21. Web Scraping

(activity developed by Ewan Dunbar)

!!Read this first!!

This is an optional project aimed at those who have a fair bit of experience programming and want to learn quickly how to do some useful things in Python, and/or feel like they know how to mess around with code but don’t quite feel like “programmers,” or would just like to become better programmers. You may not feel like a programmer when you are done either, but, if you follow the instructions you will certainly feel much more like a programmer. In that spirit, it is very much a “self-guided tour.” You will get instructions on what to do, but you will need to make heavy use of online resources to figure out how to do these things.

This project consists of a series of exercises. It is incremental. You need to start at the beginning, because each part relies on the previous, but you can stop at any point.

This project will not be marked. But, if you take this project on, we would like to:

  • See you finish it by the end of the course

  • Check in on you each week

  • Spend a small amount of time at the end of the course going over your project to give qualitative comments

We will also of course help you by answering any questions you may have by email or in person. For this reason, if you are going to do this project, we ask that you sign up: send an e-mail to both Info 2 instructors (Christophe Pallier and Ewan Dunbar) saying that you’re going to do the project (not to the Google Group). Keeping in touch will also help us to fix any potential bugs in the project instructions as quickly as possible.

You are encouraged, but not required, to find a partner, and work on this project in pairs. If you choose to do this, it is up to you to divide the labour. It is recommended that you use the opportunity to read each other’s code carefully, check it over, and discuss it.

In either case, again, if you are going to do this project, we ask that you sign up: please send an e-mail to us saying that you’re going to do the project (not to the Google Group). If you are going to work in pairs, one email (cc’ed to both partners), will suffice.


This project will introduce you to a programming task that will be useful if you do projects with language: harvesting textual data from the web and cleaning it up. The last exercise will also get you thinking about what you can do with textual data.

On the way, you will be required to learn certain key Python skills which are far more generally applicable, including:

  • Using the Python documentation

  • Reading from a file

  • Writing to a file

  • Downloading web pages

  • Command line arguments

  • Common Python idioms

  • Imports

  • Basic text processing

Thus, perhaps the more pertinent goal of this project is to give a self-guided tour of Python to those who have programmed before in other languages, and/or to give those who have programmed before, either in Python or not, a good sense for some basic good programming practices, including:

  • Style and variable naming

  • Documentation

  • Use of functions

  • Organizing your code

  • Attacking complex problems by sub-dividing them

The point of the last is to help you build up the skills to create working code. The point of the first four is to prevent you from creating code that is “write-only”: code which works, but which cannot be revisited or modified (or maybe even finished) by you or anyone else, because it cannot be read or understood. The larger goal of these last four is to remind you that computer source code is exclusively for human beings, not for computers; compiled computer machine code (which you may never touch) is for computers. Source code is a way for you to sort out a human-comprehensible explanation of what the machine code to solve your problem should do, save it, share it with other human beings who would like to understand it too, and use it again in the future for other purposes (it is, incidentally, also the easiest way to generate machine code, but it is not the only way). The instructions for this project will give you some very general guidance on how to do these five things.

The instructions for this project will not give you much guidance on how to integrate two other essential programming practices into your work, the use of unit tests and the use of the interactive debugger, because the above is already a lot, but, if you’d like a bit more practice, you may also find this to be a good exercise in developing these practices. You can find useful information on unit tests and the interactive debugger below under Resources.

By the end of the project, your instructions will become less detailed. You will have to make more and more design and style decisions for yourself. To guide you, should try and find as many examples of good Python code as possible. This page is a good resource.

Web scraping

You may often want to download a large set of web pages, or specific content from those web pages, from an entire web site or set of web sites. A program which does this is called a web crawler. A web crawler that looks for very specific information and tries to extract it automatically is called a web scraper. Web scraping is sometimes used by companies to collect up-to-date information on prices or other quickly-changing information, and may not be well looked upon by the target sites, for various reasons, but mainly that any web crawler has the potential to create a huge amount of traffic and overload the site. However, if done in a respectful way, web crawlers can be very useful, and, indeed, are essential to your daily life: Google relies on a massive web crawler to find new or updated web pages, so that it can then index them so that you can find them when you search.

