How Do You Crawl And Scrape Millions of eCommerce Products?

We’ve built crawling infrastructure that accurately screen scrapes data from large eCommerce websites for customers like cdscience.com, wishclouds.com, and adchemy.com (acquired by WalmartLabs). Through these consulting projects we’ve learned a lot and we’ve designed a new technical architecture with superior scalability and a lower total cost of ownership. In this white paper, we provide an overview of the problem and our solution.

Solution at a glance

You want to

  • Crawl, scrape and index 100’s of millions of products daily

We help you

  • Architect and build scalable crawling infrastructure that improves your data quality and reduces your infrastructure costs

The problem

It’s easy to build a basic one-off screen scraper. In fact, many software engineers build simple screen scrapers early in their career because a project they are working on needs to fetch data from a third-party website that doesn’t have an API. The problem is one of scale.

When you crawl 100’s of millions of product pages daily, you need crawling infrastructure that’s highly configurable and cost efficient. As an example, most architectures don’t accurately maintain the state of the crawler, which tracks how many pages have been crawled and how many pages still need to be crawled. You need to understand the state of the crawler when it fails in order to quickly debug it.

The Solution

The crawling architecture we’ve defined solves the core problems faced by crawlers that scrape 100’s of millions of eCommerce products.

  • Machine learning is used to scrape standard product data

  • Error handling and debugging tools speed up the process of writing new crawlers and debugging existing ones

  • Requests to each website are throttled to avoid DOS attacks

  • Settings are configurable per eCommerce retailer to maximize the requests per second, saving you money on infrastructure costs

  • The architecture scales horizontally to accomplish jobs of any size

Technical architecture

Our solution is composed of two applications:

The web crawling application

Because requirements can vary from customer-to-customer and the available data varies from retailer-to- retailer, we’ve divided the crawling application that populates the database with product data from eCommerce websites into eight configurable de-coupled steps.

1) Crawl eCommerce websites

We start with a list of eCommerce URLs that you provide via API or spreadsheet (if you only have a limited number of websites you’d like us to crawl). Then, we identify and store a list of product URLs and product meta data for each eCommerce website.

  • A breadth-first search (BFS) or a Depth-first search (DFS) — based on the situation — crawl ensures that we generate a complete list of all URLs belonging to each eCommerce website

  • Jobs are run in parallel using event loops

  • Product URLs are identified, stored along with the metadata in the data store and placed into a Queue for batch processing

  • PhantomJS is a headless browser we use to crawl some HTTPS websites

  • Our crawler framework provides the ability to configure the maximum concurrent requests to a particular retailer to avoid DOS attacks

    • Sites like amazon.com can handle 50 or more requests per second, but less established sites like fancy.com can only handle 1-5 requests per second
  • Our exception management system enables developers to easily debug crawlers when they fail

    • Asynchronous

    • Separate log file for errors

    • Tagged with job-id, retailer-id and URL

    • Stored to the disk in the database

2) Fetch product pages

In this phase, the web crawling application grabs the next product URL from the Queue and fetches the HTML for each product page with an HTTP request.

  • We use workers to fetch the HTML for each product page

  • The HTML is compressed and stored to the disk

  • We utilize Amazon S3 as the database to store the HTML pages for each retailer

3) Fetch images

A separate process parses the HTML pages and fetches each product’s images, which are processed and stored in Amazon S3. A configurable job can batch process all the product images to normalize image type and size. By normalizing all the product images, users in developing countries with slower average internet speeds will experience faster page loads.

4) Business logic (mining)

A separate worker / daemon fetches the HTML pages from the data store and extracts the required fields. We utilize a standardized data model like STEP to map the data extracted from each HTML product page to the database. Once extracted, the data is stored in a data store.

5) Check product prices

The price check process enables us to track the price of a specific product on an eCommerce website over time. It can be configured to check the price of a product as often as every day, so you can tell your customers the moment a product goes on sale. This is a separate process that fetches the price from the HTML pages and updates the data store.

6) Link products across retailers

To enable you to offer price comparison features like shopzilla.com and Google Shopping, we use several different variables to determine the probability that two products are the same. We start by looking for the manufacturer’s product ID in the meta data and HTML scraped from each site. If the retailer creates their own SKU numbers for each product, we’ll do entity recognition on the product title. We’ll continue to add variables until we achieve an acceptable statistical confidence that two products are the same. A relationship is created in the data store once we’re confident that we’ve found the same product sold at multiple retailers.

7) Update products

Because the processes are decoupled, we can update the entire product catalog from an eCommerce retailer as often as once a day.

8) Exception handling

All errors are logged and stored in a temporary data store so the errors can be easily reviewed and fixed. Errors are tagged with job-id, phase (crawl, fetch, mine), URL, and message.

The API application

We’ll expose a REST API that generates a list of products based on a natural language query. The API will also enable you to filter products based on categories, price and other meta-data.

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