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What Is Web Scraping?

Web scraping, sometimes misspelled as "web scrapping," refers to the use of bots to gather data or content from a website. Web scraping differs from screen scraping in that it does more than copy the pixels from an onscreen image. 

Rather, web scraping gathers the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) code that underlies a website, as well as the data that the site stores within a database. Then, if the scraper wants to, they can use that information to duplicate the website’s content.

The Web Scraping Process—How Do Web Scrapers Work?

What is data scraping? The process involves first giving the scraper a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) that it then loads up. The scraper loads all the HTML code that pertains to that page. In the case of advanced web scrapers, they can render everything on the site, including JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) elements.

The scraper then extracts data. It can be programmed to extract all of the site’s data or just what the user wants. In many cases, this involves the user pinpointing specific data, such as pricing information, they want to use for business intelligence.

The final step involves the web scraper outputting the data that has been collected in a way the end-user can use. This may be in a CSV file or as an Excel spreadsheet. Some of the more advanced web scrapers can output into other formats, like JSON, which can integrate with application programming interfaces (APIs).

Examples of Malicious Web Scraping

Even though web scraping has so many productive uses, as is the case with many technologies, cyber criminals have also found ways of abusing it. In some cases, malicious web scraping may not cross a clear legal boundary, yet it can still pose a threat to your business.

Because web scrapers are powerful tools for gathering information, at times, people or companies may abuse the power that comes with the knowledge gathered. Knowing the dangers on the landscape can help protect you from malicious scrapers, as well as understand how your competition may try to use web scraping to gain an edge over you.

Price Scraping

With price scraping, a person may use a botnet to launch bots that scrape the databases of the competition. In this way, they may be able to obtain information regarding their prices. The end client can then use this information to undercut their competitors and bolster their sales.

These kinds of attacks are common in business sectors with companies that carry similar products. For example, if someone is looking for a new laptop, it can be easy to find the same make, model, and year on several sites. If one of these used a web scraper, they can price their laptops just underneath those of the competition, offering the customer a better deal and prompting a quick sale.

Price scraping can also benefit a perpetrator by helping their products rank higher on sites that compare similar products. If the site sorts products by price from low to high and the company has undercut the competition after scraping pricing information, their products will automatically appear at the top of the page. This makes it far more likely for customers to click on them.

Content Scraping

With content scraping, a thief targets the content of a website or database then steals it. The content can then be used in a variety of ways. The thief can make a fake site that has the exact same content as the target site. In this way, because the sites match up so well, it can be hard for an identity theft victim to differentiate the fake site from the real one. 

If the thief builds the fake site and then sends a phishing email with a link to the fraudulent site, the targeted individual can go to the bad site and enter sensitive information, such as credit card information or secret login. The thief can then use this to crack into their financial accounts or store it for a more thorough identity theft at a later date.

Content scraping is particularly dangerous for companies that invest a lot of time and money into creating content that gives them an edge over the competition. This may include marketing collateral, images, articles, and lists of products and their prices. A web scraper can steal the content and use it to execute a spamming campaign, for example, which can damage the reputation of the company whose content was scraped.

Scraper Tools and Bots

Hackers use scraper tools and bots to sometimes attain more detailed information about the victim. The application that powers a website has multiple components, one of which may be a database containing information essential to the user's experience and the organization's business model. A web scraper bot can be used to pull specific information from the database and then exfiltrate it for use by the hacker.

For instance, a car rental company may hire a hacker to launch a bot at their competition's website. The bot can pretend to be someone looking to rent a car in a certain city. The bot can then enter different inputs to scrape all the various price points, changing parameters to get a thorough idea of the site's pricing structure. 

For example, the bot can choose an economy car and get the corresponding price. Then it can choose a compact car, intermediate, standard, full-size, and so on, gathering pricing information from the site's database as it goes along. This kind of scraper tool can also be used to look for deals that are triggered by certain conditions. In the car rental example, this may include parameters such as the number of days rented, the area from which it was rented, and more.

Types of Web Scrapers

There are many types of web scrapers, but their basic functions can typically be categorized under one of a few labels. These include self-built scrapers, prebuilt scrapers, browser extensions, software scrapers, user interface, cloud, and local scrapers.

