How Bots Are Scraping Your Website for Competitive Data

By Sanjay Bhakta, VP & Head of Solutions and Nitanshu Upadhyay, Business Solutions Consultant
Robots sorting through piles of paperwork with one robot using a laptop amid a sea of documents.

As you read this blog post, your competitors are unleashing an army of bots to crawl your website and mine data about your products and services to a level of detail no human being could ever find acting on their own. Web-scraping bots are capable of digging so deeply into your site that they can instantly uncover myriad details about your business – customer data, prices of your products, the markets you compete in, your brand position, and more. And web-scraping incidents are on the rise; in fact, 28 percent of online traffic comes from bad bots. With AI, a competitor can quickly assimilate this data and strengthen themselves more nimbly than ever. Competitive data mining with web-scraping bots is legal. It can hurt your customer experience by slowing down your site and undercut your business by giving competitors an unfair advantage. But web-scraping bots can be stopped with the right approach.

Examples of Web-Scraping Bots

Businesses use web-scraping bots and data mining techniques for various reasons, with competitive data mining being one of the primary motivations. This process involves extracting data from websites to gather insights about competitors, markets, or customers. And make no mistake: with bots, a competitor can uncover and assimilate a complete picture of your business, including:

  • Price comparison: retailers and e-commerce companies use web scraping to monitor competitors’ prices and adjust their own pricing strategies accordingly. By keeping an eye on the competition, a business can optimize its prices to increase sales or maintain competitiveness.
  • Competitive warfare: bots can also be used to disseminate misinformation about competitors. For example, bots can be used to distort a company’s financial results, spread negative (and inaccurate) product reviews, and manipulate the price of a competitor’s products.
  • Product assortment: retailers can scrape product listings from competitors’ sites to see what products they are offering, any new arrivals, or products that are being phased out.
  • Monitoring promotions: companies can track competitors’ special offers, discounts, or loyalty programs to respond with their own promotions.
  • Reputation management: companies might scrape reviews and ratings from review sites, forums, or social media to understand customer sentiment towards their own and competitors’ products.

How Web-Scraping Bots Can Hurt You

On average, businesses lose 2 percent of their online revenue to web scraping. Web-scraping bots have been around for some time, but the practice has become more popular in recent years. One reason is that the rise of the stay-at-home economy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive uptick in online commerce. With more business being conducted online, websites became more popular targets for competitive data mining.

In addition, AI has made web crawling bots more powerful. And the rise of bots-as-a-service models has given businesses access to cloud-based operations that build sophisticated bots for multiple purposes, including data mining. AI equips these bots with the ability to analyze and interpret data on a very large scale which enables them to draw valuable insights from the vast amounts of information they gather. This gives businesses an unfair advantage. AI-driven bots can recognize patterns, make connections, and even predict trends, providing their users with a competitive edge.

Web-scraping bots can become more potent when someone integrates the data collected by with analytics tools, machine learning algorithms, or business intelligence platforms for in-depth analysis and actionable insights – which adds a layer of crucial insight.

Businesses are unwittingly leaking important competitive data thanks to bots. One reason: bots can automate the data collection process, allowing for the rapid extraction of vast amounts of data from multiple websites. Manually gathering the same amount of information would be extremely time-consuming and resource intensive. But with bots, someone can make more detailed comparisons of multiple businesses at scale – faster. Bots can be scheduled to scrape websites at regular intervals, ensuring up-to-date data. This is particularly useful for industries where prices, product listings, or other critical data change frequently. For industries where real-time data is crucial, such as stock trading or e-commerce pricing strategies, bots can provide near real-time monitoring and alerting capabilities.

Web-scraping bots can also be used for more malicious purposes. On September 6, it was reported that an archive containing data purportedly scraped from 500 million LinkedIn profiles was put for sale on a hacker forum. Another 2 million records were leaked as a proof-of-concept sample by the post author. The four leaked files contain information about LinkedIn users whose data was allegedly scraped by the threat actor -- including their full names, email addresses, phone numbers, workplace information, and more.

Unfortunately, bots can also hurt your customer experience by slowing a site down (which is true of any bot regardless of its intent). When bots clog a website, people invariably experience problems such as slow-loading web pages or difficulty navigating a site. That’s because humans are competing for a spike in web traffic caused by bots. Obviously, this situation reflects poorly on a website and brand.

How can businesses combat web-scraping bots? There’s the rub. The main challenge is to figure out how to distinguish human activity from bot activity without tipping off a bot that your site is trying to track them and stop them. When a bot realizes its being tracked and flagged for suspicious activity, it becomes tipped off like a bad actor who realizes they are being monitored and changes their habits to avoid detection. indeed, bots are incredibly smart. 

Steps to Get Started Fighting Bots

  • Avoid the knee jerk reaction of buying a web security appliance to combat bots. Doing this will tip off bots that you’re on to them, and they will adapt their behavior to make it harder to detect them.
  • Assess your security perimeter. As part of that, understand the level of your security posture, or the overall security status or health of your organization’s information systems based on the resources, capabilities, and management strategies in place to protect against and respond to potential threats. As you do this, you’ll need to use AI to monitor for every conceivable pattern of behavior and anomaly that could indicate the presence of a bot. For instance, do you notice a spike in visitor traffic examining some of your products at 3:00 a.m. from a single location? If so, why is this happening? Why one particular set of products, and why are visits happening at 3:00 a.m. from one location? You need human judgment to examine this data to ask the “why,” which will help you uncover bot activity.
  • Assess threat intelligence. The security posture should be frequently assessed through purple teaming exercises that perform reconnaissance and use ethical hacking techniques, simulating bot behaviors, and highlighting the gaps in your approach. Doing this will test your site for vulnerabilities without tipping off bots.
  • Assess customer journey analytics. Customer journey analytics is the essential offense for fighting bad bots. Customer journey analytics reveals the digital fingerprints of content consumption, dwell times, session durations, bounce rates, cart abandonment statistics, page visits, and a host of others, indicative of human behavior. This helps you differentiate between a customer’s real activity versus a bot trying to emulate a human.

How Centific Can Help

Centific does the heavy lifting to help businesses fight bad bots by combining insight, AI, and a rigorous framework, the Digital Safety Account Protection Tetrad. We take a proactive approach to detecting, classifying, protecting, and monitoring a client’s digital estate to continuously outsmart bots: 

We know how to monitor, trick, and trap bad bots. We know that bad bots succeed through scale, speed, and constant adaptation, much like a mutating virus. That’s why our team constantly applies evolving AI tools in context of our process at speed to support your revenue growth, optimize costs, and protect your customer experience.

Click to learn more about our Digital Safety Services.