Using openCypher as a webscraper

openCypher is a query language for property graph databases. If you squint slightly, an HTML document describes a property graph. Can we use openCypher for webscraping?

I’ve spent the last two years professionally working on building a query engine that supports openCypher. Over those two years, I’ve come to really like a few things about the language. It’s very visual, and that makes it relatively easy for non-technical folks to get started using it. It’s also pretty ergonomic to write - especially when you want to query relationships between objects. Oftentimes, when I’m working on something involving webscraping, what I really care about is to query against the structure of the webpage. I’m sometimes looking for a specific descendant within a div of some class, or maybe I want to extract all elements of a certain tag and then get their children. These are tasks that could be expressed easily within openCypher. We could maybe imagine something like this:

// Get all links within a `foo` div.
MATCH (parent:div {class: "foo"})-[*]->(link:a) RETURN link.href

// Get children of all `code` elements and concatenate their contents
MATCH (parent:code)-->(child) RETURN sum(child.innerText)

Expressing the same thing in javascript or python is also possible, but tedious, and the syntax isn’t as intuitive in my opinion.

Here’s a proof of concept:

(Initialization can take a minute or two)

Before I started thinking about this problem, I was already writing my own open source implementation of openCypher in python. The project is called sPyCy and it supports most of the language. One of sPyCy’s key features is that it allows easily swapping out components of the engine such as the underlying graph representation, the pattern matcher, and even the expression evaluator. This means that rather than just being a database engine, it’s more of a library for integrating openCypher as a frontend to whatever you want. In the context of webscraping, this means that we could, in theory, write a high performance, low memory overhead, graph backend that parses HTML documents, and doesn’t require explicit preprocessing steps/overhead (in the example we will implement in this blog post, we won’t achieve better efficiency than preprocessing, but it’s just a proof of concept).

Implementing a webscraper using sPyCy

The entry point to sPyCy is a class called CypherExecutorBase. This class is responsible for interpreting the query and invoking relevant subcomponents. Here’s a salient snippet from it’s definition:

class CypherExecutorBase(Generic[NodeType, EdgeType]):
    graph: Graph[NodeType, EdgeType]
    table: pd.DataFrame = field(
        default_factory=lambda: CypherExecutorBase._default_table()

    expr_eval: type[
        ExpressionEvaluator[NodeType, EdgeType]
    ] = ConcreteExpressionEvaluator[NodeType, EdgeType]
    matcher: type[Matcher[NodeType, EdgeType]] = DFSMatcher[NodeType, EdgeType]

In this definition, Graph, ExpressionEvaluator, and Matcher are all abstract base clases. expr_eval and matcher are not instances of a class but rather the class type itself, and are instantiated during runtime. Graph is an instance itself. One thing to note is that the whole class is parameterized on NodeType and EdgeType which are the types that the underlying Graph will use to represent nodes and edges respectively.

Let’s take a look at a Graph implementation that will enable webscraping. Note that this isn’t quite what’s running in the demo above, for reasons discussed later.

from dataclasses import dataclass, field
from typing import Any, Dict, List, Mapping, Tuple

from bs4 import BeautifulSoup

from spycy.graph import Graph

NodeType = int
EdgeType = Tuple[int, int]

class SoupGraph(Graph[NodeType, EdgeType]):
    """A Graph implementation that maps graph access to a HTML DOM"""

    soup: BeautifulSoup
    node_map: Dict[int, Any] = field(default_factory=dict)
    edge_map: Dict[Tuple[int, int], Any] = field(default_factory=dict)

    def __post_init__(self):
        self.node_map = {
            hash(s): {
                "labels": [],
                "properties": {"attrs": s.attrs, "text": s.text},
                "obj": s,
            for s in self.soup.find_all()

        for n, node in self.node_map.items():
            for c in node["obj"].children:
                self.edge_map[(n, hash(c))] = {"type": "child", "properties": {}}

    def nodes(self) -> Mapping[NodeType, Any]:
        return self.node_map

    def edges(self) -> Mapping[EdgeType, Any]:
        return self.edge_map

    def out_edges(self, node: NodeType) -> List[EdgeType]:
        el = self.node_map[node]["obj"]
        return [(node, hash(child)) for child in el.children if is not None]

    def in_edges(self, node: NodeType) -> List[EdgeType]:
        el = self.node_map[node]["obj"]
        return [(node, hash(el.parent))]


This implementation is using BeautifulSoup4 to do the actual parsing of HTML, and then creating maps to represent nodes and edges. Strictly speaking, this isn’t actually necessary. All we really need is a way to provide a unique identifier for nodes and edges, but this makes the example simpler. This is made possible because the return types of Graph.nodes() and Graph.edges() is set to be Mapping instead of Dict - this allows the returned object to not actually materialize all nodes or edges, and instead could return an object that defines __getitem__ to allow only loading nodes or edges that are actually accessed.

Some other methods are ommitted here for brevity, but a link to the full code is availible below.

Next, we need to actually create an implementation of CypherExecutorBase.

from spycy.spycy import CypherExecutorBase

class SoupCypherExecutor(CypherExecutorBase[NodeType, EdgeType]):
    """Enable openCypher queries against a SoupGraph"""

    def __init__(self, input_: Path):
        """input_ should be a Path to an HTML document"""
        with as f:
            soup = BeautifulSoup(, features="html5lib")
        soup_graph = SoupGraph(soup)

And that’s it! Now we can load a file and run queries against it, like so:

exe = SoupCypherExecutor(args.filename)
all_div_children: List[NodeType] = list(exe.exec("match (a:div)-->(b) return a")["a"])

The full code for this example, can be found here.

Making a browser demo

To make this work in the browser we can run sPyCy via pyodide. As a result, instead of using BeautifulSoup, we can instead use the HTML parser within the browser itself! The code for doing so can be found here. While this demo works, if we replaced the pattern matcher implementation entirely, we could build a more performant scraper that instead translates every pattern into querySelector/querySelectorAll calls.

Future work?

It blows my mind that with sPyCy this was achievable in less than 100 lines of python. I think this could be even extended to do so much more. For example, I can imagine that one could write a custom Graph implementation that could support webcrawling as well. There’s still work to be done on sPyCy itself, but I think it has potential to be actually useful!

Written on May 11, 2023