Web Scraping with a Headless Browser: A Puppeteer Tutorial

What Is a Headless Browser and Why Is It Needed?

The last few years have seen the web evolve from simplistic websites built with bare HTML and CSS. Now there are much more interactive web apps with beautiful UIs, which are often built with frameworks such as Angular or React. In other words, nowadays JavaScript rules the web, including almost everything you interact with on websites.

For our purposes, JavaScript is a client-side language. The server returns JavaScript files or scripts injected into an HTML response, and the browser processes it. Now, this is a problem if we are doing some kind of web scraping or web automation because more times than not, the content that we’d like to see or scrape is actually rendered by JavaScript code and is not accessible from the raw HTML response that the server delivers.

As we mentioned above, browsers do know how to process the JavaScript and render beautiful web pages. Now, what if we could leverage this functionality for our scraping needs and had a way to control browsers programmatically? That’s exactly where headless browser automation steps in!

Headless? Excuse me? Yes, this just means there’s no graphical user interface (GUI). Instead of interacting with visual elements the way you normally would—for example with a mouse or touch device—you automate use cases with a command-line interface(CLI).

Headless Chrome and Puppeteer

There are many web scraping tools that can be used for headless browsing, like Zombie.js or headless Firefox using Selenium. But today we’ll be exploring headless Chrome via Puppeteer, as it’s a relatively newer player, released at the start of 2018. Editor’s note: It’s worth mentioning Intoli’s Remote Browser, another new player, but that will have to be a subject for another article.

What exactly is Puppeteer? It’s a Node.js library which provides a high-level API to control headless Chrome or Chromium or to interact with the DevTools protocol. It’s maintained by the Chrome DevTools team and an awesome open-source community.

Enough talking—let’s jump into the code and explore the world of how to automate web scraping using Puppeteer’s headless browsing!

Preparing the Environment

First of all, you’ll need to have Node.js 8+ installed on your machine. You can install it here, or if you are CLI lover like me and like to work on Ubuntu, follow those commands:

curl -sL https://deb.nodesource.com/setup_8.x | sudo -E bash -
sudo apt-get install -y nodejs

You’ll also need some packages that may or may not be available on your system. Just to be safe, try to install those:

sudo apt-get install -yq --no-install-recommends libasound2 libatk1.0-0 libc6 libcairo2 libcups2 libdbus-1-3 libexpat1 libfontconfig1 libgcc1 libgconf-2-4 libgdk-pixbuf2.0-0 libglib2.0-0 libgtk-3-0 libnspr4 libpango-1.0-0 libpangocairo-1.0-0 libstdc++6 libx11-6 libx11-xcb1 libxcb1 libxcursor1 libxdamage1 libxext6 libxfixes3 libxi6 libxrandr2 libxrender1 libxss1 libxtst6 libnss3

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