Coding with Jesse

Using PHP's empty() Instead of isset() and count()

October 20th, 2008

I often work with data arrays in PHP as a way to pass information around or store information in sessions. When you work with these, you can't always assume that all properties are defined. I had some conditional logic code in PHP that was only supposed to execute if an array contained any values:

$data = array(
   'text' => array( 'hello', 'world' ),
   'numbers' => array( 43, 2, 55 )

if (count($data['text'])) {
   // do something with $data['text']

But then I was in a situation where $data['text'] may or may not be defined. So I was going to update my if statement like so:

if (isset($data['text']) && count($data['text'])) {
   // do something

But that looks kind of messy. I don't really like isset() but it is a necessary evil to avoid "Undefined" errors. Or is it?

if (!empty($data['text'])) {
   // do something

empty() to the rescue - it returns true if $data['text'] is undefined, or if it is an empty array, or if it is false or null or 0. So !empty() is what I'm really trying to determine, and it works great.

For more info, see: empty() at

Saving data to a file with PHP

February 24th, 2008

Lately, I've been skipping using MySQL in situations where I just want to store a few variables, like configuration options, and don't necessarily want the hassle of setting up a database.

You can easily store data to a file using serialize and unserialize to turn a PHP object into a string, and then read and write the string in a file.

Here are a few functions that do just that:

function get_data($filename) {
    // create file if it doesn't exist
    if (!file_exists($filename)) {

    return unserialize(file_get_contents($filename));

function get_option($filename, $key) {
    $data = get_data($filename);
    return $data[$key];

function set_option($filename, $key, $value) {
    $data = get_data($filename);
    $data[$key] = $value;

    // write to disk
    $fp = fopen($filename, 'w');
    fwrite($fp, serialize($data));

// probably should put somewhere off the web root
$config = '../config.dat';

set_option($config, 'width', 1024);
echo get_option($config, 'width'); // will echo 1024

So there you have it. Feel free to use or modify this code as much as you like. If anyone has an idea for rewriting it to be cleaner, please share in the comments.

Easy web scraping with PHP

February 17th, 2008

Web scraping is a technique of web development where you load a web page and "scrape" the data off the page to be used elsewhere. It's not pretty, but sometimes scraping is the only way to access data or content from a web site that doesn't provide RSS or an open API.

I'm not going to discuss the legal aspects of scraping, as it may be considered copyright infringement in some situations. However, there are also perfectly legal reasons to need to scrape, like if you have permission.

To make things really easy, we're going to let the power of regular expressions do all the work for us. If you're not familiar with regular expressions, you may want to google for a tutorial. Here is the documentation for PHP regular expression syntax.

First, we start off by loading the HTML using file_get_contents. Next, we use preg_match_all with a regular expression to turn the data on the page into a PHP array.

This example will demonstrate scraping this web site's blog page to extract the most recent blog posts. This is just for demo purposes - of course, the RSS feed is much better suited for this.

// get the HTML
$html = file_get_contents("");

Here is what the HTML looks like for the blog posts:

<ul id="main">
        <h1><a href="[link]">[title]</a></h1>
        <span class="date">[date]</span>
        <div class="section">

So we will use a regular expression that looks for all the li elements and capture the content using parentheses at the appropriate places (link, title, date & content).

    '/<li>.*?<h1><a href="(.*?)">(.*?)<\/a><\/h1>.*?<span class="date">(.*?)<\/span>.*?<div class="section">(.*?)<\/div>.*?<\/li>/s',
    $posts, // will contain the blog posts
    PREG_SET_ORDER // formats data into an array of posts

foreach ($posts as $post) {
    $link = $post[1];
    $title = $post[2];
    $date = $post[3];
    $content = $post[4];

    // do something with data

There's a lot going on inside that regular expression, but there are really only a few "tricks" that are used. Anytime I want to say "skip over whatever is between" I use .*?. And any time I want to say "match whatever is in here" I use (.*?). And lastly, the s at the end tells PHP to allow the dot . to match newlines. That's about all there is to it.

The regular expression will only match blog posts, because they are the only <li> elements that contain an <h1>, <span class="date"> and <div class="section">.

Web scraping is highly unreliable - if the HTML structure were to change this code would break instantly. However, it's often quite easy to write this code, and usually produces a perfectly usable hack solution.