One of our favourite quotes has been- ‘If a problem changes by an order, it becomes a totally different problem’ and in this lies the answer to- what’s the difference between scraping and crawling?
Crawling usually refers to dealing with large data-sets where you develop your own crawlers (or bots) which crawl to the deepest of the web pages. Data scraping on the other hand refers to retrieving information from any source (not necessarily the web). It’s more often the case that irrespective of the approaches involved, we refer to extracting data from the web as scraping (or harvesting) and that’s a serious misconception.
1. Scraping data does not necessarily involve the web. Data scraping could refer to extracting information from a local machine, a database, or even if it is from the internet, a mere “Save as” link on the page is also a subset of the data scraping universe. Crawling on the other hand differs immensely in scale as well as in range. Firstly, crawling = web crawling which means on the web, we can only “crawl” data. Programs that perform this incredible job are called crawl agents or bots or spiders (please leave the other spider in spiderman’s world). Some web spiders are algorithmically designed to reach the maximum depth of a page and crawl them iteratively (did we ever say scrape?).
2. Web is an open world and the quintessential practising platform of our right to freedom. Thus a lot of content gets created and then duplicated. For instance, the same blog might be posted on different pages and our spiders don’t understand that. Hence, data de-duplication (affectionately dedup) is an integral part of data crawling. This is done to achieve two things- keep our clients happy by not flooding their machines with the same data more than once, and saving our own servers some space. However, dedup is not necessarily a part of data scraping.
3. One of the most challenging things in the web crawling space is to deal with coordination of successive crawls. Our spiders have to be polite with the servers that they hit so that they don’t piss them off and this creates an interesting situation to handle. Over a period of time, our intelligent spiders have to get more intelligent (and not crazy!) and learn to know when and how much to hit a server in order to crawl data on its web pages while complying with its politeness policies.
4. Finally, different crawl agents are used to crawl different websites and hence you need to ensure they don’t conflict with each other in the process. This situation never arises when you intend to just scrape data.
On a concluding note, scraping represents a very superficial node of crawling. which we call extraction and that again requires few algorithms and some automation in place.
P.S. This post does not intend to offend anyone who uses the terms ‘scraping’ and ‘crawling’ interchangeably, but purely wishes to create awareness for those interested in the Big Data domain. And sorry! We couldn’t help being biased towards the word “crawl” because that’s what feeds us 🙂