Your job is to write Python code that automatically downloads a portion of Wikipedia. It is not strictly necessary to crawl Wikipedia, because the entire contents are freely available to download in large compressed files. If you want to work with Wikipedia in the future, it is recommended that you make use of thse files instead of crawling. However, Wikipedia permits light crawling of articles, and, as Wikipedia is a very useful collection of natural language texts, it serves as a useful example.

General instructions and a partly-worked example exercise

This is a warmup exercise that is mostly done for you. This section is intended to establish some coding conventions that you should use in this project.

All of your code should run on the command line (rather than from inside a Python notebook or iPython). If you’re not familiar with how to run Python scripts programs from the command line, read this document first (if your path is set up correctly on Windows, which it already should be, then you should not need to type the full path name to the Python interpreter, python.exe, contrary to what is suggested in the document).

You should create a folder just for this project.

Go in your browser to the English Wikipedia page for the stipple-throated antwren. Copy and paste all of the text from this page and save it as a text file in your project folder. Let’s start by writing a Python program that reads this file and prints it to the screen.

Notes on idiomatic Python

In each programming language, there are conventions for writing programs or for doing certain programming tasks in a particular way that are generally adhered to, or at least very easily understood, by the community, but may not be obvious a priori (programming language “idioms”). Programmers in that language adhere to these conventions mainly because doing so helps make programs in that language easier to read and understand (for you, not just for others), and also sometimes because they may be useful ways to avoid errors.

The idiomatic Python way to write a program that runs on the command line is to structure your file like this:

# Imports, definition of functions, ...

if __name__ == "__main__":
    # The code that runs when the program is launched...

coming at the end of the file. The reason for this convention is explained on this Stack Overflow question.

You should adhere to this convention for the rest of this project.

For example, in this exercise - which doesn’t really require you to write any new functions, but which might require you to import the sys module, depending on how you solve it - you might get a short script that looks something like this:

import sys

if __name__ == "__main__":
    # All your code...

You can get more tips on writing idiomatic Python at this site.

Notes on Python style conventions

Similar to idioms (but more to do with low-level things like formatting) is “style.” This includes naming variables and constants, the number of spaces with which you indent, how many spaces you put around parentheses, and so on. When working on large collaborative projects you will almost always be asked to adhere to a set of style guidelines (and if you are working in a pair, you should do that here too). At the very least, you need to be consistent internally. Many text editors have a “Format” function which can apply many of your personal style conventions automatically, and most will do automatic indentation and allow you to set the number of spaces.

In Python, the standard, and highly recommended, style guidelines are called PEP 8, and are accessible here.

The specification for this exercise asks you to read one file. The simplest way to do this (and therefore the ideal way, following the Zen of Python) is to hard-code the filename as a constant (a variable that doesn’t change). In Python, unlike in other languages, constants have no special status - they are variables like any other, and it is up to you not to change them. The style convention for showing that something is a constant (nearly universally adhered to in all programming languages) is to put them in ALL_CAPS_SEPARATED_BY_UNDERSCORES. Thus, your program will look something like this:

# Imports if necessary

if __name__ == "__main__":
    INPUT_FILE = "stipple_throated_antwren.txt"
    # Code to read and print the contents of that file...

Notes on how to do this project

This project is a self-guided tour. That means that the Python documentation and Stack Exchange are your new best friends - well, right after Google.

Here, for example, is the sub-page from the Python tutorial on modules and imports.

Notes on opening files

There are many ways to open a file and you may find various pieces of advice, but there is an idiom. The idiom has changed over the years, so we point out the idiomatic way to do this today, which is using with, as described here. This page will give you almost the whole solution to this exercise (but not quite).

Notes on testing your code

You should always verify that your code is correct (i.e., that it gives the right answer on some important cases for which you know the right answer).

In this case, the way to do that is to put the output of your program in a new file and then compare that one with the original file. You can do this by redirecting the output that is printed to the screen into a text file, such as output.txt (see instructions here for Unix-type systems, a subset of which should also work on Windows).

On Unix-type systems (such as Linux and OS X), as well as Windows 10 (if you follow these instructions), you can then compare the two files byte-by-byte using the diff program. If you don’t have access to diff, there are many tools online for comparing two files.

