Web scrapping and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are the two main methods to get data for a website. This guide will explain the similarities and differences between APIs and web scraping if you’re building a system or wanting to model a site.
Similarities Between Web Scraping and APIs
Both APIs and web scraping are among the most used methods for getting data over the internet by data engineers. Although they go about it differently, the two ultimately serve the same purpose of providing data to the users. The users may be people or even other programs or apps.
With the new methods of procuring data, the user may collect information that wasn’t seen previously. For example, using either of the processes (Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) or web scraping), a user can obtain email addresses for lead generation and email marketing and application process information such as identifiers, time, and any other form of information.
As if that wasn’t enough, using APIs or web scraping gives a user access to critical marketing intelligence on a potential customer or competitor’s behaviors. Marketing intelligence can shed light on competition, brand reputation and popularity, and how a marketing campaign is doing, among many others. The insights one may get from using either of the methods are endless.
Web Scraping vs API: The Differences
The API technology is usually provided by the site where you get the data. That isn’t an option if the website doesn’t support an API. Hence, you must check out the website you’re interested in or even the API repositories to know whether a specific website is available.
Technically, web scrapping doesn’t need to be supported by the site. The general rule is that whenever you find a website through your preferred search engine, you can scrape it. However, that website should allow the scraping of its content, and this configuration is made on a robot.txt file.
Access To Data
Even if the API is available, that doesn’t guarantee that all the information/data is available or can be accessed by the API. The granularity and scope of the data you can pull are specified in the API documentation of any website.
In technical terms, any content on any publicly available website or webpage can be scraped. However, the scrapper must respect all the data limitations specified in the website’s terms and conditions.
The APIs require that you build a custom code that specifies the data you need and your access keys. The websites often provide an API guide. However, this needs an understanding of the basic data query code, API response codes, and specifying the parameters for accessing the needed data.
Though building a scraping bot from the ground requires some coding skills, there are readily available tools that a user can use to scrape the contents of a website. This is because most websites have a similar structure recognizable by a web scraper. After all, the search engine bots must scrape the websites to rank them in search.
APIs are authorized to access the data, which is one of their strengths. This means the requester doesn’t need to worry about detection as a threat actor. If the API unexpectedly fails, the user can expect some support from the website. Though essential in ranking, the website can block some web scrapers as they bring additional non-organic traffic. This makes web scrappers unstable.
The query outputs from an API are complicated and require you to parse any data that you need. But if the API has support for more granularity, a user can target a specific data point needed and reduce further data processing.
On the other hand, web scrapping provides all the contents of a webpage. If a user only needs a specific part of a web page, rigorous data parsing is performed to filter the required data. Though an exhaustive task to perform in-house, the external web scrapers usually provide processed data for analysis.
Things API Can’t Do That Web Scraping Can
With web scraping, a user can customize every aspect of the data extraction process, beginning from the fields, format, frequency, and structure. The user can even get the device-specific or geo-specific data by changing the crawler’s user agent. You cannot achieve these levels of customization using an API. Whenever you use a website’s API, there are many limitations without options for customization.
Automatic Data Storage
A web scrapper stores the retrieved information or data automatically. Hence, a user can download the information later. However, with an API, automatic storage isn’t possible. This is because an API doesn’t store data. Instead, it is used for processing it.
The user can remain anonymous when extracting data using a web scraper. However, this isn’t possible when using an API because the user needs to register for them to receive the API key that they must present whenever they request the data.
One of the key advantages of web scraping is that the end data is structured correctly. The scraper automatically converts the retrieved data into a user-friendly and structured format. Conversely, the developer or user must manually convert the retrieved data into a user-friendly format when an API is used.
One of the main limitations of an API is rate-limiting. It enhances performance. However, this isn’t the only reason. API limiting is essential for internet security. If a server experiences unlimited API requests, it can be tanked by a DoS Attack. Rate limiting also makes an API scalable. Whenever an API grows high in popularity, it can see an unexpected rise in traffic, resulting in severe lag time. Technically, web scraping doesn’t have any rate limiting.
Using or even providing an API is expensive in terms of ongoing maintenance, development time, API documentation on a website, and the support for the API users.
Many security issues may arise by incorporating APIs. Hence, your website’s attack surface expands whenever you include them as a means of data access.
Dissatisfaction With APIs Outcome
Forecasting how the API will be used isn’t always straightforward. When you decide to withdraw it, it might leave a bad experience for the consumers.
Developing An API Is A Lengthy Procedure
You require programming skills to construct an API. It may crash during testing while its maintenance expenses are significant.
Web Scraping Limitations
Retrieving Large Amounts Of Data
Any web scraper must visit a web page to retrieve any data. It takes a lot of time to download a web page, and loading or extracting data from the many web pages might take time.
Data Extraction From Non-HTML Content
Some websites are entirely developed using flash, a small footprint software app running on a web browser. However, a web scrapper only works with HTML content, meaning that it cannot interact with the flash application or extract data within it. Furthermore, web scrappers cannot retrieve data from PDF files and other file formats directly unless with the help of other third-party converters.
Retrieving Information From Websites Having Deterrents In Place
Cost-Saving Between API & Web Scraping
An API can be free or paid for based on how the data from the website can be commercially used. Similarly, if you leverage an open-source solution or built an in-house solution, web scraping can be free. However, even the free APIs might be charged if you use them beyond certain limits. In addition, some external web scraping solution providers charge variably depending on the subscription plan. However, since there are many costs involved in developing either, including the technology transfer, you can save a lot by having the same company develop the web scraper or the API. Further, you can leverage the free or cheap subscription plans to save on costs.
Anonymity In Web Scraping
One of the key advantages guaranteed by using a web scraping solution is anonymity. You can scrape all the content without necessarily registering or signing into the website. However, this is subject to the specifications of the robot.txt configuration file. Further, you can set the proxy servers to enhance anonymity in web scraping.
As long as the scraper sticks to the terms and conditions of the website as specified in the robot.txt file, web scraping is legal. Hence, it is recommended that any scraper reads what is permitted for scraping by reading the contents of this file.
Which Of The Two Is Best For Non-Technical Person To Use?
Are you a layperson wondering what to use between Web Scraping vs API? From the article above, it can be noted that APIs are pretty complex to use for a non-technical person. However, this leaves web scraping the best option for a layman or non-technical person for several reasons: data will already be structured and automatically stored. Hence, any person can easily read and interpret the data, unlike when using an API where they have to restructure the data manually.