Web scraping is a technology that’s been around for a while now, although it has evolved a lot over the years. One of the main catalysts for this change is the popularity of Single Page Applications (SPAs) and the fact that not all web data lives in static HTML on a webpage anymore. Webpages can render dynamically, and the content can change.
In the past, web scraping involved arduous manual extraction, but now it’s largely automated. There are many web scraping tools and services that can provide you with a large volume of data to crawl the web at scale.
There’s no denying the capabilities of web scraping. It has many benefits that businesses can take advantage of to improve efficiency and accuracy. And the data explosion has only fueled its popularity. With such a huge source of data available and growing all the time, it’s something people understandably want to take advantage of.
However, there are also some ethical considerations involved with web scraping. The human element determines its uses and whether it’s employed with good or bad intentions. Here’s what you need to know about web scraping, how it can benefit your business, and its legalities and limitations.
What Are the Positives of Web Scraping?
Web scraping automates the onerous process of collecting data. Prior to this technology, you would have to copy and paste each piece of information from a website, a practice that was time-consuming and often frustrating.
Web scraping automates this process and streamlines it dramatically. Rather than spending an afternoon meticulously combing through data, it can be done quickly and efficiently without the need for manual extraction. Everything is done through software and tools, which means less of a drain on your manpower.
Web scraping is also convenient. As a business owner, you’ve likely got a lot on your plate and don’t have time to spend hours scouring the web for bits of usable data. With scraping technology, you can quickly collect data from a variety of websites and store it in a spreadsheet for quick reference.
Brands across multiple industries like finance, marketing, and ecommerce find web scraping useful for generating critical data without investing a lot of time and energy into extracting and preparing it. Web scraping tools handle the bulk of the work for them.
Finally, there’s better data accuracy when compared to manually collecting data. “Not only is scraping fast but it is also extremely accurate,” explains GeoSurf. “This prevents any major mistakes which can occur as a result of smaller data extraction mistakes made during the process.”
Human error is always a factor, especially when dealing with large volumes of data. Any errors made in data extraction – even minor ones – can lead to critical mistakes later on. Whether you’re dealing with pricing data, sales, financial data, or anything else, this can create some serious issues.
Since web scraping greatly improves accuracy levels in comparison to manual extraction, the data you generate can be applied with greater peace of mind.
How Can It Benefit Businesses?
Given these advantages, there are a few specific ways web scraping can help your business.
For one, it provides you with access to a wide range of data that would otherwise be unavailable. The internet is the world’s largest database, meaning there’s a nearly infinite amount of information you can harvest.
Whether you’re in finance, insurance, equity research, real estate, or any other industry, it’s vital that you have access to as much applicable data as possible. While traditional research methods certainly have their benefits and can provide you with fairly robust information, web scraping takes it to another level.
For instance, it can provide you with comprehensive data on competitor price changes, product reviews, real estate listings, customer sentiment, and much more.
Web scraping is also great for performing industry research. For example, you can use it to:
- See how much demand there is for an industry in a location
- Analyze new products or services a primary competitor is offering
- Identify changes on competitors’ websites
- Determine how well customers are responding
- Identify potential areas for improvement
- Gain general marketplace intelligence
When you put all of that together, it can create a considerable competitive advantage. The more high-quality data your company has access to, the better equipped you’ll be to understand your competition, know their strengths and weaknesses, and optimize your product offerings accordingly.
So in the long run, web scraping can have a tremendous impact on your business. Here are some specific areas it can aid in:
Data Analysis and Visualization
Let’s face it, data can be overwhelming.
62% of companies and agencies say they feel overwhelmed by the volume of data they have, and 85% say they’re unable to fully utilize it.
Web scraping is helpful because it assists with the analysis part of the process. In other words, you’re not just left with mountains of data with no way to make sense of it.
Data visualization is a particular technique many businesses find useful. By extracting raw data and converting it into a visual format, it’s much easier to gain key insights to guide decision-making. And the best part is that it’s usually very intuitive to interpret.
Research and Development
Research and development (R&D) are essential to successfully introducing new products or services as well as improving existing ones. Web scraping is ideal for producing critical data to aid in the R&D process.
For instance, you might analyze a new product a major competitor is offering – its features, benefits, and potential for improvement. You could then use this information to guide the development of your own new product to help you compete at a higher level.
