Have you ever wanted to extract data from a website, but weren’t quite sure how to do it? Maybe you’ve heard of web scraping and APIs, but you’re not exactly sure what they are or how they differ.
In simple terms, web scraping and APIs are both methods of accessing data from websites, but they use different approaches and serve different purposes. Web scraping involves extracting data from a website’s HTML or other structured content, while APIs provide a standardized way to access data from websites and applications.
Why bother with either method? Well, if you’re running a business, the information you gain could form an important part of your market research. Web scrapers and APIs can also help with lead generation, by saving precious time you’d have otherwise spent laboriously copying and pasting contact information manually. They can even be used to monitor marketplace prices — and this is just scratching the surface of their capabilities.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the differences between web scraping and APIs, and explain how they work in more detail. By the end of this article, you’ll have a much better understanding of when to use each method and how they can help you access data from the web.
What is web scraping?
Web scraping has a long history that dates back to the early days of the internet. As websites began to emerge, programmers quickly realized the potential of extracting data from web pages. In the early days, web scraping was done manually, with programmers copying and pasting data into spreadsheets.
However, as the internet grew and websites became more complex, automated web scraping tools were developed. These tools allowed programmers to write scripts that could automatically extract data from websites, saving valuable time and effort. Today, web scraping is a widely used technique for data mining and analysis, with many businesses relying on it for market research, lead generation, and other data-driven purposes.
While web scraping can be a powerful tool for gathering information, it’s important to use it responsibly and legally. Some websites have terms of service that prohibit web scraping and using a scraper in a way that violates these terms can get you into legal trouble. Additionally, web scraping can put a strain on website servers if done too frequently, so it’s important to be mindful of how often you scrape a website.
What are APIs?
An API, or Application Programming Interface, is a set of protocols that allows different software applications to communicate with each other. APIs are like a bridge that connects different programs, making it possible for them to share information and functionality.
APIs can be used to access data from other programs, such as social media platforms or weather services — a weather app might use an API to access the latest weather information from a weather service. APIs can also be used to perform specific functions, such as sending a message or processing a payment.
One of the advantages of using an API is that it allows you to access data or functionality without having to write all the code yourself. Instead, you can simply make a request to the API and receive the information or functionality you need. This can save a lot of time and effort, especially when dealing with complex systems or large amounts of data.
However, like web scraping, it’s important to use APIs responsibly and in accordance with any terms of service or legal requirements. Some APIs may have usage limits or require authentication, and using an API in a way that violates these requirements can result in your access being revoked.
Web scraper vs API: which should I use?
We understand that differentiating between web scrapers and APIs can be a little tricky. If you’re still confused, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Let’s use an example to better illustrate these differences and help you make an informed decision.
Imagine you’re at a buffet. You can either get food by using a ladle to scoop it onto your plate (that’s web scraping), or you can order specific dishes from the kitchen (that’s using an API).
Web scraping is like using a ladle to scoop up food from the buffet. When you web scrape, you’re essentially using a tool to extract data from a website by crawling through its pages and collecting specific pieces of information. It’s like using a big spoon to scoop up all the mashed potatoes, corn, and gravy you can fit onto your plate.
On the other hand, using a pre-built API (such as ScrapingBee) is like ordering specific dishes from the kitchen. When you use an API, you’re essentially making a request for specific information or functionality, and the API responds with just what you asked for. It’s like ordering a plate of spaghetti carbonara, and the kitchen brings it out to you, no muss, no fuss.
With all that in mind, we’re sure you can understand why a pre-packaged, ready-to-rock API is generally considered preferable for the vast majority of SMEs. However, if you’re looking to dig deeper into a website’s data (and possess a good level of coding experience), a web scraper may be more suitable.
To get a better idea of which one is right for you, take a look at this quickfire comparison list below:
- Provide a standardized way to access data or functionality from other programs.
- Often require authentication and may have usage limits or other restrictions.
- Can be faster and more reliable than web scraping, as they provide a direct connection to the data or functionality you need.
- Are generally more legal and ethical, as they rely on agreements between the program providers.
- Require less coding and configuration than web scrapers, as the API provider usually provides documentation and sample code.
- Allow you to extract data from websites that do not have an API available.
- Can be more flexible than APIs, as you can extract any data that can be found on a website.
- Can be slower and less reliable than APIs, as they rely on crawling the website and parsing HTML.
- Are sometimes less lawful and ethical than APIs, as some websites prohibit web scraping and it can put a strain on the website server.
- Require more coding and configuration than APIs, as the scraper needs to be designed to find and extract the data you need.
So, there you have it — the key differences between web scraping and APIs laid out in plain English. Hopefully, we’ve helped to clear things up!
While both techniques have their pros and cons, knowing when (and how) to use them can give your business a competitive edge. For most organizations, a simple API will more than suffice, but if you’re looking for a more thorough (and technically-involved) technique, web scraping may be the best option. Want all bases covered? Use a combination of the two. Either way — we hope you enjoyed the blog!
Looking to expand your business knowledge even further? Check out our 7 steps to building a successful international ecommerce business for expert tips and insights. Want to streamline your marketing efforts and save time? Head to our post on the benefits of marketing automation.