A user agent is not a user, nor is it an agent. It is a piece of software that acts on behalf of the user and the internet. User agents specify information about the browser, operating system, software, and device type every single time a user browses the internet.
In essence, these user agents drive the modern internet, allowing the everyday user to be visible on the internet. Various websites can adapt to users’ information and provide content according to their specifications.
Setting user agents is crucial for successful web scraping. Otherwise, data collection activity can be easily blocked by target websites. Companies or individuals can learn how to handle user agents properly in order to collect necessary information from various websites.
This article aims to discuss what web scraping is, explain in detail what user agents are, and, of course, why they are important for the smooth web scraping process.
Web scraping: overview
Web scraping is one of the most popular practices in the modern business world. Not only does it allow corporations to gather as much data as possible, but it also allows them to selectively pick from a practically infinite data pool. Data drives the modern business realm and allows for more accurate predictions, following trends, making data-driven decisions, and a world of other things.
Simply put, web scraping is a process done by web scraping bots that run on proxies and scrape the required data targets for information. They can access traditionally inexcusable data vaults to retrieve as much relevant and desired data as possible.
In the past, this process was insanely laborious, very tedious, and ineffective as it was done manually. The automaton that web scraping bots bring to the table is an imperative tool in any modern business’s arsenal.
User agents explained
Simply put, user agents are strings of text that provide websites with the information about the user trying to access it. Usually, information included in a user agent string is:
- Operating system
- Device type
User agent’s main function is to introduce a user to the website. This is what makes a user’s device readily recognizable to the server. Being identifiable is usually the first step towards accessing the required data from the web.
How user agents work
User agents have been around practically since the inception of the internet. To understand how user agents work, let’s dive deeper into how users access websites.
Whenever a user connects to the internet, a browser sends an HTTP request to the server. Then a requested server returns a response to the browser. The response contains status information about the request and may also include the requested content.
A user agent string is included in the HTTP request. As mentioned above, a user agent reveals information about the user to the web server. Then, the web server is able to provide the user with properly structured information.
For a better understanding how a user agent string looks, here is an example:
Mozilla/4.0 (Windows NT 10.1; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/74.0.3729.131 Safari/537.36
Web scraping and user agents
Web scraping and user agents, while seemingly two very different things, are actually indistinguishable. Setting up the proper user agent for web scraping can make your web scraping successful and facilitate the whole data gathering process.
Even if web scraping is beneficial to various businesses and individuals, it does face a lot of challenges. For example, websites tend to block suspicious requests in order to make sure that malicious bots are not making any actions towards them. Even if ethical web scraping bots are attributed to good, websites hardly distinguish good bots from bad bots. This means that good bots are getting blocked as well. Generally, this depends on the sophistication of the security measures put in place by the data sources. Usually, websites use CAPTCHAs to block suspicious bots.
Setting common user agents to a web scraping bot and even rotating them with different HTTP requests makes web scraping bots look more human-like to a web server. The more data collection process mimics an organic user, the lower are the chances of being blocked. Visit the Oxylabs website for more information about setting the most common user agents for web scraping.
Web scraping is an essential practice in the modern digital landscape. It has more than a few applications for both business and personal use. Setting common user agents is crucial for a successful web scraping process. Otherwise, blocks are inevitable, meaning that the data gathering process becomes complicated. Before starting web scraping, we suggest you learn everything about overcoming security measures and dealing with IP blocks.