Knowing market volume, customer segments, buying habits, and economic climate are all critical to a business’s health and longevity. This is what helps a brand start out on stable footing and sustains it in the long run.
Web scraping can be a valuable tool for market analysis. It can be used to extract a variety of data from industry blogs, news sites, and directories to gather information about opportunities and gain insights into the thought process of a target demographic.
It’s also perfect for making price comparisons, and can quickly give you an idea of how much leading competitors are charging for a product or service. Beyond that, web scraping can assist you with online price change monitoring and keep you updated whenever competitors increase or decrease their prices.
Is Web Scraping Legal?
While web scraping definitely has its benefits and is a powerful tool for business, you might wonder if it’s legal. Given the amount of information companies are privy to through web scraping, this is a relevant and commonly-asked question.
The short answer is yes, web scraping is legal, but it requires that users follow relevant laws and maintain a code of ethics. For example, you can run into trouble when you scrape someone else’s website and disregard their Terms of Service (ToS).
According to Ben Bernard, product manager at private advertising company Taboola, there are three main reasons why web scraping has gained an unscrupulous reputation in recent years:
- It’s sometimes used to create an unfair advantage
- Some companies fail to adhere to copyright laws and ToS
- It’s sometimes abused (e.g. web scrapers send a high volume of requests, which creates excessive load on websites, slowing them down)
If you plan to do web scraping, make sure you understand the full legalities first. Bernard offers a helpful guide on the subject that will explain the fundamentals and assist you in using web scraping responsibly.
What’s the Potential for Abuse?
According to Bloomberg Law, “Approximately 38 percent of web scrapers use this technology to obtain content, primarily targeting websites directed to real estate, digital publishing, travel, online directories, e-commerce, marketplace and classified.”
So of course there’s always the potential for abuse. As mentioned above, web scraping can lead to unfair competition, infringe upon copyrights, and potentially slow down websites, hurting the user experience. It can also bypass built-in security measures that are in place and automatically download data that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise.
This isn’t to say that all users are resorting to nefarious methods, but it’s important to acknowledge web scraping’s negative connotations and how it can be misused when in the wrong hands. If it’s something you implement into your business/marketing initiatives, it’s vital that you use it ethically and avoid misusing data.
The Limitations of Web Scraping
Legacy web scraping also has some pitfalls. It’s resource-intensive, requiring lengthy lead time before getting a scraper written. It’s typically one scraper to one site, and the data lacks quality control and needs to be transformed/normalized to be consumed elsewhere.
Web scraping can also be expensive because you need to hire programmers to both build and maintain scrapers, as well as pay server costs to store data. As a result, it’s not financially feasible for all companies.
Other Means of Obtaining Data
There are other means of obtaining data aside from legacy web scraping, with Web Data Integration (WDI) — next generation web scraping — being one of the most effective approaches.
WDI is essentially a more comprehensive version of web scraping. Import.io’s platform, for example, involves five key steps:
While traditional web scraping primarily revolves around extraction, WDI is much more robust and provides incredibly detailed data that’s easy to digest. It’s also highly accurate – more so than web scraping.
Many companies like WDI because it focuses heavily on data quality and controls. There’s a built-in Excel-like feature that allows you to normalize data directly within the web application, making it so data can be consumed within the same environment.
It also has robust data visualization capabilities. Import.io has a built-in function called Insights, which extracts the data, cleans it, and creates visualizations, all within the same environment.
When it comes to performing industry research, web data extraction is also valuable for many of the use cases mentioned above because it can gather data quickly, frequently, and consistently at scale. An extractor can be set up and trained once, and then set to run once a day without any further implementation. And in most cases, there’s no manual upkeep.
And when you use a managed WDI service through import.io, they absorb the legal risk, which prevents any potential liabilities on your end. However, SaaS offerings do not.
Web scraping definitely has its benefits. It automates data collection, eliminates the need for manual extraction, creates better data accuracy, and is highly convenient. However, it’s a technology that has the potential to be abused and should only be used responsibly. Knowing its specific applications and how to use it properly should ensure a positive experience and prevent unnecessary issues from arising.
Import.io’s Web Data Integration solutions go beyond web scraping to guarantee that web data can be easily extracted, prepared and integrated into your business process for a high quality and holistic data set. Talk to a data expert today and learn more about how web data can improve your business.