Web scraping – the process of automatically collecting data from the web – has been around for quite some time, and its origins date back to the early days of the World Wide Web. But up until today, scraping is still a new phenomenon to some people. Due to a lack of knowledge and misinformation, it’s often shrouded in misconceptions and myths that can drive many users away from collecting valuable information from the target website.
So, let’s set the record straight and debunk the eight most common myths about web scraping.
Myth 1: Web Scraping Isn’t Legal
The legality of web scraping is a sensitive topic. If you type “Is web scraping legal?” in Google Search, you’ll find thousands of articles and discussions in forums that try to answer this never-ending question.
In short, web scraping as such is legal, and there are no laws that say otherwise. Actually, as of 2022, the US Ninth Circuit of Appeals ruled that you can scrape data if it doesn’t hide behind a login (it’s publicly available), the content you scrape isn’t subject to intellectual property rights, and it doesn’t involve personal information.
What’s more, you must also pay attention to the website’s guidelines, specifically terms of services (ToS). They act as a contract between you and the target website. Even though they’re rarely legally binding unless you explicitly agree to them, some ToS include scraping policies prohibiting visitors from extracting any kind of data.
However, things with web scraping aren’t always straightforward, and each use case is considered individually. So, it’s always a good idea to seek legal advice if unsure.
Myth 2: You Need Coding Skills
Web scraping is often associated with high-level coding, and that’s a common reason why people avoid this method of automated data collection.
But that’s a very big misconception. While web scraping can get difficult when you dive deep into the code, many tasks require no or minimal programming knowledge. Everything depends on the tools you choose and your project parameters.
Another option for web scraping is to use a commercial scraper. They cost a buck or two, require little to no coding experience, and you get a service that handles technical details like hiding your IP address. Or you can use web scraping browser extensions. They provide a user-friendly interface, allowing you to extract data visually, and to choose pre-made scraping templates.
Myth 3: You Don’t Need Proxies for Web Scraping
Some people are certain – you can scrape any website without precautions. But is this really true? Not exactly: web scraping can involve various challenges. And most of them are related to your IP address.
Popular websites like Amazon or Petco are well protected to prevent bot-like activities. They use strict anti-bot systems like CAPTCHA, DataDome, or Cloudflare. So, if you don’t change your IP address, you might trigger them and get your IP blocked.
That’s where proxies come in. A proxy server routes your traffic through itself and in the meantime changes your IP and location. For example, you live in the US but want to send requests to a UK-based website to access region-specific content. For web scraping tasks, you should use residential proxies – they’re hard to detect, and rotate with every request with the ability to hold the same address for a chosen time interval.
However, not every provider offers proxies that work with well-protected websites. So, to find the best residential proxies for web scraping, you should look into things like the size of the provider’s proxy pool, supported location targeting options, price, and customer support.
Myth 4: You Can Scrape Any Web Page
Technically, you can scrape any website you want. But in reality, that’s not entirely true.
Most websites set up instructions called robots.txt that are designed to show what a user can scrape, how often, and which pages are off limits. Additionally, as mentioned above, another critical guideline is the ToS, which sometimes include scraping policies.
If you don’t comply with these guidelines and other web scraping practices, website owners might block your scraper. Not to mention, heavy web scraping can spike website traffic and may cause the server to break down.
Myth 5: Web Scraping is Hacking
Web scraping has nothing in common with hacking. Here’s why.
Web scraping is the process of getting publicly available information, and it’s not illegal in any way if you don’t step on copyrighted or personal data. The data you scrape is used by many businesses and individuals. For example, you can scrape price information to offer competitive prices.
Hacking, however, involves breaking into someone’s computer, which is their property. And there are laws created by government entities that hold people responsible for such actions. It’s an illegal activity related to stealing private information and manipulating it for personal gain
Myth 6: The Scraper Functions All Alone
While web scraping is much faster than manually gathering information, you still have to tell your scraper what to do. If you’re building one yourself, there are multiple steps to consider.
First, identify your target web page – the scraper won’t do that for you. For example, you can scrape an e-commerce store to get product information. This will require gathering the necessary URLs. Then, choose a tool that will fetch the HTML code. For this step, you’ll have to provide your scraper endpoints or URLs in the request.
A word of warning: the data will be messy, so to make it readable, you need to get a parsing library and command your scraper to structure the results. Additionally, websites tend to change often, so you need to adjust your scraper as needed.
Myth 7: Web scraping, Crawling and APIs Are the Same
Some people use the terms web scraping, web crawling, and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) interchangeably. However, all three differ in many ways.
Without going into much detail, web scraping is a process of extracting data from websites. You can get anything from lists of books, their publishers, and prices in bookstores to flight information data in aggregation platforms.
Web crawling, on the other hand, traverses a website to map its structure. It’s less precise than web scraping and often comes as a preparatory step. The primary purpose of crawling is to catalog and index data.
An API is a method for interacting with a website or an app programmatically. For example, some websites like Reddit offer an official API, which they’ll charge you for, but you won’t have to deal with data gathering issues like IP address bans. However, such tools are more limited in terms of collecting information.
Myth 8: Web Scraping Is Only for Business
Contrary to the popular belief that only large businesses use web scraping, individual users can gather data for various purposes as well.
For example, you can monitor cryptocurrency prices and see whether to sell, purchase, or keep your virtual money. Or, you can do sentiment analysis by gathering data from platforms like Reddit. You can scrape whole subreddits, upvotes, and downvotes, giving you new or validating existing business ideas. And these are just a few examples of how you can use web scraping to your advantage.
In conclusion, web scraping is a valuable and legal way to extract bulk data. And even though it’s surrounded by various myths, this shouldn’t hold you back from gathering information from the web.
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