Web scraping is a method of extracting data from websites without authorization. The process involves a software program that collects data from the web that is then compiled into some sort of report or table, file, or text for your machine. There are legal and ethical issues with this method of collecting information by non-authorized individuals with the use of technology.
Finding a thorough article about web scraping techniques can be quite a challenge. But there are some basic things you need to know about it first. In this article, we’ll talk mainly about web data scraping’s legality, especially the following:
- What is the difference between a web scraper and a malicious bot?
- And what is the potential risk for both of them?
- And what are some ways you can protect your site against scrapers?
In addition to learning more about website scraping and its impact on a site owner’s reputation, this article will also help you understand how to use web scrapers for your own business advantage. Let’s get started!
What is web scraping?
Web scraping is the process of gathering data from a website without the owner’s knowledge, typically using automated software. This usually involves copying HTML source code from one site and pasting it on another or loading a web page into an automated script that gathers information and stores it in an external database.
The usage of web data scraping is common in digital business that involves the collection of data for analysis, such as marketing, management, search engine optimization (SEO), information brokerage and others.
Is web scraping legal?
Web scraping is legal in most jurisdictions as long as the operator has no other way of accessing the information. In jurisdictions where it is illegal, operators may employ methods to hide their browsing activity from the owners of the sites being scraped.
Also, data scraping is used for numerous illegal activities, including information theft, promoting illicit products and services, and spreading malicious links.
Any online-based entity targeted by a web scraper may suffer from significant loss of income, as well as reputation damage.
What are web scraping software and bots?
Web scraping software is often called bots; a term used to describe an “automatic, high-volume online application that runs on a computer and performs the same action repeatedly”. Web scraping software allows for the creation of web crawlers that can gather information from various sources. The scraper then compiles this data in order to form an analytics report.
There are different types of software available, among which some are completely free web scraper and others are paid. Some scraping tools allow the user to customize the scraping of websites by providing:
- HTML tags,
- cookies and special parameters.
These web scraping tools are often called simple web scrapers. Since all the web scraping tools have been developed to collect and save web data quickly, it’s really tough to differentiate between legit and malicious tools.
Despite this, several key distinctions make the two as different as night and day:
- Many people often ask, “What is the difference between a web scraper and a malicious bot?” A legitimate web scraper is an automated traffic acquisition method that provides valuable data to search engine owners. Web scrapers act as human browsers and gather information from the internet that is important for search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo and others. Website owners can use legitimate web scrapers in order to gather useful data such as links, meta tags, titles, content etc.
- Legitimate robots adhere to a site’s robot.txt file. If they do not abide by the rules, they are usually stopped from continuing by the site that they are trying to scrape.
- Legitimate bots do not violate a site’s terms and conditions or copyright laws and thus are allowed to continue scraping.
- Typically, malicious bots flood and spam the site being scraped. Even worse, some malicious bots can infect the website with viruses, malware and other illegal programs like spyware etc. These infections can severely damage the original site’s reputation by harming other users’ computers, leading to loss of business for the original site owner.
The required initiative to run a scraping bot is not small
The resources necessary to run web scraping tools without interruption are huge. So, the use of such tools should be wisely handled and only for legitimate reasons and require massive investments in the servers for the processing of large amounts of scraped data.
A perpetrator who lacks the budget might use a botnet. Thus, they use malicious bots to create scraping tools, which continuously try to fill predetermined pages in a website.
The use of malicious bots poses a risk not only for the original site owner but also for the users of the malicious botnet master’s computers.
Malicious botnets have become one of the biggest threats to internet security. Because cybercriminals can use them for numerous illegal activities, including spamming, sending mass emails and setting up illegal money transactions.
Malicious web scraping examples
Web data scraping is prohibited by law when the website owner has not given permission for their site to be scraped. The two most typical practices are content scraping and price scraping.
Content scraping consists of stealing content from a specific site, often by a competitor. This is considered illegal by website owners as it violates their copyright, while the scrapers see it as a cost-effective alternative to developing their own content.
Typical targets include websites and online catalogs filled with thousands of articles that can be reproduced and sold as a complete product. For example, a site might offer hundreds of items on sale from just one online retailer, often with competitive prices.
Although the individual articles are typically available for free, the aggregated content is sold as a complete package allowing the original website and its owners to turn a profit.
The second typical practice, price scraping or price discovery, comprises finding and disseminating the prices of goods on one or several e-commerce websites in order to derive the best buy offers and attract customers.
Price scraping is the theft of product pricing information from a company website, often by a competitor. The stolen pricing information is then used to improve one’s own prices, either by removing the competitor’s prices from the book or by creating a new product from scratch based on the price of the competitor’s product.
Typical targets include e-commerce websites for retail companies and online retailers that offer discounts for a certain period, such as store discounts and flash sales.
This practice allows other companies to take advantage of the potential promotions by setting prices at a lower level than those offered by their competitors.
This is considered legal due to the lack of copyright violation. However, price scrapers see it as a cost-effective alternative to developing their own pricing information.
Web scraping protection
Common security measures like spam filters and antivirus software are being rendered ineffective by a new breed of bots that extract sensitive data from websites. For example, people use fake search engines to make it seem like the real deal. They then enter a website, extract its data, and re-arrange it on another page.
These bots can be specifically programmed to detect the presence of filtering software. They can also easily handle antivirus software by seamlessly changing their IP address from time to time. This makes it difficult for companies to trace the botnet’s origin.
Some web scraping protection methods have been created to stop web scrapers from collecting information from websites. These methods include:
- Web Application Firewalls (WAF) – WAFs can be installed on the website’s server or application level. A WAF aims to detect suspicious requests for data and protect the website by preventing illegal activity.
- Bot detection – A simple way to stop bots from scraping protected pages is to identify them and block them.
- Captcha – A captcha is a type of security system that makes it harder for bots to access the website. It requires the user to solve a question or task before it can access the information.
Every business owner wants to ensure that their websites are secure and safe. One way to make sure this is: implementing scrapers detection software as protection measures. Although web protection methods are not 100% effective, they still play an important role in protecting websites from malicious bots.
Web scraping is generally considered to be an acceptable practice, while competition is a powerful force. It allows competitors to gather detailed information about a specific website and its product or service. And they can later use these data in their marketing strategies to gain a competitive edge.
Web data scraping protection methods have been created in order to stop web scrapers from stealing information from websites. Due to the fact that these methods are not 100% effective, sites should implement both human and technological security measures.