Type Checking Beautiful Soup


November 29, 2020

Static type checking in Python can quickly verify whether your code is open to certain bugs. But it only works if it knows the types of external libraries. I’ve already introduced how to add type stubs for libraries without type annotations. But what if we have a complex library like BeautifulSoup that uses a lot of recursion, magic methods and operated on unknown data?

With some small changes to your code you can make it typecheck with BeautifulSoup. This helped me catch some places where I could have got an error when None was returned (the Billion Dollar Mistake). The naive way to do this requires peppering your code with assertions, but a much better way is to use CSS selectors.

Consider something that extracts a the text from a h1 tag like this:

import bs4

soup = bs4.BeautifulSoup(html, "html5lib")
data = soup.h1.b.get_text()

In the source this is resolved with __getattr__:

    def __getattr__(self, tag):
        """Calling tag.subtag is the same as calling tag.find(name="subtag")"""
        #print("Getattr %s.%s" % (self.__class__, tag))
        if len(tag) > 3 and tag.endswith('Tag'):
            # BS3: soup.aTag -> "soup.find("a")
            tag_name = tag[:-3]
                '.%(name)sTag is deprecated, use .find("%(name)s") instead. If you really were looking for a tag called %(name)sTag, use .find("%(name)sTag")' % dict(
            return self.find(tag_name)
        # We special case contents to avoid recursion.
        elif not tag.startswith("__") and not tag == "contents":
            return self.find(tag)
        raise AttributeError(
            "'%s' object has no attribute '%s'" % (self.__class__, tag))

I could annotate this, but if I don’t annotate all the other functions and attributes this could lead to incorrectly inferred attributes, and that’s a lot of annotation. Instead I could just use my code above to use find directly.

data = soup.find("h1").find("b").get_text()

The BeautifulSoup code has some sort of type annotations in the docstring which makes it much easier to annotate. It tells us the return type of find is bs4.element.Tag | bs4.element.NavigableString. Looking at the implementation it just returns the first results of find_all, or None if there isn’t one. The docstring for find_all tells us that it’s a ResultSet (a subclass of list) of PageElements. It turns out that Tag and NavigableString are PageElements so this more or less lines up. So putting this together we have a first implementation of a type stub at bs4/element.pyi

from typing import Optional

class PageElement:

class Tag(PageElement):
    def find(
        name: Optional[str] = None,
        attrs={}, recursive=True, text=None, **kwargs
    ) -> Optional[PageElement]: ...
    def get_text(
        self, separator: str = "",
        strip: bool = False
    ) -> str: ...

Trying to typecheck now comes up with an error:

error: Item "None" of "Optional[PageElement]" has no attribute "find"

This makes a good point; what if the page doesn’t have an h1? I have to do something, perhaps in this case I know my pages will contain a h1 and so this isn’t a problem. The same is true for the b inside the h1, but this is more common, and maybe we have a default action here. I can either suppress the type error with an explicit assertion (for the h1) or explicitly handle the None case (for the b):

h1_tag = soup.find("h1")
assert h1_tag is not None
h1b_tag = h1_tag.find("b")
if h1b_tag:
    data = h1b_tag.get_text()
    data = None

But now I get a different error:

error: "PageElement" has no attribute "find"
error: "PageElement" has no attribute "get_text"

Neither PageElement nor NavigableString have a find or get_text method. But I can’t actually see with this usage how I can get a NavigableString (maybe I can with a certain set of arguments to find). So I could explicitly declare this with an ugly bunch more assertions:

h1_tag = soup.find("h1")
assert h1_tag is not None
assert isinstance(h1_tag, bs4.Tag)
h1b_tag = h1_tag.find("b")
if h1b_tag:
    assert isinstance(h1b_tag, bs4.Tag)
    data = h1b_tag.get_text()
    data = None

This is pretty horrible. But there’s a better way with CSS selectors. They can represent all sorts of complex relationships with combinators, in this case to find a bold element in a h1 the selector is h1 b (using the descendent combinator). By constructing some path with CSS Selectors we only need to check whether the whole path is null, not every step of the way. CSS Selectors are a similar power to XPath, but you can test them in a browser console with document.querySelectorAll

BeautifulSoup has CSS selector methods; select for multiple results, and select_one for the first result (or None if there aren’t any). According to the types in the code they always return Tag so there’s no need to worry about NavigableString or other types of PageElement. We can add these to our type stub:

class Tag(PageElement):
    def select_one(
        self, selector: str, namespaces: Optional[Dict[str, str]] = None, **kwargs: str
    ) -> Optional[Tag]: ...
    def select(
        self, selector: str, namespaces: Optional[Dict[str, str]] = None, **kwargs: str
    ) -> List[Tag]: ...

Then we have a much simpler method, that gets a good tradeoff between simplicity and capturing the cases where the tag is absent.

h1b_tag = soup.select_one("h1 b")
if h1b_tag:
  data = h1b_tag.get_text()
  data = None

That’s enough to get a long way with type checking BeautifulSoup. For more check out my tips on using BeautifulSoup.