The best practice is to have a program that automatically runs tests on your code, so that when you change it, you know that it’s still doing what it used to do correctly. An important tool for doing this is to write unit tests for each of your functions. As discussed above, developing the habit of unit testing is beyond the scope of this project. However, it is a good idea, and if you wish to start now, you can start by reading this document about unit testing in Python.


Yes, the output should be exactly the same. If there are extra spaces or blank lines in your output, even at the end of the file, get it so that your script’s output matches exactly before moving on.


Sooner or later, you will run into error messages that mention Unicode, which have to do with special (non-ASCII) characters. These errors are awful. Fixing problems with Unicode was a major motivation behind Python 3. We, however, are using Python 2. As soon as you start getting these errors, see the Unicode section under Resources below, and learn how to work them out as quickly as you can.

Exercise 1: Command line arguments

Finish the example exercise if you haven’t already, and save it as exercise_warmup.py. Make a copy called exercise_1.py and modify it so that it reads the input filename as the first and only command-line argument rather than storing it as a constant, and gives an appropriate error if no arguments are given. Continue to save the rest of the exercises as separate scripts (for example, with the next exercise in a new file called exercise_2.py).

Exercise 2: Processing HTML

In a web browser, save the raw HTML of the Wikipedia article on the stipple-throated antwren (rather than just copying and pasting the text). Write a function called extract_wikipedia_contents that takes HTML source and returns just the text of the article. Your script should take a single command-line argument which is the name of the HTML file, call this function on the contents of the HTML file, and print the text of the article to the screen (to be more precise, to standard output). It’s up to you to determine what exactly “the text of the article” means, except that it shouldn’t contain HTML codes or JavaScript, and it should correspond, basically, to the English text that a human being would read if they went to read the Wikipedia article. It doesn’t need to be the exact text that you copied and pasted above (and in fact, it probably shouldn’t, because that likely contained Wikipedia navigation links which aren’t part of the article text).


This is where the idiomatic Python script structure starts to become non-trivial. Put your function definition(s) above if __name__ == "__main__", not inside it. This will make your script look something like this:

# ... Imports ...

def extract_wikipedia_contents():
    # ... Docstring ...
    # ...

if __name__ == "__main__":
    # ... Get command line arguments, read file ...
    article_contents = extract_wikipedia_contents(article_html_source)
    # ... Print article contents ...


Your function should apply to the contents of the HTML file, not to the filename, and it should return the text, not print it.

Documentation strings

All of your functions must be documented with block comments called documentation strings, or simply docstrings. The purpose of a docstring is to explain what the arguments to your function are, what it returns, as well as a very concise, one-phrase summary of what it does, with perhaps a short paragraph elaborating some relevant details. To get you started, here is a partial docstring for the extract_wikipedia_contents. (Notice that html_source is the name of the argument to the function.)

"""Extract the text of a Wikipedia article from HTML

Here, it would be useful to describe a bit more about how you've chosen to
format the text that you're returning, and what exactly you mean by the
"article text."

    html_source (str): HTML source of a Wikipedia article

    str: The text of the Wikipedia article

A good practice (one which you have to force yourself to do, but which will help you write your programs faster) is to write your docstrings before you write your functions. They force you to state exactly what you intend the function to do. If you have that sorted out, writing the function becomes much easier. (For example, now it should be absolutely clear that the input and output to this function are supposed to be strings, and not lists or anything else.)

In the Resources below, you will find guidelines for writing docstrings in Python. Be consistent in your style and remember that you’re communicating with the rest of the world.

Docstrings versus inline comments

Docstrings are not the same as inline comments. Inline comments (comments interspersed in your code) should be used sparingly, and only where necessary, unlike docstrings. Inline comments explain the logic of your code, if it isn’t obvious. They should not be used to explain what variable or function names mean, or to explain enigmatic constants or clever ways to do things in only one line. The way to clarify unclear variable names or mysterious constants is not to use unclear variable names or mysterious constants. The way to clarify the clever thing you did is to never do clever things. Source code is a human-comprehensible explanation of how some machine code works. You have the power to make fun puzzles for the reader, but you shouldn’t.

Here is a good summary of appropriate uses of inline comments.

What functions should do

Another useful result of writing your docstrings before you write your functions is that you will find out whether or not your function is trying to do too much. A general rule is that if you can’t state precisely in a few words what your function does, it’s probably trying to do too much.


