Web crawling vs. web scraping: what is the difference?

David Barton
David Barton
Table of Contents

Want to learn about web scraping and how it differs from web crawling? Read on to understand web crawling vs. web scraping and how web scraping can create an API for any website.

Web crawling vs. web scraping

Web crawling, or data crawling, is what fuels search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, and of course Google. Search engines find and fetch web links from a list of seed URLs. From this initial starting point, the crawler will go through all the pages of a website, following links, finding new pages, and extracting content in a relatively indiscriminate manner. The content and data collected will be generic, because almost everything is vacuumed up.

So what does it mean to scrape a website? Web scraping is slightly different from web crawling, as it refers to the process of extracting structured information from a web page, usually with a bot or script crafted specifically for the target website. Web scraping is more likely to be used to extract known information, based on identifiers such as HTML tags, CSS selectors, or other elements.

Web scraping usually targets structured data, e.g. prices, product descriptions, images, company names, emails, phone numbers, or URLs. This data can then be parsed, searched and formatted, and copied into a database, spreadsheet, or report.

Learn all about web scraping and its various use cases in our YouTube video.

Web crawlers vs. web scraping

Both crawling and scraping can carry out a range of activities to extract data from web pages. For instance, crawlers and scrapers might execute JavaScript, emulate human user behavior, submit forms, log in to a website, and so on. Sometimes they will even need to solve CAPTCHAs.

Crawlers and scrapers are often used interchangeably, but you can think of scraping as being a much more focused process of data extraction, in which specific data is targeted and acquired for further processing. Note that you can scrape websites without crawling them first, for instance, if you have a website address or fixed list of URLs to scrape from.

Find out more about web crawling vs. web scraping by reading about web crawlers and how they work ➜

Apify actors (the name we use for our flexible little web scraping and automation bots) can be used for both crawling and scraping data from the web, but it’s worth exploring just what makes scraping so useful and some of the different ways you can do it.

Web scraping mind map
Web scraping — an essential tool for the modern Internet

Different ways to scrape data from web pages

Scraping started off low-tech and high-effort. Most websites don’t offer an API (the acronym for 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 that 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.

Since web scraping is just a faster and more effective way to gather public information, it is legal. But considering sensitive data like personal information or copyrighted content that can be found online, you still need to comply with certain regulations. To learn more about the boundaries of web scraping, check out our legality blog post.

Web scraping using the Apify platform

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.

Apify got its name from how it can API-fy any website. An API lets you quickly and efficiently extract data from a system, and that's exactly what web scraping is designed to do.

4 ways to use Apify for web scraping:

  1. Apify Store: Any Apify user (sign up for free) can go straight to our ever-growing library of existing actors. Some actors are custom-built for particular websites or applications, e.g. Google Maps, Instagram, Twitter, or Amazon. Or there are universal scrapers that can be configured to work with any website, such as Web Scraper, Puppeteer Scraper, or Cheerio Scraper.
  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. By the way, if you get good at it, you can even earn a healthy passive income from developing actors!
  3. Custom solution: Non-developers or users who don’t want to fiddle with settings can turn to the Apify community to help them get set up. Sometimes the right solution is to use an existing Apify actor and get the task carried out quickly and easily, at low cost. If that isn't possible, a new actor and full solution will be offered by a developer.
  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 online 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 that is fundamental to e-commerce, artificial intelligence, big data, analytics, and machine learning. Or to collect data to inform and improve business intelligence.

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.

If you want to learn more about what web scraping means, check out our Web Scraping: The Beginner's Guide. Or you might be wondering about the advantages and disadvantages of web scraping: our pros and cons of web scraping will give you a straight answer.

If you're still not sure how web scraping could help your business, you might be inspired by our success stories or industry pages.

To start a conversation with us about your needs, just request a custom solution.

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