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Web crawling vs. web scraping: Basic differences for top-level executives

(Image credit: Image Credit: Atm2003 / Shutterstock)

Almost everyone knows about the importance of big data, particularly the creation, collection and analysis of information on the web. What’s not so obvious is that every organization in existence today can leverage the power of data. My work at Oxylabs has given me a unique vantage point where I have seen many types of businesses benefit across almost every industry.

The statistics make this point clear: research by McKinsey has determined that organizations employing data-based market research techniques outperform the competition by 85 percent in sales growth and 25 percent in gross margin.

Increases in revenue are certainly impressive, however long-term growth is also a critical factor in determining the success of a business. A recent report by Forrester Research confirms that businesses that leverage data techniques grow more than 30 percent annually, and are on track to earn $1.8 trillion by 2021.

The extraction and analysis of big data is a process that involves a team of developers and analysts, however top-level executives should understand some basic terminology to start.  This article will outline some key concepts needed to increase understanding and kick-start the process making big data a fundamental part of your business strategy.

Web crawling vs. web scraping

The internet is rife with articles using these terms interchangeably, yet they are actually quite different in terms of context and intention:

Web crawling: A map of the territory

For the purpose of this article, let’s picture a treasure map with several locations containing pots of gold.

In order for a treasure map to be valuable, it needs to be accurate. Someone needs to go to the territory to evaluate and record aspects of the terrain.

Web crawling can be seen as analogous to the creation of such a map where “bots”, “spiders”, or “crawlers” scan, index and record all the websites, pages and sub-pages. This information is then stored and called upon whenever a user does a search.

Examples of crawlers can be those used by Google (“Googlebot”), Bing (“Bingbot”) or Yahoo (“Slurp Bot”).

While not exclusive to search engines, other sites sometimes use web crawling or spidering software to update their own web content or index the content of other websites. Since these bots visit sites without permission, website owners preferring not to be indexed will customize the robots.txt file with requests to not be crawled.

As mentioned earlier, web crawling creates the map. The treasure (data), still needs to be found. This is where web scraping comes in.

Web scraping: Searching for treasure

Web scrapers also crawl the internet like bots, however they have a definite purpose, which is to find specific information.

The simplest definition of a web scraper could be a regular person that wants to buy a car, manually researching information and recording details of various listings in a spreadsheet.

This person knows exactly where to find details on price, color, make, model and year information on a website. Perhaps their eyes scan over the other content (advertisements, company information, policy terms, etc.) but that information is not recorded. They know exactly what information they want and where to look for it.

Web scraping tools operate in the same way using code or “scripts” to extract specific information from websites, like this one.

Returning to our treasure map example, the more detailed the map, the easier it will be to find the treasure. The aptitude of the person looking for the treasure however (like the scraping application) plays an important role in how much treasure will be found.

The “smarter” the tool, the more quality info it can obtain. Better info = better strategy. And in today’s economic climate, that can make a world of difference. 

Web scraping can benefit almost every business

Whatever business you are in, web scraping can give your business the edge over competitors by providing the most relevant data in your industry. The list of uses for web scraping is always growing and evolving, and can include:

  • Whatever business you are in, web scraping can give your business the edge over competitors by providing the most relevant data in your industry. The list of uses for web scraping is always growing and evolving, and can include:
  • Obtaining pricing intelligence for e-commerce businesses to adjust prices in order to beat the competition
  • E-commerce stores scanning competitor product catalogs, stock inventory and shipping information to further optimize existing business practices
  • Price comparison websites that publish data on products and services from different vendors
  • Travel websites obtaining data for flight and accommodation prices, in addition to live flight tracking information
  • Employment recruiters scanning public profiles for candidates
  • Online business directories obtaining addresses, emails, and phone numbers from public websites
  • Acquisition of topics and hashtag information by social media companies looking to leverage new trends in social media posts
  • Businesses tracking social media mentions in order to mitigate any negative publicity and collect positive reviews
  • Branded businesses investigating counterfeit products
  • Cybersecurity firms scanning and obtaining information pertaining to security threats

The future of web scraping

Big data is changing the landscape of doing business and this evolution appears to just be getting started.

Some brands may evolve and specialize into greater niche markets as a result of increased information on customers. Marketing firms can dial in their strategies with more precision, and SEO firms can increase the effectiveness of their techniques by obtaining more information on keywords and backlinks.

Profit margins on many products and services may drop further due to increased price transparency, giving the edge to businesses that are able to “scale up” production most effectively. Conversely, new, more specialized and higher-quality products may be created as a response in order to obtain sales from discriminating consumers that want unique “niche” products.

Next steps on the big data journey

I trust so far that this article has shown you how the map is created and ways to access the treasure trove of data on the internet.

The time has now come to explore the territory, and web scraping is the tool of choice for those looking to leverage the power of data and unlock its potential.

Now that you know where the map is located and how it's created, the journey can begin.

Julius Cerniauskas, CEO, Oxylabs