises. One of the main things that makes web scraping so useful is its speed. It lets businesses make decisions faster.
Let’s consider a job board. These websites take data from multiple sources on the web and display the information in one place. Without web scraping, this would not be possible.
The use cases for web scraping are unlimited. With easy and quick access to data, different businesses can use web scraping to get an edge over the competition, make sound investment decisions, determine a product’s success and execute new ideas faster.
Web scraping also lets you facilitate market automation without any limits. Suppose you saw a competitor on a social media networking site, and they have around 30k followers. But you, as a marketer, are convinced that your product is way better.
What can you do? You scrape their website and social media presence. Then, you can approach their following and present your product to them. You already know these people are interested in the product or service since they follow your competitor’s brand.
All you now need to do is show them that your product is better than the one they’re currently using. If you were to find these leads manually, it would take you a lot of time and resources.
But web scraping accelerates the process and makes it simpler. It allows for data-driven marketing, letting you gather data from different sources and subsequently use it to design marketing campaigns.
You can also use web scraping for content marketing. For example, a brand can use a web scraping tool to collate data from different social media sites. Then, they can study this data and determine the kind of content that engages and interests audiences the most.
They can finally create similar data to increase engagement on their social media accounts.
Instead of using the trial-and-error method and wasting time, web scraping gets your desired results using the same techniques and methods that have previously helped other businesses in the same niche.
Web scraping also has a multitude of applications in fields other than marketing. We take a look at those in detail in the next section.
What is The Purpose of Web Scraping?
What’s the one thing that’s common between a start-up, an equity analyst, or a Fortune 500 company? They all use data to collect insights and derive their success strategies.
Data is the core driver of market strength and business success.
Whether you’re starting a new company or want to take your existing one to new heights, you need to depend on data. Previously, it was assumed that web scraping is only used in data science.
But you’d be surprised to know how many applications web scraping has in a number of industries. Here are some real-life uses of web scraping:
Retail and manufacturing
The retail and manufacturing industries are bigger than they ever were. Web scraping is useful to these industries in a wide range of practices. Let’s look at them individually:
Competitor price monitoring
When you introduce a new product or service in the market, you must ensure its price is competitive. If it’s too expensive, customers will keep buying from your competition for a lower price point. If it’s too cheap, customers will be cynical about quality and reliability. You need to find a balance between profits and customer satisfaction.
Additionally, it’s important to keep track of the prices your competitors offer. It’s almost impossible to manually keep track of competitor pricing, especially if you’re in a very expansive industry.
Price scraping is a sub-category of web scraping that helps you monitor your competitors’ prices. Web scraping automates the process of price extraction from your competitor’s website.
It not only gives you access to the current pricing offered by your competition but also lets you track any new pricing policies your competitors introduce. You can use a web scraper as many times as you want to get the price points at different intervals or different times of the year.
Suppose you want to create a new apparel brand focused on feminine activewear. Before you launch your products, you can use a web scraper to determine the average price your competitors are offering.
Then, you can run the web scraper again during the holiday season to determine the sale pricing and discounts your competition offers. By offering the same sales or giving even more discounts, you can incentivize consumers to shop from you rather than other similar brands.
MAP compliance monitoring
Minimum Advertised Price compliance refers to a seller’s adherence to the minimum price authorized by the manufacturers.
For instance, if Brand A makes tech products, they can allow third-party sellers to sell their products on their stores or websites. But Brand A will set a minimum price threshold for the sellers. They cannot sell the product at a price lower than that.
Manufacturers like Brand A need to keep an eye on sellers and retailers to ensure they comply with the minimum price. However, it’s not possible for them to manually go to each page of their associated retailers’ sites and check if the price complies with the policy.
That’s where web scraping comes in handy. Manufacturers can use web scraping to check what pricing retailers are offering on their websites. They can do this without spending too much time on the process.
Fetching product descriptions
Writing accurate and helpful product descriptions for the items on your website is essential. Product descriptions help you outrank your competitors by improving your SEO. They also allow your customers to know exactly what to expect from the product.
But before you start writing product descriptions for your items, it’s better to get an overview of the kind of product descriptions that generally do well in your niche. Are they long or short? Do they include bullet points? Are your competitors using how-to videos along with product descriptions? Knowing all this information can help you present your product in a way that’s helpful for the customers and encourages them to add the item to the cart.
