Are Web Scraping APIs the Best Tools for the Job?
Web scraping may not be a huge industry, but it has loads of diversity. There are plenty of tools, APIs, and frameworks to choose from. You could also outsource your data extraction needs to someone else too. To select a solution, you have to think about your needs first and foremost.
But in this article, I want to give you some in-depth details on web scraping APIs and show you why I think they’re the optimal solution most of the time.
Feel free to agree or disagree because I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments. That being said, I’ll include both advantages and disadvantages, as I want you to get the whole picture.
Now, how else to start than with a definition?
What is a web scraping API?
An API, or Application Programming Interface, is an intermediary that connects different software products and lets them exchange data in a standardized way.
For example, if you want to find the fastest route from point A to point B, you could use the Google Maps mobile app. The app doesn’t miraculously store routes and information on the device. Instead, it sends the request for data to Google’s API. The interface then processes and sends that request to their servers. The route data then goes from the servers to the API, to your phone. The app and servers don’t have to be compatible because the API handles communication for them.
That was a fairly straightforward example, but APIs are everywhere. Some act as simple junctures between two programs, while others connect plenty more in complex ways.
A web scraping API acts the same way: it connects the service provider’s data extraction software with whatever you need. For web data, the most commonly used format is JSON.
If you want to learn more about APIs and how they function, here’s a great article on them and how they gather data from the web.
To sum up: you feed the API your requests (target URLs, proxy and geolocation preferences, targeted data), and the API sends you a JSON file with the data it scraped. At that point, you can just download the data and store it or feed it to other scripts or software products you’re using.
For example, if you’re developing machine learning algorithms and need web scraping to get learning data, the API can send the content straight to your algorithm, no human intermediary required.
Alternatives to using an API
Web scraping is an industry in itself, and you’ll see that there are plenty of different options for customers in need of data. Before we delve into the finer details of web scraping APIs, I feel it’s essential that we take a look at all of your options. You’ll get a better overview this way.
Outsourcing your web scraping needs
Like just about any other industry, there are service providers who can take over the whole process for you. All you have to do is explain what data you want in as much detail as possible and wait for it to be delivered to you.
To whom you will outsource depends a lot on the size and complexity of the project. For example, if it’s just a few pages that need to be scraped ever so often, a freelancer is probably your best bet.
If it’s a large-scale scraping process with a lot of data involved, you should look for an enterprise solution. Some companies develop their own web scraping tools and offer them in SaaS format. You just access the dashboard, write down the URLs you need and the specific information that needs extracting. That’s it. The service provider will send you the data.
You could consider these cases the two ends of the spectrum, but you can find many different offers or plans that fit specific needs.
To get a standardized review for this option and the others I’m about to present, let’s focus on four primary aspects. Remember that these are just general observations, and there are most likely several exceptions. So always analyze every product or offer individually as well.
- Price: since you get everything you need delivered to your doorstep, it’s no wonder that outsourcing is the priciest option. Still, it’s not very expensive for small projects, and you can get excellent deals on larger ones.
- Functionality: you’d be getting help from web scraping experts, so receiving precisely the data you need should be a given. The only problem here is communication; you have to be very specific and clear about what you want in order to get it. All in all, it’s a good situation, considering that you don’t have to scrape yourself.
- Integration: this is what I see as one of the bigger disadvantages of outsourcing. You’re paying for data extraction, and you’ll receive data files. That’s about it. Integration with your own software might be possible, especially for enterprise solutions, but it might also mean you’ll need a developer, so it’s an extra expense.
- Knowledge: this is one of the biggest advantages. You only need to know what information to scrape. You don’t need any coding skills or knowledge about how web scraping works.
Using visual web scraping software to harvest data
Let’s say that you want to have more control over the web scraping process than you’d get by outsourcing, but you don’t have coding knowledge. Luckily for you, there are still numerous options to choose from.
Visual web scraping software products offer users an easy-to-use interface to browse pages and select the data they want to scrape. At first glance, it may sound like a lot of manual work, the same as copying and pasting the information. In truth, it’s still a lot faster since the software offers you the chance to automate large parts of the process.
Visual web scrapers come in many forms. Some need to be downloaded, while others operate out of a web app. Some use your machine’s processing power to extract data, while others use computers connected to the cloud. Depending on how much information you need, different payment plans ensure that you get a good bargain.
Proxies are another vital aspect to consider. Any web scraping tool needs proxies to gather data, even for small projects. Keep an eye on what types of proxies are offered and their number.
