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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Web Data Extraction: driving data your way

Most businesses rely on the web to gather data such as product specifications, pricing information, market trends, competitor information, and regulatory details. More often than not, companies collect this data manually—a process that not only takes a significant amount of time, but also has the potential to introduce costly errors.

By automating data extraction, you're able to free yourself (and your pointer finger) from hours of copy/pasting, eliminate human errors, and focus on the parts of your job that make you feel great.

Web data extraction: What it is, why it's used, and how to get it right on an ongoing basis

Web data extraction, screen scraping, web harvesting—while these terms may have different connotations they all essentially point to the same thing: plucking data from the web and populating it in an organized way in another place for further analysis or more focused use. In an era where “big data” has become a commonplace concept, the appeal of web data extraction has grown; it’s an extremely efficient alternative to web browsing, and culls very specific data for a focused purpose.

How it's used

While each company’s needs vary, data extraction is often used for:

    Competitive intelligence, including web popularity, social perception, other sites linking to them, and placement of competitor advertisements

    Gathering financial data including stock market movement, product pricing, and more

    Creating continuity between price sheets and online websites, catalogs, or inventory databases

    Capturing product specifications like dimensions, color, and materials

    Pulling tabular data from multiple sources for in-depth analysis

Interestingly, some people even find that web data extraction can aid them in their leisure time as well, pulling data from blogs and websites that pertain to their hobbies or interests, and creating their own library of organized information on a topic. Perhaps, for instance, you want a list of all the designers that George Clooney wears (hey- we won’t question what you do in your free time). By using web scraping tools, you could automatically extract this type of data from, say, a fashion blogger who follows celebrity style, and create your own up-to-date shopping list of items.

How it's done

When you think of gathering data from the web, you should mentally juxtapose two different images: one of gathering a bucket of sand one grain at a time, and one of filling a bucket with a shovel that has the perfect scoop size to fill it completely in one sitting. While clearly the second method makes the most sense, the majority of web data extraction happens much like the first process--manually, and slowly.

Let’s take a look at a few different ways organizations extract data today.

The least productive way: manually

While this method is the least efficient, it’s also the most widespread. On the plus side, you need to learn absolutely nothing except “Ctrl+C/V” to use this method, which explains why it is the generally preferred method, despite the hours of time it can take. Imagine, for instance, managing a sales spreadsheet that keeps inventory up to date so that the information can be properly disseminated to a global sales team. Not only does it take a significant amount of time to update the spreadsheet with information from, say, your internal database and manufacturer’s website, but information may change rapidly, leaving sales reps with inaccurate information regardless.

Finding someone in the organization with a talent for programming languages like Python

Generally, automating a task without dedicated automation software requires programming, and therefore an internal resource with a solid familiarity with programming languages to create the task and corresponding script. While most organizations do, in fact, have a resource in IT or engineering with this type of ability, it often doesn’t seem like a worthy time investment for that person to derail the initiatives he or she is working on to automate web data extraction. Additionally, if companies do choose to automate using in-house resources, that person will find himself beholden to a continuing obligation, since he or she will need to adjust scripting if web objects and attributes change, disabling the task.

Outsourcing via Elance or oDesk

Unless there is a dedicated resource ready to automate and maintain data extraction processes (and most organizations wouldn’t necessarily choose to use their in-house employee time this way), companies might turn to outsourcing companies such as Elance or oDesk to hire contract help. While this is an effective way to automate a task using a resource that has a level of acumen in automation, it represents an additional cost--be it one time or on a regular basis as data extraction requirements change or increase.

Using Excel web queries

Since more often than not, data extracted from the web is often populated into an Excel spreadsheet, it’s no wonder that Excel includes web query tools expressly for that purpose. These tools are particularly useful in pulling tabular data from a website (such as product specifications, legal codes, stock prices, and a host of other information) and automatically pushing the data into a spreadsheet. Excel queries do have limitations and a learning curve, however, particularly when creating dynamic web queries. And clearly, if you’re hoping to populate the information in other sources, such as external databases, there is yet another level of difficulty to navigate.

How automation simplifies web data extraction

Culling web data quickly

Using automation is the simplest way to extract web data. As you execute the steps necessary to perform the task one time, a macro recorder captures each action, automatically generates an easily-editable script, and lets you specify how often you would like to repeat the task, and at what speed.

Maintaining the highest level of accuracy

With humans copy/pasting data, or comparing between multiple screens and entering data manually into a spreadsheet, you’re likely to run into accuracy issues (sometimes directly proportionate to the amount of time spent on the task and amount of coffee in the office!) Automation software ensures that “what you see is what you get,” and that data is picked up from the web and put back down where you want it without a hitch.

Storing web data in your preferred format

Not only can you accurately transfer data with automation software, you can also ensure that it’s populated into spreadsheets or databases in the format you prefer. Rather than simply dumping the data into a spreadsheet, you can ensure that the right information is put into the proper column, row, field, and style (think, for instance, of the difference between writing a birth date as “03/13/1912” and “12/3/13”).

Simplifying data analysis

Automation software allows you to aggregate data from disparate sources or enormous stockpiles of structured or unstructured data in a way that makes sense for your business analysis needs. This way, the majority of employees in an organization can perform some level of analysis on their own, making it easier to surface information that informs business decisions.

Reacting to changes without a hitch

Because automation software is built to recognize icons, images, symbols, and other objects regardless of their position on a screen, it can automate processes in a self-perpetuating manner. For example, let’s say you automate data retrieval from a certain chart on a retailer’s website without automation software. If the retailer decides to move that object to another area of the screen, your task would no longer produce accurate results (or work at all), leaving you to make changes to the script (or find someone who can), or re-record the task altogether. With image recognition capabilities, however, the system “memorizes” the object itself, not merely its coordinates, so that the task can continue to run irrespective of changes.

The wide sweeping appeal of automation software

Companies often pick a comprehensive automation solution not only because of its ability to effectively automate any web data extraction task, but also because it goes beyond data extraction. Automation software can permeate into other areas of the business as well, making tasks such as application integration, data migration, IT processes, Excel automation, testing, and routine tasks such as launching applications or formatting files faster and more accurate. Because it requires no programming experience to use, adoption rates are higher and businesses get more “bang for their buck.”

Almost any organization can benefit from using automation software, particularly as they grow and scale. If you are looking to quit “moving grains of sand” and start claiming back time in your day, there are a few steps you can take:

 Watch a short video that shows how web data extraction is done with automation software

 Download a free trial and start reaping the benefits of downloading even just a couple of tasks today.

 See how tasks are automated with our short, step-by-step how-to-sheets (and then give it a try yourself!)


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