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What is web scraping? The complete guide for beginners

We all rely on search engines and data-rich apps, but where does all that data actually come from? Much of it is scraped from websites all over the internet using some very clever automation. This guide will teach you all about web scraping and how you can extract and use web data.

What exactly is web scraping?

Web scraping refers to extracting data from websites through automated software tools called web scrapers, or simply scrapers.

Scrapers browse websites and then parse the HTML code of web pages to identify and extract specific pieces of information. This could be text, numbers, images – all kinds of data can be scraped.

The scraper outputs the scraped data in a structured format like a spreadsheet or SQL database so that the information is cleanly organized for further analysis and use.

Why do people scrape data from websites?

Here are some of the most common reasons people turn to web scraping:

  • Price monitoring – track competitors‘ pricing on products over time
  • Market research – analyze info on rival products, reviews, social media traction
  • Job listings aggregation – compile job postings from multiple sites
  • News monitoring – scrape headlines and article text from news outlets
  • Product research – collect specs, options and reviews of products
  • Lead generation – gather contact details and info from directories
  • Travel fare aggregation – scrape flight/hotel deals into one place
  • Academic studies – gather online data to analyze trends and insights
  • Search engine indexing – scrape web pages to include in search results

Whether it‘s for business, research or personal use, web scraping allows for data gathering that would be impossible for a human to do manually.

How do web scraping tools actually work?

Web scrapers need to mimic a normal web browser in order to access pages and content. Here‘s what happens behind the scenes:

  1. The scraper sends an HTTP request to the target webpage, just like your browser does when you enter a URL.

  2. The web server hosting that page returns the HTML code of the page in the response to the scraper.

  3. The scraper then parses through this HTML code using tools like XPath, regular expressions or Chrome Developer Tools to identify the specific elements holding the data it‘s looking for.

  4. Once it locates the target data, the scraper extracts the text, numbers, attributes or other content from the page.

  5. The data gets structured into an organized format like a .csv spreadsheet, JSON file or SQL table for further analysis and usage.

Scrapers rely on languages like Python and libraries like Beautiful Soup and Selenium to power these steps. There are also scraper bots that let you visually configure the target elements without coding.

Here‘s a simple diagram of the web scraping process:


And some pseudo-code for a basic scraper in Python:

import requests
from bs4 import BeautifulSoup

url = ‘‘
response = requests.get(url)

html = response.text
soup = BeautifulSoup(html, ‘html.parser‘)

target_data = soup.find(‘div‘, class_=‘user-count‘).get_text() 


This code sends a GET request to the example URL, parses the HTML with BeautifulSoup, finds the div with class user-count, gets the text inside it, and prints out the result.

Challenges with web scraping

While the scraping process itself is relatively straightforward, actually scaling and maintaining scrapers brings some challenges:

  • JavaScript heavy sites – Many sites use JavaScript to load content. Scrapers need Selenium with real browsers to render JS and get the updated HTML.

  • Anti-scraping mechanisms – Sites may try to detect and block scrapers with methods like CAPTCHAs and IP limits. Scrapers need to bypass these protections.

  • Frequent site changes – Page structures and elements may change often, breaking scrapers. Maintenance is required.

  • Legal compliance – Scrapers must follow terms of service, robots.txt rules, data privacy and copyright laws.

  • Performance – Scraping many pages quickly can strain networks and servers if not managed properly.

  • Data quality – Scraped content may have inconsistencies or errors that require cleaning.

Specialized tools and cloud platforms help overcome these roadblocks when scraping at scale.

Powerful web scraping tools and services

Serious web scraping requires robust tools. Here are some top options:

  • Apify – End-to-end web scraping platform. Lets you run scrapers in the cloud and handle scaling and performance.

  • Octoparse – Visual bot creation and scraping. No coding required.

  • Scrapy – Fast scraping framework for Python with middlewares and plugins.

  • Selenium – Browser automation for dynamic JavaScript sites.

  • Puppeteer – Headless Chrome browser scraper controlled via Node.js.

  • Beautiful Soup – Leading Python library for parsing and navigating HTML and XML.

  • ProxyCrawl – Rotating proxies and residential IPs to prevent blocks.

  • Scraper API – Web scraping API and proxies to simplify scalable scraping.

  • ScrapingBee – Web scraper API and proxies without the dev work.

Specialized scraping platforms like Apify also offer advanced performance, reliability and automation.

The legality of web scraping depends on how it‘s conducted:

  • Scraping public data for non-commercial use is generally legal.

  • Scraping data for commercial purposes exists in a gray area but is usually allowed if done responsibly.

  • Ignoring a site‘s Terms of Service or exceeding agreed data usage limits may expose scrapers to legal risk.

  • Scraping data you have no rights to commercially use without permission raises copyright issues.

  • Scrapers should avoid causing damages like overloading servers or bypassing paywalls.

  • Scraped data that violates privacy laws if released may incur penalties.

  • Labor laws may apply if scraping replaces human roles like content writers.

When scraping commercially, consult an attorney, especially when handling large volumes of data.

Getting started with web scraping

Ready to start scraping? Here are some tips:

  • Learn Python – Python skills enable you to build custom scrapers. Take a Python course online.

  • Use scraping tools – Browser extensions like OctoScrape let you scrape without coding.

  • Try Apify – Get an Apify account to run scrapers at scale in the cloud.

  • Explore samples – Studying and tweaking open-source example scrapers accelerates learning.

  • Define your goals – Be clear on why you need to scrape data and what info you need.

  • Check legal compliance – Review site terms and get advice if scraping commercially.

  • Start small – Build scrapers iteratively for individual pages before going wide.

Web scraping opens up game-changing opportunities for gathering online data. Follow this guide to tap into this valuable resource!

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