Web scraping allows you to collect product descriptions from all your competitors. You can then view this information in a tabular form and get an overview of what the product descriptions look like. The scraped data will tell you the appropriate length, tone, structure, and style of the descriptions you should have for your products.
Consumer sentiment monitoring
Brands that monitor their consumers’ sentiments and devise strategies accordingly tend to do better than their competition. It’s important to take customer reviews and feedback into account. It tells you about the tweaks that can make your product or service better.
What is the point of web scraping in this regard? It can help you collect customer reviews from different websites.
Let’s take the activewear brand example forward. Before you design your products, you can use a web scraper to gather customer reviews from your competitors’ websites. Then, you can go through this collective consumer sentiment and determine your customers’ demands and feelings.
For instance, if you notice that most negative reviews are due to the absence of pockets on activewear leggings, you can include pockets in your products to make them more attractive to customers.
Similarly, if most positive reviews mention the variety in color and size options, you can take note of that too. Make sure your product range is size-inclusive and available in different colors.
In this way, you can use price scraping to increase the likelihood of your products’ success even before they are introduced into the market.
Financial and equity research
Like the retail and manufacturing sector, web scraping also has an important role in equity and financial research. Since financial investments involve a lot of research, web scraping can be used in different ways in the field.
Aggregate news articles
News is an important source of information in the insurance and finance world. Investors and financial decision-makers have to ensure they keep up with the news to determine the current and upcoming market trends.
But it’s not possible to manually read each and every article published. Web scraping lets investors and decision-makers extract essential information from news stories and headlines. The information is displayed in a readable way that can be used to get actionable investment insights.
Extract financial statements
Financial statements give analysts a measure of a company’s financial health. They can then use this information to advise their clients whether they should invest in a company or not.
However, it’s not possible to read financial statements for a plethora of companies every year. Web scraping tools can extract your relevant financial information from statements. The information can further be put through analysis tools.
Insurance companies have also started using web scraping tools due to the increasing trend of studying alternative data to determine risks. Insurance companies use this data to devise their policies and products.
You cannot manually store or copy this data since it’s present in abundance. On the other hand, web scraping tools allow insurance companies to leverage this data and make insurance-related decisions and policies accordingly.
Aggregate market data
The Internet is an amazing place to find market data for investment planning. But this data is scattered all across the world wide web. Investors can scan and search the search engine results, but it’s obviously too tedious.
Web scraping lets marketers scrape data from multiple websites. They can then extract actionable insights from these websites and base their future decisions on them.
Businesses can also use web scraping in risk management. When enterprises hire new professionals, they have to run background checks on their recruits. Doing this manually can take a lot of time. Plus, you may miss important information.
Meanwhile, web scraping tools collect data from multiple sources, such as news articles, legal databases, insolvency registers, corporate registers, sanction lists, and financial registers to perform detailed background checks on employees.
With web scraping, businesses can collect sufficient knowledge to make sure they’re hiring employees with a clean criminal and financial records.
Web scraping is also useful for data scientists who use data analytic tools to fulfill business or organizational needs. Here are some ways in which enterprise data scientists can use web scraping.
Real-time analysis means studying and analyzing the data as soon as it’s available. This differs from batch-style analytics in which insights are produced from data hours or days after data collection. What is the purpose of web scraping here? Basically, it accesses, extracts, and presents data quickly so that it can be analyzed immediately.
Web scraping allows data to be available instantly for real-time analytics. If you were to gather or organize data manually, the real-time analysis would be impossible. Many enterprises use real-time analytics these days since it allows them to get insights without delay. Financial institutions mostly use it for credit scoring to make decisions about extending or discontinuing credit.
Businesses also use real-time analytics to ensure customer satisfaction. They use it in customer relationship management to optimize business performance and customer service.
Real-time analytics through web scraping also comes in handy at Point of Sales. Companies use it to detect fraud and deal with individual customers in retail outlets. The core requirement for real-time data analytics is the processing of large amounts of data. If this data had to be processed and filtered manually it could take ages.
Web scraping is also helpful in predictive analysis. It allows businesses to analyze existing data and use the insights to predict future trends and outcomes. Although predictive analysis does not predict everything accurately, it gives businesses an idea of what to expect.
