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Oct 29

Web page scraper – The line between stealing and collecting information

Web harvesting is definitely the most common technique used to extract data from a seemingly infinite number of websites, according to pre-defined parameters. A typical web page scraper is programmed to  simulate human web surfing by accessing these websites on behalf of its user and collecting huge amounts of data that the end user would otherwise not be able to access. Basically, it processes the unstructured or semi-structured data HTML pages of targeted websites to harvest data and convert it into a structured format. Although the process  is virtually similar to web indexing, which is performed by major search engines, a web page scraper is employed for different purposes, like data monitoring, website change detection and tracking, marketing research and many more. In fact, the applications of web data extraction are virtually limitless, especially in today’s hectic business environment that has an acute need of advanced information technology. And the World Wide Web has emerged as the primary source of information  for an ever expanding selection of businesses.

There are many ways to approach web data extraction and manipulation and these vary upon the business profile and requirements and the resources the end user has at his disposal. A web page scraper works exactly as it is programmed to, accessing massive amounts of data from different sources, converting them into a readable and interpretable format that further on serves different business interests. In a nutshell, each and every type of web page scraper highlights different trends, patterns and correlations and streamlines the decision-making process. It can extract specific pieces of data from any web page within a particular domain that the user is targeting, but it can also perform highly advanced functions, as long as it relies on highly sophisticated algorithms that make use of artificial intelligence.

The good thing is that a web page scraper is very flexible and thus, it can be customized by the user in order to perform different roles. But there is a wide range of products available and unfortunately, some of them are quite generic and designed to perform simple, common functions. Each web page scraper developer aims to design a product with the capability to harvest information from all kinds of web pages and to serve any purpose. Even with today’s cutting-edge technology this is virtually impossible because a software cannot be exceptionally programmed to perform any type of task. For instance, some products are designed to extract data from highly dynamic websites like AJAX or JS sites and thus, they serve more tricky tasks and require a certain level of technical knowledge, like programming scripts, Xpaths, Regex and so on. On the other hand, a standard web page scraper that has a straightforward approach towards data harvesting doesn’t require programming skills or advanced technical knowledge. Consequently, it extracts basic information like links, images, email addresses, RSS news and so on and the pieces of data can be exported to basic data export formats, like CSV (TSV), HTML, Excel or SQL script. In other words, a ready-made tool is almost useless and it is essential to assess the needs and requirements of a business, as well as the end user’s background and skills before selecting a web page scraper detrimental to another.

All in all, using a web page scraper has a number of implications that should be considered before actually integrating this computer software in the core business processes. There is a thin line between stealing information and collecting information, so the end user has the responsibility to prevent the utilization of this technology to copywrite particular pieces of content. This is one of the most innovative tools that have hit the business environment, it enables an imperative process that eventually gives a competitive advantage and thus, it should be used in a professional and ethical manner.


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