Is it better to collect data via web scraping or API calls? That's a common question, and it depends: creating a scraper is better sometimes, and buying API access is preferable on some occasions. What's sure is that the wrong choice can cost a lot of time and energy.
So, which one to choose in your case?
Those are the two most popular approaches to collecting data from sites, and you need to know their key differences to make the right choice. That's why in this article, we'll look at web scraping vs. API.
Let's dive in!
What Is Web Scraping
Web scraping is a technique used to extract data from the web. It involves using automated software to retrieve information from target web pages, which is then used for analysis or business purposes.
The automated script or tool that performs web scraping needs to:
- Connect to the target site.
- Identify the target pages.
- Visit a target page and locate relevant data.
- Extract it from the DOM.
- Transform it into a more useful format, such as CSV or JSON.
Web scraping is handy for a variety of purposes and scenarios. For example, you can extract product information from e-commerce stores. That's great for price comparison and competitor analysis, for example. Or you can get data from social media platforms for monitoring engagement metrics.
Check out our in-depth guide about what web scraping is to learn more about the main use cases and dig into how it works and its challenges.
What Is An API and How to Collect Data with It
An API (ApplicationProgramming Interface allows software components to communicate with each other and defines how different applications should exchange data. That enables web services to interact with each other in a standardized way.
To use an API, a developer needs to:
- Specify the API endpoint, method, headers, and query parameters in an HTTP client.
- Instruct the client to make the API call.
- Get the desired data in a semi-structured format, like JSON or XML.
APIs play a key role in web application and cloud development, enabling web apps to leverage features offered by other services. Also, they are helpful for data collection.
For example, an aggregator site might depend on APIs from airlines and hotels. That helps the platform collect data on flight availability, prices, and hotel reservations. Similarly, a finance platform will rely on the stock exchange and bank APIs.
Web Scraping vs. API: Differences and Similarities
Web Scraping and APIs are two standard methods to get data from websites. You can use both for data collection, but one approach may be better based on your goals and budget. That's because they come with significant differences.
Here's a web scraping vs. API overview:
|Access||Both are useful for collecting data from the web||- With web scraping, you can get data from any site
- APIs are limited to sites that expose data via API endpoints
|Data Extraction||Both come with some limitations||- Web scraping can get you blocked because of anti-bot systems
- APIs may have some restrictions based on usage policies and your paid plan limitations
|Technical Knowledge||Both need technical knowledge for implementation and usage||- Building a web scraper requires developing scripts with custom logic
- API integration is generally easy and supported by the vendor's documentation
|Cost||Both come with a cost||- Web scraping involves development and server hosting costs
- APIs have a price per call or come with a fixed cost that depends on the plans offered by the site owner
Let's explore the main aspects you should consider when comparing API vs. scraping!
Web scraping makes it possible to retrieve data from any web page. At the same time, many sites implement anti-bot or anti-scraping measures, so extracting data isn't always a piece of cake. For example, these technologies may block your IP or prevent your scraper from accessing the site.
As for APIs, you need to consider that not all sites expose their data through public endpoints, and the few online services that offer APIs can decide what data to expose, to whom, and at what price. Plus, APIs also have other restrictions, such as rate limits.
Semi-Structured vs. Unstructured Data
Web scraping can only retrieve what web pages contain, which is unstructured data. So, a scraper starts with HTML or raw text. Next, it processes and analyzes it to extract information from it. Then, it can convert the parsed information into semi-structured data in JSON, CSV or another format.
When it comes to APIs, the data retrieval process is much more straightforward. APIs return semi-structured data in a popular format, such as JSON or XML. That makes it easier to use the desired information directly, with no extra parsing involved. For example, Google's APIs respond with data in JSON format.
Speed of Web Scraping vs. API
Scraping involves visiting several pages and extracting data from them. That's a time-consuming task, especially when the web server is slow or has many pages to scrape.
Instead, each API call returns aggregated data from different sources or databases. As a consequence, APIs are generally faster than scraping.
