Web scraping or API Integration?
One of the best methods to collect data for decision-making, market research and competitive analysis – is to use online tools or services to obtain competitor website data, such as through web scraping or through API (Application Programming Interface) Integration. These tools are able to scan and obtain information from competing websites and help companies create action plans around them. Both web scraping and API Integration are quite different, and are very powerful tools to get actionable data, but it can be easy to confuse how they function.
Web Scraping and API Integration, function very similarly but are distinctly different on how they obtain data and how they approach the process of data acquisition. Both web scraping and API integration can help a company gain advantages through competitive analysis, and develop a stronger online presence through their use and implementation. By comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the two scraping tools, we can determine which tool is most appropriate for specific business cases and projects.
Introduction to web scraping and API Integration
Both tools are methods of obtaining online data, and depending on the scraping project, web scraping and API handle data extraction differently.
Web scraping takes raw data from various websites in the form of HTML code, and converts it to a deliverable to businesses to review and discern patterns. The process often takes a quick “scrape” of many websites and compiles frequent “snapshots” of data from websites. This process takes every piece of data on a web page at once, then compiles it for the client to review.
API acts like an in-between or intermediary that sits on websites that host them – where the business sends an API a request and when approved the API returns data back. Similar to how web scraping works, API can be a quick method to obtain website data in an easily structured and integrated method. API directly asks the website’s API-host for the information and gets what they can offer back to the client.
Detailed Analysis of Web Scraping
A web scraping project is a process that involves the extraction of all content – like text, images and meta-data – through the use of an HTTP client, downloaded as an HTML document or file. The scraping then applies a data extraction program based on what businesses or projects are looking for, to narrow down the compiled data to what the business is looking for. This is repeated across more websites and is then exported for businesses in an easy to review file – like an excel sheet (.csv or .json).
This process allows for a schedule of quick turn-around in getting the latest up-to-date information at regular intervals. The data gathered is also more accurate – it’s a compilation of all data available pared down – and the results delivered are very easy to work with.
Web scraping is not without problems, and most stem from their need to be regularly maintained. Depending on the scraping project’s frequency this could mean requiring an increase or decrease in monitoring the project. Web scraping can also be blocked by some websites – either through request for information denials or when a site uses IP blockers or CAPTCHAs.
Often, if a website can be found with a search engine it is possible to scrape it for data, but there are some instances such as on social media pages where the data scraped is limited or restricted. Web scraping is more successfully used in applications where the information you’re looking for is coming from popular websites, or ones with high traffic and don’t need the sort of lengthy permissions that API scraping can provide.
Detailed Analysis of API Integration
How an API scraping works requires the business or client to send a request to an API server endpoint – one that’s on a website the client wants to scrape – for specific data. The client then gets an API key, which is then authenticated and ensures a secure connection between the client and the API server. With this request, the server sends the client data which is then formatted into a form the client can use.
APIs are usually preferred because they are fast and lightweight on resources. API Integration doesn’t use many resources because much of the heavy lifting is done by the API endpoint server-side, and it avoids returning irrelevant data that the client doesn’t request. It’s very much similar to asking a website’s “help desk” to get the exact information requested. APIs are also simple to implement and they deliver results quickly. The data returned is structured and less susceptible to parsing errors.
APIs are also limited in how some websites don’t have API endpoints to connect to, and some websites don’t support APIs at all. This limits the number of websites clients can scrape using API, but the data available on those websites can also limit what data clients can request. For example, if a client wanted to find out the median age-range of the traffic that visits a site, it is entirely possible the site doesn’t have that data or that it refuses to release that data.
It is ideal to use an API Integrated web scraping method for services or websites where the client themself works together with, or is hosting one of the websites that support APIs.
To sum up, APIs are typically are geared towards being embedded in websites for visitors to use on-demand when these sites don’t want you to store the data. Rarely do we ever find a sustainable solution working with APIs, because quotas are a significant cost based on the number of calls. Another common issue to consider is when the API provider showcases you can make “N” number of calls, you will often get a support email along the lines: “I see you’re making a lot of requests and we want you to stop and contact customer support to explain your use case”.
API Integration and web scraping both have their strengths and weaknesses, but let’s compare how they differ to get the best understanding of when to use them.
There are not many websites that support API, and when they do, they may not provide enough of the information requested, compared to how web scraping can provide all publicly available information presented online. Inversely, web scraping can provide too much information and require an extra step in data curation. Web scraping can be done on almost any website, but a website needs to have API technology support for it to be an option.
Some websites like Shopify and Etsy have API support, and allow clients to obtain data faster through API rather than through a standard web scraping. Other social sites like Meta or YouTube – which have API Integration – limit the types and amount of data clients can obtain as a quota, meaning a web scraping may be more appropriate to get around these limits.
A reliable approach – in a web scraping project – would be to see if competitor websites support API technology to lower the chances of data acquisition failure. Because APIs create an authorized connection between client and host, websites can provide support if data transfers fail or if something goes wrong. Web scrapers don’t have that level of security and can be blocked by CAPTCHA or IP blockers unless methods are used to overcome this hurdle.
Both services can either be free or cost additional resources depending on whether the technology is created in-house or from scratch. Both APIs and web scraping providers can offer free trials to test the technology to start. Large web domains such as YouTube or Meta have a scaling API cost which can increase depending on if the client wants to increase their data quota or limits. Web scraping costs can vary depending on project frequency or complexity but often provide dataset samples to businesses to assess the value of the investment at a lower rate.
Which tool should be used?
Whether a business or client should use API Integration or web scraping ultimately depends on the circumstances of their web scraping project. For specific API-supported web pages, it can be preferable to use API for faster, responsive and a more stable connection over web scraping. For the more common instances where API is not supported, or when a client wants to gather and store as much data as possible on a website or domain, web scraping is a better option over APIs.
Technically APIs and web scrapers require an amount of technology savviness that consulting with a professional first would greatly simplify the process. Each requires developing custom coding from clients to obtain the data they need, but consulting an expert data extraction company can get clients through this process seamlessly.
Both technologies are fundamental for developing an online presence for many businesses, the key is to use the correct tool for the right project.
- Opt for web scraping when needing to gather and store extensive data from websites.
- Use APIs for web pages that support them for responsive data access.