What Is Data Scraping? Definition & Usage

Data scraping involves pulling information out of a website and into a spreadsheet. To a dedicated data scraper, the method is an efficient way to grab a great deal of information for analysis, processing, or presentation. 

For example: Imagine that you work for a local shoe company, and your manager asked you to find people who might be willing to promote your work on Instagram. You could run thousands of searches for people who could help. Or you could set up a scraping tool to populate a spreadsheet you can study. Guess which method is faster?

What Is Data Scraping?

A website is packed with information you want. But you often don't have the time or energy to click through every page and keep detailed notes. Enter data scraping. With one tool, you can get all of the information you want (without all of the pesky clicking and tapping). 

Companies created their data scraping tools with humans in mind. They don't spit out things like code or tags or formatting rules. Instead, the results are easy for you to read and manipulate. 

There are three main types of data scraping:

  1. Report mining: Programs pull data from websites into user-generated reports. It's a bit like printing a page, but the printer is the user's report. 
  2. Screen scraping: The tool pulls information on legacy machines into modern versions. 
  3. Web scraping: Tools pull data from websites into reports users can customise. 

You might use data scraping for:

  • Website upgrades. A screen scraper can be a crucial tool if you're working with a very old computer that can't work with a new system. Rather than trying to recode or update the old piece, you can just pull from it and start anew with current technology. 
  • Competitor analysis. A company you'd like to beat publishes all colours, sizes, and prices of a product online. Data scraping could tell you how much your product should cost and how many people want to buy it. Experts consider this form of analysis one of the best ways to use data scraping
  • Data aggregation. Have you ever visited a website filled with headlines from newspapers all around the world? Or have you ever hit a page that has prices and products from several different companies, all in one place? Data scraping makes this possible.
  • In-depth reporting. In 2018, reporters at BuzzFeed created several charts comparing every State of the Union Address ever given in the United States. That analysis relied on data from the Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Without data scraping, reporters would have to type in all the addresses by hand, which would add time to the project. 

Some people use the technique to harm others. For example, some people set up scraping tools to gather email addresses or social media profiles. Then they bundle up that data and sell it to email spammers. 

Bad actors can also use scraping tools to steal data. For example, Facebook sued two companies in 2020 for installing extensions that scraped names, birthdays, and other sensitive data. Users had no idea this was happening, but the companies sold their data to third parties. 

People sometimes confuse data scraping with web crawling, but the two techniques are very different. A web crawler looks very closely at the code within the page, and the device might even skip over pages altogether if the programmer includes the proper tag. These results help sites like Google understand what to put in search results pages. Data scraping tools ignore most code, and those tools pay no attention to programmer requests.

How Does Data Scraping Work? 

You're set to pull data from a source you researched and vetted. How will you get started? Chances are, you'll use a tool someone has already programmed for the purpose. 

Consider web scrapers. These tools typically follow a three-step process:

  1. Request. The program uses a "GET" command to pull data from a page you chose. 
  2. Parse. The scraper looks for the specific data field you identified. 
  3. Display. The requested information flows into a report you specified or created. 

These tools may sound complicated, and they can be hard to program. But they're actually remarkably easy for anyone to use. These three data scraping tools make experimentation easy:

  • Data Scraper: This Chrome extension pulls data from any page you're visiting into the form you choose. You don't need to build anything. Just point and wait. 
  • Data Miner: This Chrome and Microsoft Edge extension scrapes data into CSV files. You can then input this data into Excel and manipulate it as you see fit. 
  • Data Scraping Crawler: This tool can extract phone numbers, email addresses, or social media profiles. Data flows into Excel, and you can set up the program to update fields automatically. 

If you'd rather not run a program yourself, you can also hire a data scraper via UpWork.

4 Ways to Protect Your Data 

The only way to ensure that no one steals your information is to keep it off your website. But that same step can make your customers hunt for your products and prices. To stay competitive, you must be online, but you can protect what is yours. 

Try these four strategies:

  1. Limit requests. Apply rate-limiting rules and ensure that one IP address can't ping your server too many times within a specified timeframe. 
  2. Apply CAPTCHA. If you see multiple requests coming from the same server, ask the user to validate identity by completing a simple puzzle or tapping a button. Bots can't tackle this step, so you'll eliminate any scraping tool. 
  3. Use images. Web scraping tools are built to analyse and parse words, not photographs. Embed sensitive data, including contact information and pricing, inside images rather than placing it in steal-worthy text. 
  4. Shake up your text. Simple changes (like using [at] instead of @ in an email address) can confuse data scraping tools and make stealing and using that information much more difficult.

You may not be able to protect all of your data, all of the time. But these four ideas can help you secure your sensitive pages.

If you're looking for even more ways to keep your data safe, we'd like to connect with you. At Okta, we can help you secure every identity, from customers to your workforce. Learn more.

References

Five Best Ways to Use Data Scraping. (November 2019). Towards Data Science. 

Spiders, Crawlers, and Bots, Oh My! The Basics of Website Scraping. (October 2012). Intellectual Property Today. 

"I Have the Best Words." How Trump's First SOTU Compares to All the Others. (January 2018). BuzzFeed. 

Facebook Sues Two Companies Engaged in Data Scraping Operations. (October 2020). Tech Crunch. 

Data Scraper. Chrome Web Store.

Data Miner. Data Miner.io

Data Scraping Crawler. Phantom Buster.

Hire the Best Web Scrapers. Upwork.