Businesses use predictive analysis to predict customer behavior and whether a product will be a failure or success. To accomplish this, you need to work with vast amounts of data. Web scraping tools make this possible. They can extract large quantities of data that analysts can study to predict future outcomes.
Suppose you want to introduce matching workout sets in your activewear apparel brands. What if there was a way for you to know if these sets would be a success or a flop? You can use web scraping tools to gather past data from competitors and determine if consumers showed interest in workout sets when other brands introduced them.
The results should give you an idea of whether you can expect the same sentiment towards your workout sets.
Natural language processing
Natural language processing refers to allowing machines to interpret human-used natural languages, such as English, rather than computer languages, like Python.
A well-known use case of this process is sentiment analysis. Data scientists can leverage social media comments to assess the performance of a brand. But to do this, machines will have to interpret large amounts of data in human language.
Web scraping enables data scientists to scrape data from social media comments and other sources where data is available in a structured and usable format. However, every once in a while, analysts and businesses face some challenges in web scraping.
Challenges In Web Scraping
While it’s true that web scraping does wonders in different business fields, analysts also come across many challenges when they use web scrapers. Here are some challenges you may experience when scraping the web:
Before you scrape a website, it’s important to know if the website owner allows scrapers. You can check this information from the robots.txt file. If there’s no permission for scraping, you can ask the owner for permission, explaining the purpose behind it.
If you’re not granted permission, it’s best to scrape an alternative site.
Another challenge that web scrapers face is IP blocking. When websites detect too many requests from the same IP address, they may block or restrict the IP from accessing the website.
In such instances, it’s best to leverage a service that offers residential and data center IPs. Blazing SEO provides residential proxies that allow you to scrape the web without getting banned. These proxies are immensely efficient and reliable web scraping solutions since they facilitate ban prevention.
Blazing SEO has set a high industry standard for proxy acquisition and ethical usage of IPs. The service’s partners can limit the conditions in which their connections are used. Plus, they can opt out of the program whenever they want.
Meanwhile, Blazing SEO’s data center proxies are ideal for businesses that want to scrape the web on a larger scale. The proxies provide maximum diversity and redundancy. Even if the website bans the entire ASN, Blazing SEO has nine ASNs, so a backup is always available.
Moreover, businesses get access to proxies from 27 Countries, including the US, the UK, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
With 300,000+ IPs, your web scraping process will not experience any downtime. Even if an IP or two do get banned, you’ll always have thousands of others to scrape the web.
Slow website speed
When a website is getting too many requests, its speed slows down. When a human browses the web, they know how to deal with the situation as they can just reload the page.
But when a scraping bot is on a website, and it fails to load due to slow speed, the bot doesn’t really know what to do. If you’re using a low-quality scraping bot, the scraping process may slow down or stop completely.
Scraping Robot is a reliable tool that lets you scrape websites into JSON with ultimate ease. You no longer have to be slowed down by browser scaling, CAPTCHAs, or blocks as Scraping Robot deals with everything on its own. You simply have to set it in action, and it does the rest.
CAPTCHA or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart is the mechanism used by websites to differentiate between scraping bots and humans. They present logical problems or images that bots struggle with, but humans are easily able to solve.
Although some technologies can resolve CAPTCHAs on websites, this automated public Turing test still slows down scraping.
Some websites also require users to create accounts and log in before accessing the information on the web pages. A human knows how to make an account and use it to log in to a website, but a scraping bot may not be programmed to do this. It will stop completely or may slow down.
How Can You Make Web Scraping Easier?
One of the best ways to resolve these challenges is to use proxies. A proxy may be between the destination server on the world wide web and your computer or on your local computer. Typically, two types of proxies are used in web scraping:
- Forward proxies
- Reverse proxies
Both of these proxies can be used to ease access to a server. They are also used for decryption, caching, authentication, and load-balancing.
A proxy acts as an intermediary between the user and the website they want to scrape. Since the proxy has its own IP address, the website sends data to the proxy’s IP rather than the user’s IP. The proxy IP then forwards this information to the user.
Forward proxies provide services to a single client or multiple clients. The Internet is home to thousands of forward proxies. These proxies store and forward web pages and DNS to control and reduce the bandwidth these clients use.
