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Nihad Hassans profile image
By: Nihad Hassan
November 20, 2020

Web Scraping Tools

By: Nihad Hassan
November 20, 2020
Nihad Hassans profile image
By: Nihad Hassan
November 20, 2020

Data has become the driving force in today's information age that leads organizations' focus in all industries. Being able to collect and analyze data from the web plays a vital role in any organization's success.

Today, even the smallest startup companies generate data. Any business that owns a website, has a social media presence, or accepts electronic payments from customers collects different data. They collect personal customer info, customer habits, preferences, and demographics. They may also have, within their reach, the ability to perform web analytics by analyzing website traffic and social media engagements. The ability to collect such data and analyze it properly will help businesses make better and informed decisions.

Data becomes integral in all business processes. For example, we can use it to solve business problems (e.g., analyzing the reason for bad marketing campaigns), understand performance, improve business processes, and understand consumer's habits.

Businesses need to analyze competitor data. For instance, if you want to copy content from your competitor's website, you can copy/paste data out of it and store it in MS Word files. Such a method is feasible for copying content from a few web pages; however, is there an easier means if you need to copy content from hundreds or even thousands of web pages? This is where web scraping comes onto the scene.

Web scraping (also known as web content extraction or screen scraping) is automating data collection of a specific website/URL. We can store the scraped data in different formats (e.g., CSV, JSON) to later analyze it using different analytical tools.

Web scraping tools help to capture data without the need to access the target website database. One can also scrape hard to collect data, such as data on protected websites that do not allow visitors to copy/paste information. Additionally, the process of downloading content from target websites can be automated.

In this article, we will mention five popular web scraping tools to automate web data collection. However, before we begin, it is good to understand some legal implications when using web scraping tools.



Legal implications of web scraping tools

When data scraping against websites, you are increasing the load on the website being scraped. For instance, the web scraping tool will send numerous requests to the webserver within a short amount of time (more than what a human would typically do). If the target website uses shared hosting or a weak web server, and you run an aggressive scraping script against it, this may result in making the website run slowly and may even prevent some visitors from browsing.

Most websites use a file named robots.txt in their main directory to inform web scrapers and crawlers about which web pages they should not access. Besides, some websites have a policy (usually found on their terms of service page (see Figure 1)) that prohibits automatic data collection, so make sure to read this thoroughly before scraping any website content. Remember, Web scraping is a legitimate data extraction method; however, we need to consider some rules that apply in some jurisdictions regarding this issue.

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Figure 1 – IMDB terms of service page (https://www.imdb.com/conditions) prohibit running web scraping and other data extraction tools against their website

Web Scraping Tools

Here are five popular web scraping tools to extract data from websites.

Scrapy

Scrapy is an open-source web crawling framework for extracting data from websites. It is written in Python and runs on all major operating systems (Linux, Windows, Mac, and BSD). Originally developed as a web scraping tool, it can be also used as a general-purpose web crawler. Scrapy extracts structured and unstructured data that can be used later in various applications such as data mining, information processing, historical archival, and automated testing.

Apify SDK

Apify is a web crawling and scraping library run on JavaScript/Node.js. Apify *SDK can be used as a stand-alone tool in your Node.js projects, which enable it to browse the web and discover contents using the advanced and seamless functions of Node.js. It can also run as a serverless microservice on the *Apify Cloud.

Apify uses tools like Puppeteer or Cheerio to write Node.js code to extract data from web pages. Unlike Scrapy, which is written using Python and focuses on developing a general-purpose web scraping tool, Apify focuses on allowing users to write JavaScript code specific to the target website.

To use Apify, you need to install Node.js first and then install Apify SDK.

Web Scraper

Webscraper.io is a Chrome extension that runs directly inside the Chrome browser. This tool has many features that make it stand out among other popular scrapers. For instance, Webscraper.io is easy to use by non-programmers, it does not require any programming knowledge, and we can configure the scraper by just pointing and clicking on elements. Another feature is its ability to extract data from dynamic websites with multiple navigation levels (e.g., categories and subcategories, pagination, and product pages). Many modern websites are built using JavaScript code. Traditional scrapers do not easily scrape such websites; however, Web Scraper solves this obstacle through its ability to perform full JavaScript execution, waiting for Ajax requests, pagination handlers, and page scroll down. Web Scraper can export data in CSV, XLSX, and JSON formats to easily analyze collected data using various data analytics applications.

__Octoparse __

Octoparse is a commercial application for web scraping. It does not require any coding experience, and data extraction can be performed with a simple point and click. Octoparse can extract data from websites with infinite scrolling, login, drop-down, AJAX, and export the extracted data as CSV, Excel, API, or save to databases. Other features include running the scraper from the cloud, setting a schedule to begin the scraping process automatically, and an IP rotation feature that changes the scraper's IP address on a time interval to prevent an IP from being blocked.

ParseHub

ParseHub is a free web scraping tool for extracting data from web pages. It has a simple user interface and can be used by invoice users with no coding skills.

ParseHub offers many features like extracting data from complex and laggy sites. In addition to any JavaScript and AJAX page, it can search through forms, open drop-down menus, log in to websites, click on maps, and handle sites with infinite scroll, tabs, and pop-ups. This tool is powerful and can extract data from millions of web pages and export the results in JSON, Excel, and API.

Summary

Web scraping tools are useful for anyone who wants to get any sort of data from the internet. Web scraping can be used in different scenarios; for example, Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) gatherers use it to harvest data from public sources, while digital forensics examiners use such tools to collect information about a specific entity online. Enterprises and government agencies use web scrapers to collect statistical information for a variety of purposes.

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