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Universal lxml Tutorial for Beginners and Pros

As an expert in data extraction and web scraping, I‘ve been using the lxml library for over 10 years on countless projects. In that time, I‘ve found lxml to be one of the most indispensable tools for processing XML and HTML documents in Python.

In this detailed tutorial, I‘ll demonstrate how you can leverage lxml to extract and transform data from the web. We‘ll start with the basics, then build up to real-world examples. By the end, you‘ll be equipped with an in-depth knowledge of lxml and its many capabilities.

A Brief History of lxml

Before we dive in, let‘s briefly look at where lxml came from. The lxml project was started in 2005 by Stefan Behnel as a wrapper for the C libraries libxml2 and libxslt. At the time, Python lacked good options for HTML/XML processing. BeautifulSoup existed, but was pure Python code and quite slow.

Stefan‘s goal was to expose the speed of C libraries to Python developers through an easy-to-use API. The result was lxml – a binding that offered both simplicity and performance.

Since its release, lxml has exploded in popularity within the Python community. It is now a dependency for major web scraping frameworks like Scrapy and widely used for processing XML feeds, APIs, documents and more.

The growth of lxml usage over the years correlates directly with the rise of web APIs and the need for robust HTML parsing tools. Today, lxml handles billions of requests per day across Python applications thanks to its speed and reliability.

Installing lxml

To start using lxml, you‘ll need to install it via pip:

pip install lxml

This will compile the C libraries into a package tailored for your environment. On Debian/Ubuntu Linux, you can install pre-built packages:

sudo apt-get install python3-lxml

With that, let‘s explore how lxml enables us to easily build and parse XML documents.

Creating XML Documents

One of lxml‘s core strengths is generating well-formed XML. The lxml.etree module provides the ElementTree and Element classes for this purpose.

First, we need to import etree:

from lxml import etree

To create an XML document, instantiate Element objects and connect them in a tree structure:

root = etree.Element("root")
child1 = etree.SubElement(root, "child1")
child2 = etree.SubElement(root, "child2")

We can set text and attributes on elements like so:

root.set("version", "1.0") 
child1.text = "Some text"

Putting this together, we can generate an XML document from any data:

contacts = etree.Element("contacts")

for name in ["John", "Sarah", "Mary"]:
    contact = etree.SubElement(contacts, "contact")
    contact.text = name

print(etree.tostring(contacts, pretty_print=True).decode()) 

This outputs beautiful formatted XML:


Once created, our XML can be saved to a file with tostring() or ElementTree.write(). Easy!

Parsing and Traversing XML

Now let‘s look at how lxml can parse and query existing XML documents.

Given a file input.xml, we can parse it using parse():

tree = etree.parse("input.xml")
root = tree.getroot()

Alternatively, we can parse an XML string:

xml = "<root>...</root>"
root = etree.fromstring(xml)

With the document parsed, lxml provides many options for accessing data within it:

Querying with XPath

XPath is a query language for selecting nodes in XML/HTML. For example:

# Get all <contact> elements
contacts = root.xpath("//contact") 

# Get the first name of the first contact
first_name = root.xpath("//contact[1]/name/first/text()")[0]

XPath can drill down to any element or attribute in the document.

Iterating Elements

We can also iterate through elements directly:

for contact in root.iter("contact"):

This allows looping through specific tags.

Finding Elements

The find() and findall() methods search for immediate child elements:

# Get first <name>
name = root.find("name")

# Get all <contact> elements
contacts = root.findall("contact") 

In this way, lxml becomes your toolkit for dissecting XML and extracting the data you need.

Handling HTML with lxml.html

So far we‘ve focused on well-formed XML documents. But real-world websites and applications often produce imperfect HTML that lacks closing tags or proper structure.

For these cases, lxml provides the lxml.html module. The html module can parse messy HTML into an organized document that we can then query like regular XML.

Let‘s scrape a sample web page and extract the title:

import requests
from lxml import html

response = requests.get("")
doc = html.fromstring(response.text)

title = doc.xpath("//title/text()")[0] 

While the HTML may be malformed, lxml will gracefully handle it and allow us to access elements through XPath. This makes it invaluable for web scraping.

Web Scraping with lxml and Requests

A common use case for lxml is scraping data from websites. By pairing it with the Requests module, we can easily build scrapers for extracting information.

Here‘s an example to grab product listings from an ecommerce site:

import requests
from lxml import html 

URL = ""

response = requests.get(URL)
doc = html.fromstring(response.text)

for product in doc.xpath("//div[@class=‘product‘]"):
    name = product.xpath("./h2/text()")[0]
    price = product.xpath("./p[@class=‘price‘]/text()")[0]

    print(name, price)

This demonstrates how lxml and Requests can fetch HTML from a live site and parse out the data we want. The sky is the limit for what you can build on top of these tools!

Comparing lxml with Other Libraries

lxml isn‘t the only option for processing XML and HTML in Python. The well-known Beautiful Soup library is another popular choice. So how does lxml compare?

Based on my experience, here are some key distinctions:

lxml Beautiful Soup
Speed Very fast (C libraries) Slower (pure Python)
HTML Parsing Lenient (tolerates errors) Flexible (parses malformed markup)
Features XPath, XSLT, XML Schema Prettifies HTML
Learning Curve Steeper Easier to pick up

The optimal library depends on your use case. For processing large datasets, lxml‘s speed is hard to beat. But Beautiful Soup may be simpler if you just need to occasionally parse HTML.

Common Errors and Troubleshooting

When getting started with lxml, you may run into some common stumbling blocks:

XMLSyntaxError – This occurs if your document contains malformed XML/HTML that lxml cannot parse. Always validate your input first.

XPathError – An invalid XPath expression will raise this error. Double check your query syntax.

AttributeError – Trying to access an attribute that doesn‘t exist on an Element will result in this. First verify the attribute is present before accessing it.

The good news is that lxml provides very descriptive errors. The key is reading them carefully and checking your XML/HTML thoroughly. Writing defensive code that anticipates failures is also wise.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully this guide provided you a solid overview of using lxml for parsing, iterating, and extracting data from XML and HTML documents in Python. Let‘s recap what we covered:

  • Installing – Get lxml via pip or Linux packages
  • Creating XML – Build documents with lxml.etree
  • Parsing XML – Read XML from files or strings
  • Querying – Use XPath and element traversal
  • Handling HTML – Parse sloppy HTML with lxml.html
  • Web Scraping – Scrape websites by combining lxml and Requests
  • Debugging Errors – Fix issues by reading errors closely and writing defensive code

lxml is undoubtedly one of the most useful Python libraries I‘ve come across for web scraping and data processing. With its speed and versatility, it‘s a Swiss Army knife for XML manipulation. I hope this guide helps you leverage lxml to its fullest!

Let me know if you have any other questions – I‘m happy to point you towards additional tutorials and resources for mastering lxml.


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