Yes, it’s web scraping

Web scraping is the automated practice of extracting data from websites. Most often, it’s associated with personal information, including names and contact details, with the intent of benefiting in some way from them.

This year, I’ve received at least 50 solicitation e-mails from entities selling extensive lists of industry professionals (and their contact info), purportedly relevant to an upcoming trade show for our company. Here’s an example:

Hi Perry,

I understand you would be exhibiting at the ##### tradeshow scheduled to happen in September, San Diego ,CA.

Would you be interested in acquiring contacts of professionals attending the show?

No. of contacts available: 12500
Delivery Format: .xls or .csv
Options available: E-blast (List Rental) and Contact Acquisition (with unlimited usage rights)

The database consists of complete information such as Full Name, Job Title, Email address, Phone number etc.

Let me know your interest so that I can provide information on pricing and other services.

This is most undoubtedly the result of web scraping.

Let’s be clear on some things regarding the practice of web scraping and exploiting the data that comes from it.

  • In general, web scraping carries with it an unflattering connotation.
  • At best, web scraping is very likely to cross ethical boundaries.
  • At worst, there are possibly legal ramifications around harvesting and selling user data en masse without prior consent. (Admittedly, this is still unclear, as underscored in the legal case involving LinkedIn).
  • In Europe, and anywhere else GDPR policies may be adopted, web scraping is going to be an absolute no-no!

For business leaders, it’s often tempting to believe customer acquisition will be much easier if they can just buy a list of potential leads. But doing so at the possible cost of legal or ethics issues is a risk that should never be accepted in the name of convenience, or satisfying a marketer’s need to score points.

You’re far better off building your customer base organically, with a combination of great products, creative marketing, and quality customer service.