Scraping with a Headless Browser

Headless Browser

The importance of web scraping for both individuals and businesses cannot be gainsaid, especially presently when data drives many processes and helps provide insight whenever crucial decisions are to be made. Notably, the evolution of technology, which has increased the volume of data available online, has also made the access and even retrieval of this very data possible.

What is Web Scraping?

Web scraping or web data acquisition refers to the use of automated tools to harvest data from websites. This multistep process relies on two distinct tools, i.e., a web crawler and web scraper, which can be integrated into the same application. Still, this integration is only possible if the programming language used permits.

Whenever you issue instructions requiring the web scraping tool to retrieve data from the internet, the web crawler is the first to swing into action. It scours the internet looking for websites containing the data you intend to harvest. Upon identifying such sites, it leaves the remaining processes to the web scraper, which first sends HTTP requests and then parses the data in the HTTP responses to identify the relevant information. It then extracts only the relevant data and exports it into a spreadsheet file or local storage on your computer.

As indicated, the foundation of web scraping lies in sending HTTP/web requests. Ordinarily, such requests are sent by a browser, also known as a web client. What if there was a way to automate the requests such that the browser sends them unsupervised? What if the individual intending to access data from websites wanted to create a tool that would conduct all the core functions of a typical browser except the rendering of the webpages?

The answers to these questions lie in headless browsers, which are operated using Puppeteer for JavaScript web scraping, Selenium for Python web scraping, among other tools. Of course, being a front-end development language, JavaScript is the most common language used to create websites. This means that extracting data from these sites would require a tool that interacts with the JavaScript code, and that is where a headless browser comes in.

What is a Headless Browser?

A headless browser is a browser that does not have a graphical user interface (GUI). It is not meant for use by humans, and, instead, interacting with it and controlling it is only through using programs such as Puppeteer or Selenium. Despite eliminating the direct use by humans, headless browsers are beneficial because they are lightweight – do not take a lot of memory – and fast – because they do not allocate resources to render HTML code.

Notably, the Puppeteer works much like its eponymous real-life counterpart, a puppeteer. In circuses or puppet shows, a puppeteer controls and manipulates a puppet. In this parallelism, therefore, the headless browser is likened to the puppet. As stated, because it does not have a GUI, humans cannot directly interact with it, making Puppeteer a necessary addition. It provides developers with an API to control the headless version of Chrome.

Puppeteer is more useful than other Node.js packages, e.g., Axios, SuperAgent, Cheerio, and JSDOM, because of its advanced web scraping capabilities. It works much like a person would when crawling the web. It also goes beyond this basic functionality by loading complete pages in the Document Object Model (DOM), an interface for HTML documents that allows programs to interact with the webpage’s content or even change its structure.

With a few JavaScript functions detailed in various Puppeteer tutorials available online, it is possible to retrieve any element from the DOM. And what’s more. It provides screenshots of webpages or converts them into PDFs and can extract data from single-page applications.

Notably, if you wish to learn how to use this Node.js package, you can use Puppeteer tutorials, as detailed above, which include examples that make learning more relatable and practical. Also, you can combine the information from these Puppeteer tutorials with the official Puppeteer documentation.

Puppeteer facilitates automated web scraping as well as other processes such as data entry and transfer between applications, report generation, and performance optimization. The possibilities are endless with this program since it also doubles as a library. As such, you do not have to learn everything about it through Puppeteer tutorials. Instead, you can access pre-written scripts for the specific function you intend to use the package.

Web scraping is essential for businesses, and with the evolution of technology, companies and individuals alike have several scraper options from which to choose. If you have basic or advanced knowledge of JavaScript and wish to use it to create an effective data extraction tool, Puppeteer would be an excellent place to start. Notably, you can rely on Puppeteer tutorials or access pre-written scripts readily available online. For example, read more in this article on Puppeteer in web scraping.

After all, Puppeteer is both a program and a library.

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Written by Addison Taylor

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