You may, of course, write as many functions as you want for this exercise, as long as you write extract_wikipedia_contents.


The goal of this exercise is not to learn to parse HTML. That’s a pain. Doing it well demands a whole course of its own. Find a Python module that parses the HTML for you, then get the text out. Find the simplest one possible.

Exercise 3: Accessing web pages

Write a modified version of your previous script which accesses Wikipedia online. It will still take a single, text input file, specified on the command line, but that file will now contain a list of URLs to Wikipedia articles, each on one line. The script will download each of these pages, and then print the contents of all of them to standard output, in sequence. No clear separation between articles is necessary, nor do they need to be in any particular order. You should be able to find Python modules that will download the HTML contents of web pages for you and return them as a string, so you should be able to re-use your extract_wikipedia_contents function (copy and paste it into your new script).


You are writing a script that accesses web pages. People who build websites make web pages for people, not for scripts. You should not push your luck, or you may be blocked from accessing the website. Wikipedia is fine with you using scripts to access it, as long as you respect some rules:

  • Don’t go too fast. Put a short delay (one second at least) between requests for pages.

  • Make sure that your script reads and respects the robots.txt file. Specifically, that file (which is just a text file), specifies what URLs you are allowed to access and what files you are not. Don’t access any URLs you’re not allowed to.

  • Respect Wikipedia’s policy on User-Agents.

This is a bigger task

This exercise is more complex. It may take some time, and it should take more than one function to accomplish. You need to read the robots.txt file, retrieve the contents of each of the URLs (being sure to filter appropriately to respect robots.txt), and then apply extract_wikipedia_contents. You need to make quite a few design decisions, and you need to document them in your docstrings. (Where do you apply extract_wikipedia_contents? Where do you filter the URLs? Where do you read the robots.txt? Where do you pause between requests?) Furthermore, before you do any of that, you need to do some digging to figure out just how to do each of those things. (How do you access web pages? Where is the robots.txt file? What happens if there’s a problem accessing a web page?)

Exercise 4: Refactoring your code

Your code from Exercise 3 has two logical components, corresponding to Exercise 2 (cleaning up Wikipedia page HTML) and a new part corresponding to Exercise 3 (accessing websites). Up to now, you’ve been told to write separate scripts, one for each exercise, and you were told to copy and paste your function from Exercise 2 into your Exercise 3 script. In this exercise, you will learn how to share Python code across different files in the same directory, each of which collects together a set of useful, related functions.

Make a copy of your Exercise 2 script called wikipedia.py, and a copy of your Exercise 3 script called web.py. In your exercise_4.py script, you will treat those scripts as modules, and import the functions that you need from them. Your Exercise 4 script should behave exactly like your original Exercise 3 script from the outside (that is, this is an exercise in refactoring your code). However, you should ensure that all the functions in your new web.py script should work for any website, not just Wikipedia. You may simplify your interpretation of complex robots.txt files, so long as you err on the side of caution (never do anything that you’re not allowed to do).

Importing functions

There are two conventional ways of importing functions (from your own code or from other modules) that are recommended. One is to import the individual functions you need, as follows:

from wikipedia import extract_wikipedia_contents

Another is to import the entire file/module as a separate namespace.

import wikipedia

This requires that you then make explicit reference to the file/module that you imported when calling functions from it:

article_contents = wikipedia.extract_wikipedia_contents(article_html_source)

This can get quite verbose, so there is a way of abbreviating the names of the files/modules you import (or, rather, of changing the names of the associated namespaces):

import wikipedia as wp

# ...

    article_contents = wp.extract_wikipedia_contents(article_html_source)

There is one method that is often cautioned against, because it may fill up your namespace unexpectedly with function or variable names that you do not need and do not want, and that is this:

from wikipedia import *

In this case, it probably won’t do anything different (unless you defined additional functions in wikipedia.py). But the above alternatives represent more predictable and understandable code.

Scripts and modules

You have just learned to import functions not from external modules, but from your own code! You may be wondering how this is possible. It is possible because a Python module is simply any Python script that defines functions, variables, or anything else (see here). Yet the files you’ve written weren’t originally intended for that. They were intended to be used as scripts to be run on the command line. This is not a bug - it is a feature. There’s no need to work against it by removing the if __name__ == "__main__": section of your newly created wikipedia.py and web.py files. This section of your code now serves as an example of a standard way to use the functions you’ve defined.

