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Bots, Spiders, And Web Crawlers - What Are They and What Do They Do?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in SafetyMay 17, 2021

In the world of technology, there are some very odd names for things. Some of these terms that you may or may not have heard before are bots, spiders, and web crawlers. But what are they, and what do they do?

web crawlers

What Are Bots?

A bot is an automated software program that performs specific tasks over the internet. One example would be a Googlebot that crawls the entire web indexing web pages for the Google search tool. There are also malicious bots that perform dangerous tasks such as scanning websites, hardware, or computers looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. These are typically called malware bots.

What Is A Web Crawler?

A legitimate bot called a web crawler is generally used to index search pages or perform other functions such as catalog an extensive list of images or files. They can be programmed to collect information and feed it back to a centralized server. 

Google relies heavily on search engine web crawlers and bots, and experts estimate that only about 70% of the entire internet has been indexed properly. That is one reason that Google keeps updating its algorithm to update and supply search results for indexed websites.

Web crawlers look at "metadata" and other pieces of information such as "alt tags" for images. Web crawlers do not experience a website the way visitors do, so they must collect information from the content they can easily read. SEO has become a big topic of interest because metadata about a website can affect its rankings and how it is indexed by Google.

What Are Spider Bots?

Another type of automated internet process is called a spider bot. They troll the web looking for hyperlinks, downloading HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to get a complete picture of the website. Many website owners use a robots.txt file to instruct these automated bots on how to crawl the site, which files are to be included, and which to ignore. 

Other Types of Bots

Indexing bots are not the only types. Regardless of whether they are called spiders, crawlers, or bots, there are various purposes for each. Some of the most commonly used bots include: 

Scraper Bots

There are also scraper bots that read and copy the contents of web pages to archive them or save them for reuse in other forms and locations. If someone has a particularly large e-commerce website with hundreds of products, an excellent way to collect the data about all of them is using a scraper bot.

Malicious Spam Bots

Bots have become an integral part of the hackers' toolbox. They use them to spread malware, ransomware and perform tasks such as sending out spam on behalf of victims. Some are used to collect email addresses or other private/sensitive information from web pages, social media, and even from servers. 

Other malicious bots are used for credential stuffing attacks. That is when a hacker tries stolen username/password combinations from one website on another. Since it could be time-consuming doing it by hand, they create bots to attempt logins in large batches running through their entire stash of stolen credentials. 

Sometimes cybercriminals use spam bots to insert spam into ads, forms, or other parts of legitimate websites so that the owner has no idea, nor do the visitors that soon become victims. 

Some other things malicious bots can do are:

  • Record keystrokes.

  • Collect passwords.

  • Launch DoS attacks.

  • Log financial information and logins.

  • Send spam.

  • Find and exploit flaws and vulnerabilities in software and hardware.

  • Infect computers and add them to a botnet. 

social media bots

Social Media Bots

Another useful type of bot may be used on social media platforms, online tools, or other websites to perform automated tasks such as responding to a message, serve up customized ads, follow users, record likes, and imitate real users. Often these are used to bolster the number of likes or generate bias among a group of like-minded individuals. 

Download Bots

This type of bot downloads software on computers or mobile devices. Again, by automatically downloading apps, these types of bots may be employed simply to boost download figures to show that an app was "downloaded x number of times," making it look popular. Therefore, when you see any type of number related to users, understand it may have been inflated by bots.

What Should You Know About Bots?

Bots are all over the internet, and some of them perform useful tasks that help people. Others are used for malicious purposes to trick people, sway opinion, or impersonate real people to mislead the public about a specific topic. 

It's important to know what bots are, what they do, and how to protect yourself. Always keep your devices updated with the latest security patches, and run good, strong antivirus software to keep an eye on any suspicious bot activity on your computer. 

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