Let’s consider the four factors we mentioned earlier:
- Price: there is a lot of variety in visual tools. As a rule of thumb, you’ll spend less money using a visual tool than you’d need for outsourcing. Since a large part of the process is handled by the software, you’re also likely to save a considerable amount on large projects, especially if the job is big enough for a custom plan.
- Functionality: since you’re the one selecting what data to extract, from where and how often, you have a significant degree of control over the process. For that reason, I’d say that visual tools offer excellent functionality in web scraping. You’ll often get to choose in what format to receive the data, just like any other functionality.
- Compatibility: instead of having a dedicated freelancer or team working specifically for your needs, you’d be limited at what the software is designed to do. In most cases, you just get the data you wanted. If you only need information to then sort and process, it’s okay. But if you need to send the data to another piece of software, this option is less likely to help.
- Knowledge: if you opt for pre-built software, the main thing you need to know is how to use it. All in all, there isn’t much to learn since it’s in the developers’ best intention to make their product easy to learn and use. Coding knowledge may or may not help you with more complex scraping projects, depending on the software.
Using web scraping browser extensions
While browser extensions could be said to fall into the ‘visual scraping software’ category, I felt it deserved a special mention.
Browser extensions are perhaps the most basic web scraping tools out there in terms of usability and functionality. Basic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if your scraping project is small.
Compared to more complex visual scraping software, you have fewer functionalities to work with, but the price is also smaller.
If you’re only flirting with the idea of web scraping and feel that visual web scraping tools would work best, you could start with a browser extension. If you find the extra data useful and want to scale up, you should go for dedicated scraping software.
Using web scraping APIs
To review: we’ve taken a look at what APIs are, what they do, and we’ve browsed the different web scraping tools you could use. Now let’s bring it all together and look at how web scraping APIs fare.
A web API can have its own interface. This is to facilitate basic use, like scraping a page without complicated parameters, outside code, or integration to another software product. With this interface, you can get similar results to visual web scraping tools. The main difference is that you don’t get to visually select which sections of the page to scrape, taking the whole HTML code instead.
Another important use of this interface is that it generates the API call code for you to copy. The result is that even if you don’t have extensive coding experience, you can still generate the commands you’ll need to use the API. This code can then be executed in different programming languages or environments.
To get all the benefits of an API, though, you’ll need to know your way around code. The API documentation is always a good place to start. APIs that serve the same purpose will probably have similar commands and characteristics. Still, reading the documentation for the interface you’re using is crucial to understanding how to use and integrate it.
The beauty of using web scraping APIs is getting all the benefits of other tools but adding the option to open the hood and look inside. By that, I mean that an API offers (or at least it should):
- A large pool of proxies to choose from, with automatic rotation to prevent blocking
- Geotargeting options
- Honeypot and fingerprinting prevention
- Fast results, relying on their own servers instead of the users’ machines
All of these functionalities and benefits should work with no human involvement needed. But, if you want to create something specific, you can dive into the code and specify every detail, like custom headers, sticky sessions, and maximum timeout.
Let’s look at APIs through the four pillars of web scraping tools we defined earlier and see how they stack up:
- Price: While not expensive for what they can offer to experienced developers, APIs aren’t the cheapest option. Prices vary, especially based on how many API calls you’ll do in a single month or how much bandwidth you’ll need.
- Functionality: APIs generally come packed with excellent functionalities, with the option to have the devs prepare custom scripts if you need them. You can also write those yourself if you so choose. In a sense, web scraping APIs put functionality above ease of use. It’s not a perfect solution, but it comes really close once you know what everything does.
- Compatibility: If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that compatibility is the cornerstone of all APIs. It’s the same deal for data extraction. You can get all the API’s functionalities with a few lines of code added to your existing scripts and software. The whole scraping process can become automated.
- Knowledge: Similarly to using visual scraping software, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with the API and how it works. The downside is that doing that requires some experience with coding. If you’re not a developer, you can still learn how to use the API with little problem. It will just take some time. In summary, the needed knowledge is reasonably accessible but learning it may take a while.
Choosing the right data extraction tool
All of the solutions you’ve seen so far are scalable. Outsourcing might be a bit more difficult on that front, but it’s certainly possible. As a result, I suggest that your project’s scope shouldn’t influence the type of tool you choose.
Instead, focus on costs and benefits. The price and amount of necessary experience would be the costs. The benefits depend on how fast you need the data, how often you’ll scrape the same pages, how do you want to receive the data, and with what software you might want to integrate the tool.
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of web scraping software, I’d say you take a look at the products themselves. I’ve prepared for you a list of the best web scraping tools around.