When using forward proxies, you can hide your IP address while using Internet services or browsing the web. There are three types of forward proxies:
- Data Center Proxies: These proxies come from cloud service providers. Since most people use them, they may be flagged or restricted by a website. But their upside is their price. As they’re cheap, you can buy a plethora of them to create a proxy pool for web scraping.
- Residential IP Proxy: These proxies have IP addresses from local internet service providers. It’s tough for a website to detect if they come from a human or a scraping bot since regular Internet users in their homes actually use them. They’re more expensive than data center proxies. If you buy these proxies from an unreliable service, you may end up with legal consent issues since device owners aren’t always aware their IP is being used for scraping. But Blazing SEO is fully committed to ethical practices, which means their partners are fully aware of what their IP addresses are being used for. These device owners can also opt out of their partnership whenever they want.
- Mobile Proxies: Mobile IP proxies are IP addresses of private mobile devices. They’re somewhat similar to residential IP proxies, which is why they’re also costly. Again, if you use a subpar service, you may run into legal issues since IP owners may not know their IP address is being used to scrape the web.
While forward proxies hide the client’s identities, reverse proxies do the same for the servers. These proxies have many use cases:
- They can be used to optimize and compress content to make the load time faster.
- They can cache static content on a website, such as pictures.
- They distribute the load to multiple web servers.
When you use proxies for web scraping, you also have to manage them. Otherwise, you’ll have a bunch of blocked or retired proxies that give no output and are only increasing your expenditure.
Proxy Pilot is a remarkable all-in-one proxy management tool that makes your web scraping projects run smoothly and efficiently. There’s no better way to deal with blocks than preventing them in the first place.
Proxy Pilot ensures this by using “Cooldown Logic,” which simply means giving the target website time to cool down before sending a request from the same IP again. Also, you don’t have to rotate your proxies since the tool does it for you.
It also checks for bans on URL regex and HTTP codes and finds out if your scraping request was blocked. If yes, it automatically retries on your behalf, saving you the hassle.
Benefits of Using Proxies
Whether you’re a business or an individual, you wouldn’t want your data analysis process restricted by website bans or slow-speed issues. Proxies allow you to scrape the web at impressive speeds without worrying about bans.
Here are some benefits of using proxies for web scraping:
A forward proxy becomes an intermediary between you and the target website’s server. The target website cannot see that the request is coming from your IP address.
Rather, it sees the request coming from the forward proxy. In this way, a forward proxy adds a layer of security and privacy by hiding your computer’s IP address.
IP bans are quite common in web scraping, especially when scrapers cross the “crawl rate.” It is a limit set by the website owner on the amount of data a bot can crawl. Website owners use this to prevent scrapers from making too many requests. If you’re only using one or a few IPs, you’re sure to hit the crawl rate quickly. If you exceed this limit, you might face a ban.
Proxies allow you to scrape the website whenever you want. For instance, Blazing SEO data center proxies come with 300,000+ IPs. It’s almost impossible for you to exceed the crawl rate limit with so many IPs at your disposal.
Access region-specific content
Depending on what your use case is, you might want to access region-specific content. Often, it’s not possible to get access to foreign websites due to political restrictions or other issues.
Suppose you want to get an insight into the demand for tech products in Pakistan. But since you operate in the US, your IP address cannot access Pakistani websites. If you use residential proxies from the region, you can get all the information you need.
Blazing SEO provides data center proxies from 27 Countries, including Pakistan. You can simply use these proxies to gain access to the content you need. Even if you can access foreign websites using your IP, it’s best to use a local IP address as it looks less suspicious. Thus, you have a lower chance of being banned or restricted.
With the astronomical growth of the Internet, businesses have become increasingly dependent on data. It is now compulsory for businesses to make their decisions based on quality data collected from several sources. However, manually collating such vast amounts of data is tedious and wastes valuable time that could be used on other more creative and demanding business needs.
After answering, what is web scraping, we hope you have gained an understanding of its true value from a start up business to a fortune 500 company. With its speed and functionality, web scraping has found its use in almost every industry in today’s time. With their versatility, web scraping tools such as Scraping Robot give businesses a competitive advantage in the industry. Besides price scraping and competitive analysis, it is also useful for market research, lead generation, reputation monitoring, and so much more.
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