Wednesday, 26 September 2018

http requests - they're not all the same

This is the answer to a question that I was asked yesterday. I thought that the discussion was such an interesting one that I'd post the reply publicly here.

A common perception is that a request for a web page is simply a request. Why might a server give different responses to different clients? To be specific, why might Integrity / Scrutiny receive one response when testing a url, yet a browser sees something different? What are the differences?


user-agent string

This is sent with a request to identify "who's asking". Abuses of the user-agent string by servers range from sending a legitimate-looking response to search engine bots and dodgy content to browsers, through to refusing to respond to requests that don't appear to come from browsers. Integrity and Scrutiny are good citizens and by default have their own standards-compliant user-agent string. If it's necessary for testing purposes, this can be changed to that of a browser or even a search engine bot.

header fields

A request contains a bunch of header fields. These are specifically designed to allow a server to tailor its content to the client. There are loads of possible ones and you can invent custom ones, some are mandatory, many optional. By default, Scrutiny includes the ones that the common browsers include, with similar settings.  If your own site requires a particular unusual or custom header field / value to be present, you can add them (in Scrutiny's 'Advanced settings'). 

cookies and javascript

Browsers have these things enabled by default, They're just part of our online lives now (though accessibility standards say that sites should be usable without them) but they're options in Scrutiny and deliberately both off by default. I'm discovering more and more sites which will test for cookies being enabled in the browser (with a handshake-type thing) and refuse to serve if not. There are a few sites which refuse to work properly without javascript being enabled in the browser. This is a terrible practice but it does happen, thankfully rarely. Switch cookies on in Scrutiny if you need to. But always leave the javascript option *off* unless your site does this when you switch js off in your browser:
An image showing a blank web page, message: This site requires Javascript to work


GET and HEAD

There are a couple of other things under Scrutiny's Preferences > Links > Advanced (and Integrity's Preferences > Advanced).   'Use GET for all connections' and 'Load data for all connections'. Both will probably be off by default. 
Screenshot of a couple of Scrutiny's preferences, always use GET and load data for all connections

A  browser will generally use GET when making a request (unless you're sending a form) and it will probably load all of the data that is returned.  For efficiency, a webcrawler can use the HEAD method when testing external links (because it doesn't need the actual content of the page, only the status code). If it does use the GET (for internal connections where it does want the content, or if  you have 'always use GET' switched on) and if if doesn't need the page content, it can cancel a request after getting the status code. This very rarely causes a problem, but I have had one or two cases where a large number of cancelled requests to the same server can cause problems.  

'Use GET for all connections' is unlikely to make any visible difference when scanning a site. Using the HEAD method (which by all standards should work) may not always work. but if a link returns any kind of error after using the HEAD method, Integrity / Scrutiny tests the same url again using GET. 

Other considerations

Outside of the particulars of the http request itself are a couple of things that may also cause different responses to be returned to a webcrawler and a browser. 

One is the frequency of the requests. Integrity and Scrutiny will send many more requests in a given space of time than a browser, probably many at the same time (depending on your settings). This is one of the factors involved in LinkedIn's infamous 999 response code. 

The other is authentication. A frequently-asked question is why a link to social media link returns a response code such as 'forbidden' when the link works fine in a browser. Having cookies switched on (see above) may resolve this but we forget that when we visit social media sites we have logged in at some point in the past and our browser remembers who we are. It may be necessary to be authenticated as a genuine user of a site when viewing a page that may appear 'public'.  Scrutiny and Webscraper allow authentication, the Integrity family doesn't.

I love this subject. Comments and discussion are very welcome.

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