APIs, Libraries, Visual Tools, Browser Extensions: What is the best web scraping tool?
Web Scraping, like many other things in life, comes in different forms and shapes and can be used for various purposes. The combinations are almost infinite. That’s why you need to address the needs first.
What data do you need to scrape, and how much?
How do you or your client analyze this data after extraction?
Which type of web scraping are you going to use, and how are you going to decide which one is the best?
From now on, I will focus on this last question, trying to help you answer it and make this process easier and more efficient.
A brief introduction to the benefits of web scraping
I have written multiple times about web scraping benefits, but I feel like reinforcing it one more time.
Web scraping is the process of data extraction from public websites faster and more efficiently compared to copy-paste. After having access to all the data, you can analyze it and improve decision-making for you or your clients.
Web scraping is becoming more and more a popular procedure by being cost-effective, fast, and having a tangible impact on a business’s day-to-day activities.
As mentioned above, there are multiple ways of doing web scraping, and I am going to talk about four of them: APIs, libraries, visual software, and browser extension.
Web scraping APIs
What is an 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, when searching for weather data in your city on Google or a mobile app, you’re sending a request through an API to a third party. Your request is processed and sent to the company’s servers, and then the weather data 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.
This is one of the many use cases of APIs, of course, most of them are more complicated than this. Some APIs act as a simple network between two programs, while others connect in more 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, as it’s the standard format for RESTful APIs.
The advantages of using APIs while web scraping
Using APIs instead of other web scraping solutions has multiple advantages like direct access to data, even from rich media websites, the possibility of scraping both data and images, depending on every users’ needs.
Also, web scraping anonymously, from different locations, or customizing the API are crucial things to have in mind.
The disadvantages of using APIs while web scraping
As for weaknesses, I will mention three of the most troublesome.
Web scrapers, while legal, need to adhere to a few rules of conduct so that the user doesn’t run into legal issues. For example, the scraper has to follow the rules outlined in the Robots.txt file on each website. These rules define what is permitted and considered “good behaviors” for bots.
In the first place, free versions are giving you a limited amount of data you can extract. This means that you depend a bit on the budget for large amounts of data.
On the other hand, API integration and API web scraping require some technical and coding knowledge, and depending on the needs; these skills must be sharpened.
My first choice: WebScrapingAPI
WebScrapingAPI is the new kid in town, easy to access if you are looking for a flexible and trustworthy web scraping tool right away. With a simple and free account creation, you can access some of its key features that make this product one of the very best available on the market.
With this being in the category of freemium products, you can always upgrade to the desired subscription. With a paid plan, you enjoy advanced features that will help you eliminate the classic and challenging process of obtaining web data, based on your needs and expectations.
Using WebScrapingAPI, you won’t have to deal with proxies, IP rotations, or even CHAPTCHAs. The tool allows you to scrape any website without getting blocked. This is due to a large pool of proxies available — datacenter, residential or mobile IPs, from hundreds of ISPs, with 12 geographical locations to choose from plus many more for custom plans.
Bonus: WebScrapingAPI offers 1000 free API calls when you sign up, so don’t lose this opportunity.
Web scraping libraries
What is a library?
A library is a collection of functions and similar resources, created by developers and offered to others so that they have an easier time programming. You can access them, usually for free, to make your life easier when it comes to coding problems.
The advantages of using libraries
Libraries work just fine for projects up to 1000 pages to scrape. That is why it is essential to know what you are scraping and the goal you need to achieve. Also, they are easy to use for those with coding skills.
The disadvantages of using libraries
Libraries save a lot of time when building your own scraper, but it’s still not an instantaneous process. So, while they are a huge help, you still need the knowledge and time to create your own scraper to use said libraries.
Since you’ll be building a rudimentary data extraction tool, it’s not ideal if you want to scrape a large amount of data. Libraries work best if you only need to scrape a small amount of data for a one-off project, but if you have a large or recurring scraping project, then this is going to be torture.
My advice here: Beautiful Soup
If you want to build your own web scraper using Python, Beautiful Soup should be your first option. It is an excellent open-source Python library for parsing HTML and XML documents.
Three main features make Beautiful Soup a powerful library:
- it provides a few simple methods for navigating, searching, and modifying a parse tree;
- it automatically converts incoming documents to Unicode and outgoing documents to UTF-8;
- it sits on top of popular Python parsers like lxml and html5lib.
The framework’s documentation will give you various insights regarding how the library can help you, from extracting all of the text from the HTML tags to altering the HTMLS within the document you are working with.
Visual web scraping software
What is visual web scraping software?
Visual web scrapers are tools to visually select the elements to extract and the logical order to follow in performing various extractions.
The advantages of using visual web scraping software
Visual web scraping tools are great and suitable for small and simple data extraction projects where lapses in data quality or delivery aren’t critical. Anyone can use these ones because they require little or no coding skills.
The disadvantages of using visual web scraping software
My proposal: Octoparse
Octoparse is a visual web scraping tool, easy to understand and handy to everyone who wants to scrape the web without struggling with code. With a user-friendly interface, the tool allows extracting data in a few simple steps and export it in different formats like Excel, CVS, or sent directly to an API or database.
You can find cloud services that will help you extract a considerable amount of data without having to think about your machine catching fire.
Being a freemium product, you can try the tool starting with a free account and then adjust your plan according to your needs and the extra features you require.
Web scraping browser extensions
What is a web scraping browser extension?
Using browser extension instead of other solutions, you can devise a plan or sitemap regarding how a particular website of your choice should be navigated. Web scraper extension will then follow the navigation design accordingly and scrape the data.
The advantages of using Web scraping browser extensions
The disadvantages of using Web scraping browser extensions
Complex and large web scraping data can be a challenging process using browser extensions, these being usually used for more basic purposes. Also, browser extensions work slow, so if you need urgent data to be extracted, you should look elsewhere.
My suggestion: WebScraper
WebScraper is probably one of the most popular web scraping Chrome extensions. If you want to scrape the web as efficiently as possible, WebScraper allows you to follow a few steps and obtain the desired web data. The process is effortless: you download the extension, do the installation, configure your scraper and start scraping any website.
Being a browser extension, you don’t have to worry about technical knowledge, so this tool might be handy if you don’t have programmers at hand.
With this tool, you will have the possibility to scrape text, images, URLs, and more from multiple pages, browse data and download it in a CSV file. This can be further imported into Google Sheets, Excel, or cloud services.
Even though the extension is free, Web Scraper also offers more complex, paid service packages.
There are multiple ways to perform web scraping, but choosing the best one for you can be quite a challenge.
As you already saw, firstly, it is vital to evaluate your coding skills and see which product fits the best on that. Then, you must look at the amount of data you need to extract for you or for your clients. In many cases, this one will be a dealer breaker.
Luckily, there are plenty of solutions for every kind of user. For those with or without coding skills, for those that are curious about few data to extract, or those that need to do it at a large scale, even for those who wanna do it for free or can afford a budget.
If you want to read more about web scraping products and how they can help you, check these resources: