I’ve never met a person with too much time on their hands. Yet most of what we spend our time on would be better done by a machine. Nowhere is this more true than on the web, where all the data we need to accomplish almost any task is available, if only we knew how to get it from place to place.
Well, it’s headless browsers to the rescue! By leveraging this rapidly-maturing technology, we can reach superhuman levels of productivity with relative ease. The biggest challenge is no longer working with brutish tech, but rather knowing which tools to use, how to use them, and what to use them for.
Read on for more inspiration and the few bits of guidance you’ll need to get started building your own browser automations…
What is a headless browser?
Headless browsers are web browsers without a graphical user interface (GUI). They behave exactly like a standard web browser in all other respects, save that they’re controlled with code rather than a human being. Load pages, click buttons, scroll, play videos, download files, open tabs—take whatever actions you need to get the job done.
But rather than having to repeat all those actions every day for the rest of your life, once you’ve written an automation, it can run all on its own, potentially for years without maintenance.
While there are many, many automation apps on the market, browser automation is set apart by the following measures:
- Flexibility: With headless browsers, there’s almost no limit to the tasks you can automate, especially when you integrate third-party services and AI tools into your automations.
- Speed: Despite their mature GUIs, enterprise SRP tools are slow to build with, and slower to run. Many charge obscene prices for performance that costs fractions of a penny with headless browsers.
- Scalability: In addition to being fast, you can scale browser automation up to run complex automations almost instantaneously. When working with big data or realtime use-cases, this is a critical distinction.
- Integration: Headless browsers are unique in their ability to be integrated with testing frameworks, CI/CD pipelines, APIs, and other tools in your development ecosystem. These integrations multiply your potential gains.
Use-cases for Headless Browsers
Headless browser automation can be applied to a wide range of use-cases. Let’s explore some of the most common scenarios where headless browsers can be employed effectively.
Be warned, by the time you’ve reached the end of this section, you’re going to have more ideas for how to leverage browser automation than you’re ready for. So fire up a todo list and jot your ideas down. Later, you’ll want to prioritize your ideas by impact and get building. After all, the more time you save with automation, the more time you have to automate additional tasks.
Browser Automation for Repetitive Tasks
Even if you don’t value your own time very much, payroll should make you value the time of your employees very highly. Headless browser automation can help liberate your human capital to focus on high-impact tasks, rather than the tedious gestures it takes to keep the lights on.
This applies to every domain of work life, from engineering to technical support, from project management to design, from customer success to sales…
Form Submission and Data Entry
Manual data entry can be time-consuming and error-prone. Headless browsers can automate this process by programmatically filling out forms with data from various sources like spreadsheets or databases, and submitting them on your behalf. Consider tasks like registering multiple accounts, submitting support tickets, or updating contact information across different platforms.
- Account Creation: Automate the creation of user accounts for various services, such as social media platforms or email providers.
- Data Migration: Transfer data between different systems or platforms by automating form submissions and data entry.
- Survey and Feedback Submission: Automatically fill out and submit customer satisfaction surveys or feedback forms based on collected data.
Scheduling and Reminders
Some events are easy enough to add to a calendar, but others only occur intermittently. Leverage browser automation to tie specific reminders or meetings to external events such as news alerts, project management tool reports, or customer attrition markers.
- Appointment Booking: Automate the process of booking appointments with service providers, such as doctors, dentists, or hairdressers.
- Calendar Updates: Sync your calendar with external sources, like project management tools or team collaboration platforms, to stay updated on deadlines and events.
- Email Reminders: Automatically send email reminders for upcoming appointments, meetings, or tasks to ensure that you never miss an important deadline.
Content Updates and Management
Headless browsers can assist in automating content updates and management tasks for websites and platforms. They can be used to post new content, update existing assets, or even moderate user-generated content in forums or social media platforms.
- Blog Posting: Schedule and automate the publication of blog posts, ensuring that your content is published consistently and on time.
- Asset Management: Update images, videos, or other media assets across your website or platform by automating the upload process.
- Content Moderation: Monitor user-generated content on forums, social media platforms, or review sites, and automatically flag or remove inappropriate content.
Web Scraping, Web Crawling, and Data Extraction
Headless browser automation can streamline data extraction processes, allowing users to efficiently collect, analyze, and leverage information from various sources. By automating web scraping, crawling, and extraction, users save time, minimize errors, and gain valuable insights from a wealth of data sources.
Competitor and Market Analysis
Browser automation empowers businesses to glean vital insights into their competition and market landscape, leading to more informed decision-making.
- Competitive Analysis: Extract data from competitors’ websites to assess offerings, pricing, and marketing strategies, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses.
- Price Monitoring: Track price fluctuations on e-commerce sites, automating flash sales and updating product descriptions with competitors’ new keywords.
- Social Media Monitoring: Observe brand mentions and relevant keywords on social media platforms, automating actions based on content and sentiment.
Data Collection and Analysis
Utilize headless browser automation to gather, consolidate, and analyze data from diverse sources, delivering valuable insights for businesses and researchers.
- Data Aggregation: Generate live, customized data sets by collecting information from multiple sources, enhancing sales, marketing, and content strategies.
- AI Training Data: Scrape text, images, or other content from websites to produce datasets for training AI algorithms.
- Sentiment Analysis: Compile data for sentiment analysis by extracting reviews, comments, and social media posts, understanding customer opinions.
Industry-Specific Data Collection
Customize headless browser automation for specific industries, enabling targeted data collection and analysis to support informed decision-making processes.
- Job Listings and Recruitment: Extract job listings from various recruitment sites, examining the job market and identifying suitable candidates.
- Event and Ticket Monitoring: Track ticket availability and prices on ticketing websites, gaining insights into event popularity and informing promotional strategies.
- Real Estate Data Collection: Gather property listings, images, descriptions, and prices from real estate websites, building databases and analyzing market trends.
Academic and Research Applications
Browser automation can optimize the data collection process for academic research, enabling more efficient analysis and discovery.
- Academic Research: Scrape publications, research papers, and related materials from academic databases or websites for streamlined data collection.
- Real-time Data Visualization: Generate up-to-date charts, graphs, or infographics, offering real-time data visualization for research projects.
- Citation Tracking: Monitor citations and references across academic publications, identifying emerging trends, influential papers, and potential collaborators.
- Grant and Funding Opportunities: Scrape funding and grant databases or websites to identify suitable opportunities, staying updated on application deadlines and requirements.
Automated Testing and Quality Assurance
Headless browsers play a vital role in ensuring the quality and reliability of web applications. They can be used to perform various types of automated testing, reducing manual effort, and increasing the efficiency of your testing workflow.
This strategy becomes all the more powerful when integrated into your deployment pipeline. Any code destined for production should have to pass a suite of tests first, so that you can be sure no new bugs are introduced.
Functional testing involves verifying that a web application’s features work as intended. Headless browsers can be used to automate this process by simulating user interactions like clicking buttons, filling out forms, and navigating between pages. This ensures that your application functions correctly across different browsers and devices without requiring manual testing.
- Login and Authentication: Ensure users can log in and access protected features of your web application by automating login processes and verifying session management.
- Form Validation: Test form input fields for proper validation, error messages, and successful submissions by automating the process of filling out and submitting forms.
- Navigation and Routing: Verify that navigation elements like menus, breadcrumbs, and links function correctly by automating navigation through the application’s user interface.
Performance testing evaluates how well a web application performs under different loads or conditions. Headless browsers can be employed to simulate multiple users accessing your application simultaneously, enabling you to identify bottlenecks and optimize performance.
- Load Testing: Determine how your application performs under a heavy load by simulating an increasing number of virtual users accessing it concurrently.
- Stress Testing: Identify your application’s breaking point by pushing it to its limits with a high volume of users or requests.
- Response Time Analysis: Measure the time taken for your application to load or respond to user interactions, ensuring that it meets performance benchmarks.
Regression testing involves retesting an existing application after changes have been made to ensure that new bugs haven’t been introduced or old ones resurfaced. Headless browsers can help automate regression tests by quickly running through previously tested scenarios and identifying any discrepancies.
- Code Refactoring: Re-run tests after code has been refactored to ensure that no new issues have been introduced.
- Feature Development: Test existing features after new features have been added to verify that they still function as expected.
- Bug Fix Verification: Confirm that previously identified bugs have been resolved and haven’t caused new issues elsewhere in the application.
Image, Video, and Media Generation
Headless browsers can be harnessed for generating an array of media assets, such as images, animations, PDFs, and more. Customize your offering to unique cohorts—or individual users—increasing conversion, your value proposition, and brand loyalty.
Headless browsers can automatically capture screenshots of web pages or specific elements within a page. This functionality is useful for documenting website layouts, tracking design changes over time, or creating visual representations of data for presentations and reports.
- UI/UX Design Documentation: Automate the capturing of screenshots during design iterations to track changes and improvements in a web application’s user interface, facilitating more efficient design reviews.
- Visual Testing: Regularly capture screenshots of key web pages to monitor visual performance, enabling quick detection of layout issues or unexpected changes.
- Documentation and Tutorials: Create visual guides or step-by-step tutorials for users by automating the generation of relevant screenshots.
- Monitoring Website Changes: Track alterations on websites over time by scheduling automated screenshot captures at regular intervals.
Using headless browsers, developers can dynamically generate custom images for various purposes, such as social share images, quote cards, or badges. This enables the creation of unique, on-brand visuals for social media promotion, marketing campaigns, or gamification initiatives.
- Social Share Images: Automatically generate shareable images with custom text, colors, and branding elements for use on social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn to boost engagement and reach.
- Quote Cards: Create visually appealing images featuring quotes or testimonials from customers or influencers that can be shared on social media platforms or embedded in websites to drive conversions.
- Badges: Generate custom badges or icons for users based on their achievements or milestones within a platform or application, promoting user engagement and loyalty.
- Email Marketing Materials: Create personalized images for email campaigns or marketing materials by dynamically inserting relevant user data or branding elements.
Headless browsers can be employed to automate PDF generation, enabling users to create certificates, legal documents, or other printable materials with a consistent format and style.
- Certificates: Generate personalized certificates for users who complete online courses or pass exams, reinforcing a sense of accomplishment and promoting continued engagement.
- Legal Documents: Create standardized legal documents, such as contracts or agreements, with dynamically populated data from user inputs or databases, ensuring accuracy and uniformity.
- Custom Reports: Produce tailored reports for clients or stakeholders that compile relevant data and insights into a professionally formatted PDF.
- Auto-Updating Slide Decks: Keep presentation materials current by capturing up-to-date data and automatically incorporating it into slide decks as PDFs.
Headless browsers can also be used to create simple animations by capturing a sequence of frames and combining them into an animated GIF or video file. This can be useful for creating loading animations, progress bars, or demonstrating user interactions within an application.
- Personalized GIFs: Generate customized animated GIFs for users based on their preferences or activities, increasing engagement and delight.
- Always Up-to-Date Assets: Ensure that web-based media assets like charts, graphs, or infographics are always current by automating the creation of updated animations when underlying data changes.
- Customized Onboarding Videos: Streamline user onboarding by creating personalized animations that demonstrate specific features or workflows within an application.
Headless browsers can also assist in generating other media assets, such as ebooks or interactive presentations. By automating the creation of these materials, users can ensure consistency and save time in their content production process.
- Ebooks: Generate ebooks with dynamic content, such as personalized recommendations, based on user preferences or browsing history, providing a tailored reading experience.
- Interactive Presentations: Create engaging presentations with interactive elements, such as quizzes or polls, to foster audience participation and gather valuable feedback during events or webinars.
- Generative Games: Develop unique web-based games that dynamically create content or challenges for players, enhancing replayability and user engagement.
Choosing the Right Headless Browser Library
Once you have identified the use-cases for headless browser automation, the next step is to select the right headless browser for your needs. While the web is littered with abandoned browser automation projects, you’ll never stray further than the top three…
Developed by Microsoft, Playwright is a Node.js library that supports multiple browser engines, including Chromium, Firefox, and WebKit. In addition to flexibility, Playwright also boasts the best performance and the most modern API of the bunch.
If you’re starting a new project, Playwright is the way to go.
Created by Google, Puppeteer is a Node.js library that provides a high-level API for controlling headless Chromium or Chrome browsers. Since Playwright is a fork of Puppeteer, they have fairly similar APIs. Having been around longer, Puppeteer also has a larger ecosystem by a small margin.
In our opinion, the critical issue is that Puppeteer only supports Chromium-based browsers. So if you only need Chrome, and you’ve found a puppeteer integration you can’t live without, it makes a fine choice. But in all other cases, go with Playwright.
Selenium is the old dog of the bunch, and it shows. The API is clunky, and the performance is simply not on par with the other options.
Bottom line, use Selenium if you must, but avoid it if you can.
Headless Browsers for Non-JS Devs
Here’s a quick run-down…
- ChromeDP: A Go library that provides a convenient API for controlling Chrome or Chromium browsers using the Chrome DevTools Protocol.
- Agouti: A WebDriver client for Go that supports Selenium, PhantomJS, and ChromeDP.
- Fantoccini: A high-level WebDriver client for Rust that supports multiple browsers, including headless Chrome and Firefox.
- Rust-headless-chrome: A Rust library for controlling headless Chrome or Chromium browsers using the Chrome DevTools Protocol.
- Capybara: A popular Ruby library for simulating user interactions with web applications, Capybara supports multiple drivers, including Selenium WebDriver, headless Chrome and Firefox, and Poltergeist (a PhantomJS driver).
- Watir: A Ruby browser automation library that supports Selenium WebDriver and offers a simple yet powerful API to automate tasks in various browsers, including headless Chrome and Firefox.
- Ferrum: A high-level Ruby API for controlling headless Chrome or Chromium browsers, Ferrum is inspired by Puppeteer and offers a lightweight alternative for browser automation in Ruby.
How can BrowserCat help you create headless browser automations?
BrowserCat is a cutting-edge headless browser platform designed to streamline your automation workflows, while saving you both time and money. We want to help 100x your productivity, because the world will be better for it.
BrowserCat hosts, maintains, and scales your browser swarm for you. Best of all, it only takes a single line of code to integrate your automations with the platform. Yes, this saves you dev costs and headaches, but it also allows us to provide tailor-made APIs for many of the use-cases listed above, including AI augmented endpoints for intelligent data extract and self-healing tests.
We also provide other niceties such as proxy rotation, geolocated browser instances, and dedicated support, to help you quickly offload work that no human should have to do more than once!
Browser automation is addictive. It’s easy, flexible, and so efficient that each automation you create unlocks the time to automate even more of your daily activities. If you’re anything like me, there will come a point where so many of your daily tasks are taken care of that you’ll be able to carve out time to strategize about the future, instead of merely reacting.
By all means, dip your toe in the water and get comfortable. And reach out if you need us. We’re here to help!
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