A web scraping process is prone to errors or failures because sites change over time. Plus, they can adopt anti-scraping technologies. So, the stability of a web scraper depends on external factors there aren't under your control.
In contrast, APIs are more stable since developers build them with stability in mind and deploy them on a dedicated server. At the same time, high traffic can make them slow and reduce their availability.
As with all automated software, web scrapers can get detected and blocked as a bot. That happens when websites rely on anti-bot measures to protect their data. To scrape without getting blocked, you can use proxies (avoid free ones) and other approaches.
Instead, APIs are more reliable by nature as the website developers created them. With them, the data retrieval process is more predictable.
Both data scraping and APIs need technical knowledge for implementation. The former involves understanding HTML structure, using parsing libraries, and handling anti-bot measures.
On the other hand, APIs require understanding technical documentation, making requests, and handling response data.
Remember that the technical knowledge required depends on the complexity of the data to collect, the chosen technologies and the website.
Cost of Usage
When it comes to site scraping, you need to spend some money on software development. Also, consider extra costs for maintaining the server infrastructure, especially with parallel scraping. Plus, you might need to pay for proxies and CAPTCHA-solving services. In other words, prices depend on the complexity and scale of your web data retrieval project.
API providers offer different paid plans. The vendor usually charges per API call if you exceed your plan's limits or need only some requests. Note that some sites may charge you even if the API responds with an error, therefore they may turn out more extensive than building a scraper.
The use of APIs is usually governed by the terms and conditions set by the provider so, as long as you abide by them and follow your regulations, there are no legal problems.
When it comes to web scraping, it's, similar recommendations apply. You must follow your country's data privacy regulations. Also, you must comply with site policies and the robots.txt file. These are some of the best practices of web scraping.
When to Use Web Scraping vs. API
Web scraping vs. API has yet to have a real winner. The best solution depends on the specific requirements of your data collection task.
Let's see in what scenarios one approach is better than the other.
Prefer web scraping when:
- The target website doesn't offer an API, or the API doesn't provide the desired data.
- The site you want to scrape is small and doesn't have significant anti-bot systems in place.
Prefer API when:
- The website provides well-documented and affordable API endpoints with access to the data you need.
- The budget isn't a problem.
So, web scraping or API? We can combine the best of both worlds. Move on to the next section.
What About a Web Scraping API
A web scraping API is a modern approach that combines the benefits of both web scraping and APIs. Developers can use this powerful tool to scrape websites through API calls. You rely on the API provider to manage infrastructure costs, stability, and reliability.
The best web scraping API on the market? ZenRows!
ZenRows removes the web scraping access issue by bypassing all anti-bot solutions for you and takes out a lot of the infrastructure headaches and fixed costs from the equation. Also, it's able to return semi-structured data for popular sites thanks to its auto-parsing capabilities.
You learned a ton about web data collection in this API vs. web scraping comparison:
- What web scraping is.
- What an API is and how to use it for data collection.
- What the main differences between the two concepts are.
- When to use scraping over API and vice versa.
There isn't a clear winner between the two approaches, but what's certain is that the best solution is a web scraping API, such as ZenRows.
This next-generation scraping tool offers the best of both worlds. Scraping a site comes down to single API calls! It supports premium proxies, built-in IP rotation, headless browser functionality, and more.
Is Web Scraping Better Than an API?
Web scraping isn't always better than APIs. Both approaches have their own strengths and limitations. There can be a better solution but only in a specific case, not in general terms. So, the choice between web scraping and APIs depends on several factors. These include data requirements, website availability, integration needs, and performance considerations.
Does Web Scraping Need an API?
No, web scraping doesn't need an API. With an HTTP client and HTML parsing libraries, you can build a web spider that crawls and scrapes the web. Yet, a web scraping API like ZenRows helps you deal with anti-scraping and dynamic content sites.
Is Using an API Considered Web Scraping?
No, using an API isn't typically considered web scraping. For sure, both can help you retrieve data from a site. Yet, scraping is about parsing HTML content to extract data from web pages, while APIs return data directly in a semi-structured format.