What is the difference between web scraping and crawling?

David Barton
David Barton

Want to learn about web scraping and how it differs from web crawling? Read on for a succinct explanation of how to think about the two concepts and how the Apify platform helps users scrape smarter and faster.

Web scraping — an essential tool for the modern Internet

Web crawling is essentially what fuels search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, and Google. They find and fetch web links from a list of seed URLs. From this initial starting point, the crawler will go through the pages of a website, following links, finding new pages and extracting content in a relatively indiscriminate manner.

Web scraping is slightly different, as it refers to the process of extracting structured information from a web page, usually by means crafted specifically for the target website. It’s possible to scrape websites without crawling, e.g. if you have a fixed list of URLs to scrape from. Web scraping usually targets structured data, e.g. for price comparison, or to collect company names, emails, phone numbers, and URLs. This data can then be parsed, searched and formatted and copied into a database.

Both crawling and scraping can carry out a range of activities to achieve these goals. For instance, crawlers and scrapers might execute JavaScript, emulate human user behavior, submit forms, log in to a website, and so on.

The two terms are often used interchangeably, but you can think of scraping as being a much more focused process, in which specific data is being acquired for further processing. This makes web scraping very useful for anyone who wants to get data from one source and use it in often surprising and innovative ways.

Apify actors (the name we use for our flexible little bots) can be used for both crawling and scraping, but it’s worth exploring just what makes scraping so useful.

Web scraping options

Scraping started off low-tech and high-effort. Most websites don’t offer an API (application programming interface) or ways for users to save data, so in the beginning, anyone who wanted to use data in unexpected ways was forced to copy and paste data into Excel or another program.

There are now several ways that data can be scraped from the web. Developers usually have the skills to build their own web scrapers running on their own servers, while open-source libraries such as the Apify SDK , Scrapy or Beautiful Soup simplify the tasks involved in web scraping (i.e. manage the queue of pages to crawl, handle storage and export of results, rotation of proxies, parallel execution, etc.)

Non-developers can still scrape websites manually by using point-and-click web scraping tools, such as Dexi, a process which is more suitable for simple, limited projects and less complex websites. Although such tools can be used by non-developers, they are not ideal for complex or JavaScript-heavy websites.

An alternative to point-and-click tools are services that use artificial intelligence (AI) to extract data from websites, such as DiffBot. These work well on common types of websites, such as e-commerce products and news articles, but they cannot handle arbitrarily specialized and complex websites.

Another option is to find a developer to build a web scraper for you. This can be tricky, as every freelancer approaches web scraping in a different way (some might give you back a Python script, others a Docker image, and so on).

A final option is to have a turnkey solution delivered from a dedicated consultancy. There are several of these, such as Import.io, or Mozenda. However, this solution is usually something that’s out of reach for many small and medium businesses due to the steep price.

Web scraping with Apify

Apify is a platform that extracts structured data from any web page or automates any workflow on the web. It’s also a really flexible platform, designed to help users from hardcore developers to enterprise customers who aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty of how their project gets done.

There are four main ways to use Apify:

1. Library: Any Apify user can go straight to our ever-growing library of existing actors. Some actors are custom-built for particular websites, e.g. Booking.com, Yelp or Amazon, or can be configured to work with any website.

2. Do it yourself: If you’re a developer, you can build your own actor, relying on our extensive docs and helpful support team. Even our free subscription package provides plenty of scope for you to test solutions and get your hands good and dirty with code and parameters.

3. Marketplace: Non-developers or users who don’t have time to fiddle with settings can tell Apify their needs and have an approved expert help them get set up. Even then, the Apify expert might be able to just use an existing Apify actor and get the task carried out quickly and easily, at low cost. We don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, but we do believe in saving time and money for our customers.

4. Enterprise: For larger customers or those who want to establish a long-term working relationship with Apify, we offer comprehensive, reliable consulting solutions that mean you will get the full attention of our internal team and the very best that Apify can offer in terms of support, response time and customization.

The future of web scraping & data extraction

The world is full of information, and we’re still figuring out how to make use of it all. It’s no surprise that web scraping has become a hugely popular way to aggregate big sets of data, a goal which is fundamental to e-commerce, artificial intelligence, big data, analytics, and machine learning.

Apify is part of this process and our platform is growing and getting better at scraping data every day. We believe in the principle that data wants to be free and we at Apify like to think of ourselves as helping web data to open up.



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