It's hard to argue with the proposition that the World Wide Web is the largest repository of information that has ever existed. In just over a decade, the Web has moved from a university curiosity to a fundamental research, marketing and communications vehicle that impinges upon the everyday life of most people in the developed world. But there's a catch, of course. As the amount of information on the Web grows, that information becomes ever harder to keep track of and use.
This vast amount of freely available information is spread over billions of Web pages, each with its own independent structure and format. So how do you find the information you're looking for in a useful format—and do it quickly and easily without breaking the bank?
Search Isn't Enough
Search engines are a big help, but they can do only part of the work, and they are hard-pressed to keep up with daily changes. For all the power of Google and its kin, all that search engines can do is locate information and point to it. They go only two or three levels deep into a Web site to find information and then return URLs. They also find and return meta descriptions and meta keywords embedded in Web pages, but these may well be inaccurate.
Consider that even when you use a search engine to locate data, you still have to do the following tasks to capture the information you need:
- Scan the content until you find the information.
- Mark the information (usually by highlighting with a mouse).
- Switch to another application (such as a spreadsheet, database or word processor).
- Paste the information into that application.
A better solution, especially for companies that are aiming to exploit a broad swath of data about markets or competitors, lies with Web harvesting tools.
Web harvesting software automatically extracts information from the Web and picks up where search engines leave off, doing the work the search engine can't. Extraction tools automate the reading, copying and pasting necessary to collect information for analysis, and they have proved useful for pulling together information on competitors, prices and financial data of all types.