Building your own web scraper is often time-consuming and not much fun, especially when you can already find a pre-made API that receives a simple configuration to work with your website.
But what does it mean to build one? And more importantly, why would someone want to do it? What does he/she have to win or lose?
While scouring the web, you will come across plenty of opportunities to grab a ready-made solution. However, you cannot always take advantage of them, so you may find yourself creating one from scratch. In this article, I will compare two approaches: building your own scraper and using an existing product.
Read to the end and then tell me what you think. I am convinced that the conclusions will surprise you.
A Brief Introduction to Web Scraping
As you may already know, web scraping is about extracting data from all over the Internet and delivering it to the user in an organized manner.
How does this happen? Well, a web scraper sends multiple requests to the target website and obtains an HTML document that’s complete and accurate. It imitates human behavior surfing the web so the websites will not detect and block it.
This HTML can be helpful in various niches. After all, this is why web scraping became so widespread in the past years. The most popular use cases are market research and analysis, lead generation, machine learning, and many more.
Now that we have remembered what web scraping is and how it works let’s move on to the article’s main topic, starting (let’s say) with the more challenging part.
Building Your Own Web Scraper
So, let’s see the perks and the pitfalls of a DIY web scraper. Earlier I said that it’s not much fun, but who knows? Maybe you’ll find it enjoyable. Here’s the gist of it:
How It Works
To analyze why and why not this is a good idea, we have to see the process of making it happen.
Let’s suppose we would use Python for the web scraper’s implementation (although the steps are pretty much language agnostic). First, you have to prepare your coding environment and install a handful of necessary libraries (ex: Selenium, Beautifulsoup).
Then, you navigate to the website you want to scrape and inspect the data that interests you from the browser. After you notice the HTML patterns, you can start writing the code.
A basic tutorial will show you that all you need to do is send a request to the website (using a headless browser), parse the HTML result (with Beautifulsoup), and store the data in a file.
Scraping at a larger scale requires implementing multiple techniques that imitate human behavior so you will not be detected and blocked by the website.
You may notice that this option’s first advantage is just how familiar you’ll get with an API that you’ve built yourself. This means that you can fix any inconvenience right away because you know the tool inside-out.
This familiarity leads us to the following advantage: customization. Unless you plan to outsource it, the web scraper is yours and only yours, meaning that you can completely adapt it to your particular needs.
On the other hand, these advantages may cost you something more valuable: time and patience. You have to invest in learning what web scraping means and gaining the skills of implementing a scraper.
Besides that, you may consider that you are not paying someone to do it for you, but in fact, you still need to pay for some resources: servers, proxies, etc.
A proxy helps you against IP blocking, so using free ones (which may be seen by the websites) is not a good option for the long term. After deciding to buy them, you must consider if you are going to use datacenter (fast, cheap, low success rate) or residential proxies (slow, expensive, high success rate).
Also, let’s not forget about the following maintenance. In addition to the resources’ recurring costs, the websites continuously develop new ways of stopping the bots. Your web scraper needs to adapt and keep up with these new mechanisms.
Using a Pre-Built Web Scraper
Let’s check out the other option we have, using an already built API for web scraping. Note that there are different types of web scraping products out there, but pre-built APIs work best for developers.
How It Works
The first step is the research. There are plenty of options over there, each with its own pros and cons. Luckily for you, there are also plenty of articles and discussions that can help you compare and choose the best fit for your needs.
If you think you don’t have enough research time, I recommend the following API — WebScrapingAPI. I have already tested it, and I consider that it has only benefits to bring.
After making up your mind about what API you are going to use, you need to… well, start using it. Most of the available options have a free plan, so you do not need to overthink the research part.
Start by making an account. You will get an API key, a unique identifier for every user who uses the service.
After that, you just get straight away to the API documentation, which is readily available on the product developers’ website for any visitor. This is a detailed document that explains how the API works and contains code samples for how you should use the API. The only thing you need to change in a code sample is your API key and the website’s URL you want to scrape.
So, what do we win from this option?
For starters, you can begin scraping right away. Most of the APIs provide a playground with a minimalist graphical interface that allows you to experiment with the types of requests and their parameters (JS rendering, datacenter or residential proxies, device, custom headers, request timeout, etc.).
Then, an API includes solutions for all the anti-bot mechanisms encountered in scraping, like a quality proxy pool. This way, you do not need to worry about workarounds to avoid being blocked.
Still got an issue, or does the API not meet one of your needs? It may be too time-consuming to start the research part over again to find another tool.
Luckily, most web scraping APIs provide customer support (especially if they also offer a custom plan). This way, the dedicated team of developers will be happy to update the API with an edge-case they may have missed in the first place.
Despite its straightforwardness, if you decide to go along with the chosen API, there are significant chances you’ll need more requests than the free plan provides. This means upgrading your account to a monthly paid plan. This can be considered a rather minor disadvantage if you think that an upgrade of the plan can be an investment that will scale your projects.
Besides that, considering the code samples provided, you have to use and extend them to extract the data you need. But that implies some basic coding knowledge to properly understand the documentation and to work with it.
Which to pick
So, if you still got to this point of the article, what do you think?
Let me give you my perspective.
Suppose we put the presented options in balance. On one side, we have the DIY web scraper API that offers you familiarity and customization at the price of time, advanced coding skills, and the resources’ cost.
On the other side, the pre-made API is straightforward, covers all the anti-bot mechanisms, and its own team of developers maintains it while it also requires a monthly cost and an amount of coding knowledge.