Self-built Scrapers

With the right programming knowledge, nearly anyone can build their own web scraper. The biggest factor determining how much programming knowledge you need is the number of functions you want the web scraper to perform. Once you have the knowledge, you can put together your own web scraper using a common language such as Python.

On the other hand, you can also obtain prebuilt web scrapers. You simply have to download the scraper and run it. Some of these also come with advanced features, such as exporting to your choice of format, like Google Sheets or JSON.

Browser Extension and Software

Browser extension web scrapers get added to a browser like Firefox or Chrome. Even though these kinds of scrapers are useful, they can be limiting because their functions are confined to your browser. Because they have to work within your browser, you cannot implement more complex functions.

Conversely, web scraping software can be installed on your personal computer. While they lack the convenience that comes with running within a web browser, they have more flexibility, offering advanced features that are not possible if they were tied to your browser.

User Interface

The kinds of user interface scrapers vary considerably. Some scrapers only have a minimalist user interface accompanied by a simple command line. For some, this makes it harder to understand what the scraper is doing.

Other scrapers have a more in-depth user interface. For example, the user may be able to select exactly what they want from the website by clicking on it. These may better suit those who need a more intuitive, hands-on process. Other scrapers take it a step further by including suggestions and tips that point users in the right direction and explain the scraper’s functions.

Cloud vs. Local Web Scrapers

Where the web scraper works boils down to either on the cloud or on your computer. A local scraper works right on your computer. This means it has to use your computer’s processing power, internet connection, memory, and other resources. This can bog down your system considerably, as well as tie it up for long periods of time. Also, if your internet service provider (ISP) has data caps, the large amount of data can bring you right up to your data ceiling relatively quickly.

With cloud-based web scraping, the scraping happens on a server in the cloud. This is typically provided by the company that designed the scraper. With this kind of web scraping, your computer’s resources are not taxed by the process because the server handles the workload. This makes the user's computer available for other functions, as well as allow the user to save data if their ISP imposes a cap.

Popular Uses of Web Scrapers

Web scrapers have a variety of useful applications, ranging from straightforward market research to gathering cutting-edge business intelligence. The ways web scraping is used may also vary according to the type of business.

Price Intelligence

Price intelligence is a common use of web scraping. This involves gathering information about the prices of different products from e-commerce sites. The information is gathered from a number of sites and then outputted for the company using the scraping service. The company then uses that information to craft their own pricing strategy. This allows them to design competitive pricing that keeps them in-line with the competition while ensuring they are still able to meet revenue goals.

Price intelligence can be useful if you want to construct a dynamic pricing structure that changes according to market conditions. As the prices of competitors move in one direction, you can either mimic or counteract the movement to give customers a better deal or take advantage of the potential for more revenue. You can also use price intelligence to continually check the pricing strategies of your competition, gathering intelligence regarding how their prices move and then using that to ascertain why they made those decisions.

Market Research

Market research helps companies understand how a market moves and how they can take advantage of the opportunities this presents. With web scraping, you can gather information that allows you to understand the size, scope, and nature of your market, as well as how it changes over time and according to various economic factors.

For example, you can use web scraping to examine market trends regarding the kinds of products offered and when. You can also track pricing trends and correlate that data with events, seasons, or supply chain considerations to gain a better understanding of what your competition is doing.

Further, you can use web scraping to perform research and development, using the information you glean to better design products and services so they meet your target market’s needs in ways the competition may struggle with.

Alternative Data for Finance

The options for financial data to better inform decisions have never been as broad. With web scraping, you can take advantage of novel opportunities for drawing insights based on a variety of data points you can gather from the internet.

For example, you can collect data from Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings to gain an understanding of the relative health of different companies. You can compare one organization against another or make comparisons based on business sectors. 

With web scraping, you can also compare businesses that may be from completely different sectors but can be impacted by similar market elements, such as weather events or commodities prices. The information you glean can be organized within a spreadsheet and then inputted in a data flow diagram (DFD). This can make it easier to see the relationships between data points, as well as cause-and-effect dynamics that can impact your business model.

