Understanding Python generators for scraping and automation

On the front page of Scrapy framework there’s the following Python snippet:

import scrapy

class BlogSpider(scrapy.Spider):
    name = 'blogspider'
    start_urls = ['https://www.zyte.com/blog/']

    def parse(self, response):
        for title in response.css('.oxy-post-title'):
            yield {'title': title.css('::text').get()}

        for next_page in response.css('a.next'):
            yield response.follow(next_page, self.parse)

Note the usage of yield keyword in this code. This is different from simply returning some value from method or function. One way to look at this is that yield is a lazy equivalent of returning a value. All the code that precedes the yield keyword is only executed when the value is needed by the caller. But there’s more to it. To really understand what’s going on here, we need to understand Python generators. To understand Python generators, we need to understand iterators and to understand iterators we need to understand iterables.

So, what’s an iterable? Iterable is a collection or object that you can iterate upon in a loop, like this:

>>> l = [1, 2, 3]
>>> for x in l:
...     print(x)
... 
1
2
3

Common iterables in Python are not just lists, but sequence-like things such as sets, tuples, strings:

>>> s = set(l)
>>> for x in s:
...     print(x)
... 
1
2
3
>>> t = tuple(l)
>>> for x in t:
...     print(x)
... 
1
2
3
>>> for c in "abcd":
...     print(c)
... 
a
b
c
d

When Python runs a for-loop across an iterable, an iterator is implicitly created and used. Iterator is an object that is similar to database cursor. It is used to keep track of state (e.g. collection index) across iteration steps. It is required to implement __iter()__ method to set the initial state and __next__() method to return the current element from iterable, then update the state to point to next on. Iterators can also be created explicitly with an iter() function:

>>> it = iter(l)
>>> type(it)
<class 'list_iterator'>

Using them is simple - just replace an iterable reference with iterator reference in your for-loop:

>>> for x in it:
...     print(x)
... 
1
2
3

Once there’s nothing else to iterate, the __next__() method will raise a StopIteration exception to break the loop.

Sometimes you don’t want to use the iterator in for-loop, but just get a single value from it. This can be done with next() function:

>>> it = iter("abcd")
>>> print(next(it))
a
>>> print(next(it))
b

Now, what’s a generator? Generator is a special kind of iterator that does not go through some iterable, but lazily creates each value when it is needed. One way a generator can be created is using a generator expression:

>>> g = (i*i for i in range(10))
>>> type(g)
<class 'generator'>
>>> next(g)
0
>>> next(g)
1

Another way to create a generator is the one typically used in Scrapy projects - developing a generator function (or method) that uses the yield keyword to lazily return stuff to the caller:

>>> def gen_123():
...     print("About to yield 1")
...     yield 1
...     print("About to yield 2")
...     yield 2
...     print("About to yield 3")
...     yield 3
... 
>>> g = gen_123()
>>> type(g)
<class 'generator'>
>>> next(g)
About to yield 1
1
>>> next(g)
About to yield 2
2
>>> next(g)
About to yield 3
3
>>> next(g)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
StopIteration
>>> g = gen_123()
>>> for x in g:
...     print(x)
... 
About to yield 1
1
About to yield 2
2
About to yield 3
3

Generator functions/methods can be quite useful in web scraper and bot development as they enable us to avoid gathering scraped results in a collection, which is undesirable from performance perspective. By using generators, we can structure our code as pipeline, with each datum going through the processing steps as soon as it is ready. Generator functions can be stateful - all the variables in the function retain their values between the moments values are generated.

Consider the following example.

#!/usr/bin/python3

import csv
from urllib.parse import urljoin
from pprint import pprint

import requests
from lxml import html

FIELDNAMES = ["title", "url", "points", "discussion_url"]


def scrape_page(i):
    url = "https://news.ycombinator.com/"
    params = {"p": i}

    resp = requests.get(url, params=params)
    print(resp.url)

    tree = html.fromstring(resp.text)

    for athing_row in tree.xpath('//tr[@class="athing"]'):
        title = athing_row.xpath('.//span[@class="titleline"]/a/text()')[0]
        url = athing_row.xpath('.//span[@class="titleline"]/a/@href')[0]
        points = athing_row.xpath(
            './following-sibling::tr//span[@class="score"]/text()'
        )[0].replace(" points", "")
        discussion_url = athing_row.xpath(
            './following-sibling::tr//span[@class="age"]/a/@href'
        )[0]
        discussion_url = urljoin(resp.url, discussion_url)

        yield {
            "title": title,
            "url": url,
            "points": points,
            "discussion_url": discussion_url,
        }


def scrape(n_pages):
    for i in range(1, n_pages + 1):
        yield from scrape_page(i)


def main():
    out_f = open("hn_posts.csv", "w", encoding="utf-8")

    csv_writer = csv.DictWriter(out_f, fieldnames=FIELDNAMES, lineterminator="\n")
    csv_writer.writeheader()

    for row in scrape(3):
        pprint(row)
        csv_writer.writerow(row)

    out_f.close()


if __name__ == "__main__":
    main()

Here we scrape the first three pages of Hacker News. For each posted link we get an URL, title, number of points and link to discussion page. All of that is being written to CSV file - one row at a time. Using generator functions we can refrain from wasting resources putting each row into a list or set and then iterating across that collection when writing it out into a file. Furthermore, this is more desirable from error handling perspective, as we would not lose all the data if the script crashed (error handling has been omitted for the sake of brevity).

Both scrape_page() and scrape() are generator functions. scrape_page() scrapes an i-th page from Hacker News and generates item dictionaries one at a time. If we just wanted a single page worth of data, we could just iterate over it on the caller side and get each row when it was generated. However we have scrape() function in the middle that demonstrates iterator chaining with a fairly new Python feature - yield from. In this case, yield from is only used to avoid doing it like this:

for i in range(1, n_pages + 1)):
    for row in scrape_page(i):
        yield row

More generally, yield from establishes a connection between caller and sub-generator.

In Scrapy framework generators are used in conjunction with asynchronuous networking. Your Scrapy spider callbacks contain code that is lazily evaluated exactly when needed and use yield keyword to generate a request or data item both when it is ready and when the underlying machinery of Scrapy is able to process it.

Trickster Dev

Code level discussion of web scraping, gray hat automation, growth hacking and bounty hunting


By rl1987, 2023-01-15