HTML pro-parsing tips

Perl has some fantastic modules for parsing HTML and one of the best is XML::LibXML. It’s an interface to the libxml2 C library; super fast but also super-picky. I’ve often found XML::LibXML croaking on relatively simple - but incorrectly formed HTML. If you find this, do not give up! This article shares 3 simple techniques for overcoming malformed HTML when parsing with XML::LibXML.

Tip 1: turn on recovery mode

If XML::LibXML is croaking on a later part of the HTML, try turning on recovery mode, which will return all of the correctly parsed HTML up until XML::LibXML encountered the error.

use XML::LibXML;

my $xml = XML::LibXML->new( recover => 1 );
my $dom = $xml->load_html( string => $html );

With recovery mode set to 1, the parser will still warn about parsing errors. To suppress the warnings, set recover to 2.

Tip 2: sanitize the input first with HTML::Scrubber

Sometimes recovery mode alone is not enough - XML::LibXML will croak at the first whiff of HTML if there are two doctype declarations for example. In these situations, consider sanitizing the HTML with HTML::Scrubber.

HTML::Scrubber provides both whitelist and blacklist functions to include or exclude HTML tags and attributes. It’s a powerful combination which allows you to create a custom filter to scrub the HTML that you want to parse.

By default HTML::Scrubber removes all tags, but in the case of a duplicate doctype declaration, you just need that one tag removed. Let’s remove all div tags too for good measure:

use HTML::Scrubber;

my $scrubber = HTML::Scrubber->new( deny => [ 'doctype', 'div' ],
                                    allow=> '*' );
my $scrubbed_html = $scrubber->scrub($html);
my $dom = XML::LibXML->load_html( string => $scrubbed_html );

The “deny” rule sets the scrubber blacklist (what to exclude) and the “allow” rule specifies the whitelist (what to include). Here we passed an asterisk (”*”) to allow, which means allow everything, but because we’re denying div and doctype tags, they’ll be removed.

Tip 3: extract a subset of data with a regex capture

If the subset HTML you want to parse has a unique identifier (such as an id attribute), consider using a regex capture to extract it from the HTML document. You can then scrub or immediately parse this subset with XML::LibXML.

For example recently I had to extract an HTML table from a badly-formed web page. Fortunately the table had an id attribute, which made extracting it with a regex a piece-of-cake:

if ( $html =~ /(<table id="t2">.*?<\/table>)/s ) {
    my $dom = XML::LibXML->load_html( string => $1 );

Note the use of the “s” modifier in the regex to match multiline. Many HTML pages contain newlines and you don’t want your match fail because of that.


Hopefully these tips will make parsing HTML with XML::LibXML easier. My GitHub account has a web scraper script that uses some of these tips. If you’re looking for an entirely different approach to parsing HTML, check out XML::Rabbit and HTML::TreeBuilder.

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David Farrell

David is the founder and editor of An organizer of the New York Perl Meetup, he works as a technology consultant in New York City.

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