In addition, you can use web scraping to consolidate information from news reports. You can then analyze the effect of news reports on the fundamentals of a certain market. Web scraping can also be used to measure public sentiment as it may affect your specific market, sales goals, or how and when you onboard new initiatives.

Real Estate

The world of real estate has been completely transformed by digitization over the last several years. With more and more data available online, a web scraper can be a powerful tool to help individual agents and companies gain an edge over the competition.

You can use a web scraper to gather data from a variety of real estate sites to ascertain pricing trends, breaking them down according to different areas. You can also scrape to compare the efficacy of listing on different sites. Which ones have the highest rates of sales? Which sites help sellers move inventory the quickest? These and more questions can be answered. 

Additionally, you may want to use web scraping to delve into new markets, gathering historical sales data so you can ensure you are pricing properties in a way that supports liquidity without sacrificing profits.

Lead Generation

Web scraping opens up a host of possibilities when it comes to generating leads for your business. A business looking for new clientele can scrape the sites of potential clients, looking for content that indicates they have a need for a specific product or service.

Web scraping can also be used to gain access to lists of leads on the internet. By finding and parsing through these, you can streamline your lead-generation strategy, casting a wide net and then sorting through to find the biggest fish.

News and Content Marketing

With the plethora of news outlets available today, there is a lot of data to sort through. With web scraping, you can scrape for specific types of news events, focusing only on those that may impact your business.

For example, if you are interested in the financial markets, you can scrape for content that specifically pertains to that arena. You can then aggregate the stories into a spreadsheet and analyze their content for keywords that make them more applicable to your specific business.

Brand Monitoring

Web scraping can also be used to ensure your brand remains untarnished by false reports and negative news. If you scrape for content that can be harmful to your brand, you can then take control, crafting content that combats any potential negative effect on the reputation of your products or services.

Business Automation

Your business likely generates loads of data, and it can be hard to gather all of it into one central, easy-to-access location. Further, getting data that may pertain to a specific initiative can be equally challenging. With a scraper, you can rake in the data you need, even focusing on data points that apply to particular projects or that can be used to address pressing issues.

Also, by using web scraping to enhance your business's automation, you can discover new ways of increasing productivity or sales volume. For example, you can use a scraper to gather all the sales information regarding a specific quarter in which the business saw record profits. You can then analyze everything about this period, such as the number of sales, the average amount of each sale, and even who sold what. If strong salespeople have been identified, you can follow up by inquiring about what helped them be so successful during that period. Their strategies can then be replicated by others, strengthening the whole team.

Further, if you want to automate elements of your sales funnel, you can use a scraper to dig into your lead management database, pulling leads that fit a certain profile. You can then use information to automate email campaigns that focus on these types of leads.

How Fortinet Can Help

The FortiWeb web application firewall (WAF) comes with preset rules that can identify harmful web scrapers. These are categorized under the WAF’s malicious bots rule group. The Fortinet WAF systematically analyzes the requests coming into your web application. If it sees a content scraper, for instance, it can block that traffic, protecting your web application from getting scraped. 

At the same time, FortiWeb can make a distinction between harmless and malicious scrapers, which allows your site to still be accurately indexed by the search engines. In this way, your page maintains the ranking it has earned without being exposed to harmful scraping attacks.

Further, with FortiGuard web filtering solutions, your system can be protected from a wide range of web-based attacks, including those designed to infiltrate your site with scraper malware. With FortiGuard, you get granular filtering and blocking capabilities, and FortiGuard automatically updates its tools on a continual basis using the latest threat intelligence. You can also choose whether updates are automatically pushed to your system or you pull them when and how it's convenient for you.

FAQs

What is web scraping used for?

Web scraping gathers data or content from a website. Companies use it for price intelligence, market research, alternative data for finance, real estate, lead generation, news and content monitoring, brand monitoring, and business automation.

Is web scraping legal?

Web scraping itself is not illegal because it involves gathering data that is often already available. However, web scraping can be used for illegal and unethical purposes, such as content scraping, which involves stealing others’ content.