Testing your code

Your Exercise 4 script should behave exactly like your original Exercise 3 script, and you should ensure that all the functions in your new web.py script should work for any website, not just Wikipedia (including respecting the robots.txt file, under whatever conservative interpretation you have decided to take). As always, you should test your code and ensure that this is true. Now that you know how to import functions, it is all the easier to start unit testing, i.e., writing your tests as separate functions that you put into a separate testing script.

Exercise 5: Crawling websites

Instead of reading a list of URLs from a file, you will now crawl Wikipedia, starting from one article (or perhaps a set of articles) and following links from those articles to find more articles to download. The article or set of articles should be specified as titles (not as URLs) and you should also specify which language’s Wikipedia contains the target article. You should decide whether it makes more sense to start from one article or from more than one, and how to pass the article titles and the language in to your program. Your crawler will download a maximum of 100 articles by following the first article link contained in each article. (Your job is not to crawl all of Wikipedia - that will take forever and it may get you blocked - and you should not need to build a tree of any kind.)

Instead of writing to standard output, you should now write the text of each article to a separate text file. Each text file should have a filename that uniquely identifies that article in that language (it needn’t be the title and language directly, but it could be).

As in Exercise 4, structure your code using modules and imports. You are free to create as many new module files as you feel are appropriate, and add new functions to your old modules. Modules can import code from other modules if necessary, but try and organize them so that they don’t, so that they can be used independently of each other, as much as possible. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you can reuse your old code, do so. As always, document and test everything.

Exercise 6: Cleaning up text

Exercise 6 will be intended to work on the basis of the output of Exercise 5. Your new script will take as command line arguments an output directory, and a list of file names (corresponding to individual Wikipedia articles). For each file name, you will save a new version of that file in the specified output directory, which has been cleaned up so as to have:

  • One sentence per line

  • The words in each sentence separated from each other by exactly one space

  • Case (upper-case/lower-case) should be removed (normalize to either upper or lower case)

Choose to define “sentence” and “word” in some convenient (not necessarily careful) way. Decide how to organize your new code, and document and test it.

Exercise 7: Transition probabilities

Write a script that takes a collection of text formatted as in the output of Exercise 6, specified on the command line as a set of corpus files and estimates, over the whole corpus (i.e., all the files, taken together), the transition probability between words. That is, the probability of observing word :presentation:`B\ :math:`B``\(B\) right after word :presentation:`A\ :math:`A``\(A\) in the corpus. For example, in the following three sentences -

The fox jumped
The dog kicked the fox
A fox jumped
  • an easy transition probability to estimate is the probability of dog given the. There are three instances of the, and one of them is followed by dog, so a reasonable estimate of the transition probability of dog following the would be 1/3. The word here is “estimate” because your corpus is only a finite sample, and simply counting would lead to some surprising results. For example, the transition probability of dog following a would come out as zero. Look up and implement back-off and smoothing, and implement simple versions of these. You will also need to calculate the probability of starting or finishing a sentence with a particular word.

A useful resource for understanding these concepts is Jurafsky and Martin’s textbook, and in particular Chapter 4 on n-grams.

Do not rely on NLTK or any external module for this.

Print the transition probabilities to a text file, in a format of your choosing. Decide how to organize your new code, and document and test it.

Exercise 8: Generating text from a bigram language model

Write a script that takes the output of Exercise 7 and generates random text that follows the transition probabilities.


Idioms and style

Docstrings and comments - Wikipedia on Python docstrings - Google Python docstring style - PEP 257 docstring guidelines - What inline comments are for

Command line arguments - `argparse <https://docs.python.org/3/library/argparse.html>`__

Useful facts - Standard input, output, and error - Namespaces - Python modules

Examples Example Python code

Unicode - Stack Overflow explanation of Unicode print problems - More on Unicode print problems - A more technical list of Unicode frustrations in Python - Reading Unicode - Python Unicode HOWTO

Unit testing - Unit testing and the ``unittest` module <http://pymbook.readthedocs.io/en/latest/testing.html>`__

Python debugger - pdb

NLP textbook - Jurafsky and Martin draft