APIs or Application Programming Interfaces is an intermediary that allows one software to talk to another. In simple terms, you can pass a JSON to an API and in return, it will also give you a JSON. Now there will always exist a set of rules as to what you can send in the JSON and what it can return. These rules are strict and can’t change unless someone actually changes the API itself. So when using an API to collect data, you will be strictly governed by a set of rules, and there are only some specific data fields that you can get.
Web scraping is much more customizable, complex and is not governed by any set rule. You can get any data that you can see on a website using a scraping setup. As for how you can scrape data, you can apply any techniques available, and you are constrained only by your imagination. If you have an experienced team, you can even try to find new means to scrape data from websites that have dynamically generated feed. But as you see, websites change their layout every day, and you would have to change your scraping code from time to time to make sure that everything keeps working.
If scraping is better than APIs, why do most people continue to use APIs? Well, the reason is very simple. Most people keep using the same API to get the same data, from the same source for fulfilling their specific objective. Also, they might have a contract with the website to use their API within a certain limit. Nothing changes with time, and in case some new information is to be returned by the API, or some field names change, all you need to do is add those field names, or change the names of those field names in your request JSON.
Let’s break down the advantages into a few simple easy to understand points-
When you use an API, you are given certain limitations. The very first advantage is that if you are not using their API, they will not be able to track or limit you. And most API’s will be having limited usage policies unless you are paying for their premium version. The free API will let you send around ten to a hundred requests per day. But in case you are using the API continuously, you might end up sending thousands of requests over the entire day. This might lead to a costly agreement getting signed between you and the person who owns the API. When you are scraping, you are legally free to scrape any data from any website. However you are not supposed to scrape websites whose robot.txt asks you not to scrape their data explicitly. Most websites actually allow scraping. How do I know that? Well, any website that comes up in a Google search has already been scraped and indexed by Google, so theoretically be it Google, or you, anyone can scrape it. But always make sure you read the robots.txt file of the site to be on the safer side.
An API is related to a specific website. New websites are cropping up every day, and in this scenario, it is better to follow the data trail, instead of blindly using an API since an API will never provide you all the data out there on the web!
When you are scraping the web, you can pick up links inside articles or pages that you are already scraping and then use those links to find related content and information, thus creating a chain or interlinked set of data that can be used for different purposes. These can happen automatically using the same script that you write to scrape a single page. Thus you are allowing the data to lead you to a conclusion by letting it run free, and not binding it within rules and protocols.
With web scraping, you can customise any and every aspect of the data extraction process starting from the fields, frequency, format, structure and even get geo-specific or device-specific data by changing your crawler’s user agent. This amount of customisation is simply not possible with an API. When you go with a website’s API, you are limited in so many ways with little to no customisation options.
All this while, we were speaking of the difference between using an API and web scraping. But that means we are hoping that every website will let you access their stored information by both the means. That is completely wrong. Very few websites will actually let you access their data (even if that means limited or controlled data). Most websites will not allow you to access their APIs. This means when you are on to set up your own fashion E-Commerce store and try to get data from your competitors, you will obviously find no APIs and will have to code customised scrapers.
And it is not just about E-Commerce companies. In a majority of the businesses, you will need to scrape data from your competitors to remain in the competition. Data is freely available on the internet and anyone can open a website on their browser and see it. Whether you want to tap this infinite source of data using web scraping and use it to your advantage is all up to you.
In case you are wondering how to replace old APIs that you use in your business with web scraping engines, you can put together a team of Python and R developers who have had previous experience in web scraping, in case your business revolves around the scraped data entirely and you have the capital to invest in such a team. What would be much easier is to take the help of a well-experienced team like PromptCloud whom you can just provide with your requirements. The rest will be taken care of.
Web Scraping is a dynamic field with intelligent scraping bots and dynamic web pages coming into the picture. The technology that is a hit today might be an old relic in the scraping world tomorrow. So it’s best if you leave the scraping to the scrapers and just “Have faith in the data.”