Design & Development

APIs: What Online Merchants Need to Know

Editor’s Note: In our “Need to Know” series, we explain complex web topics on an executive-level, “need to know” basis. For this installment, Contributing Editor Armando Roggio explains application programming interfaces.

The “Need to Know” Series

Application Programming Interfaces

An application programming interface (API) allows one web-based application to interact with another application.

Online merchants can use APIs from vendors or free services to improve their store’s features, add site content, or communicate more readily with customers and partners.

Think of an API as a Set of Instructions

Think of an API as set of instructions that explains how a web developer can operate a particular application.

For example, imagine that an online merchant wants to encourage customers to sign up for a weekly newsletter, but the merchant wants to keep track of recipients in an email marketing tool like Constant Contact, MailChimp, or Bronto.

Each of these email marketing services offers an API, so that the merchant’s web developer can access features from the email marketing service—like adding a recipient to a list (in a database)—from the merchant’s own web server. In this way, customers register for the newsletter on the merchant’s site, but the information is passed from the merchant’s server to the server running the email marketing application.

More specifically, the API would tell the developer what formats could be submitted (XML, for example); how to connect to the application’s servers; what sort of passwords, usernames, or keys would be required; and what kinds of information are available.

APIs Make Your Site, Business Better

Most often, an API will be used to make a store better or to improve business operations by connecting to external applications.

Want to add customer reviews from a third-party vendor to your site? Your web developer will probably use the vendor’s API.

Do you wonder how your ecommerce platform gets real-time shipping rates from FedEx or the United States Postal Service? It is using an API.

What to add the contents of a store’s Twitter feed to the home page? Twitter has an API that will explain to developers how to get the data.

APIs May Require Significant Technical Expertise

Although an API is similar to a set of instructions, it may be the case that those instructions are very complicated or not at all complete. In fact, it is common for an API to assume a significant amount of technical expertise.

An API might tell a developer that it will accept XML, which stands for extensible markup language, and describe how that XML should be formatted. But it won’t necessarily explain how to write the code that produces the XML or formats the XML. That part is entirely up to the developer.

As an analogy, imagine a homeowner is remodeling her kitchen. The homeowner might tell the contractor that she wants oak cabinets, marble tiles, and stainless steel appliances. But she probably won’t provide schematics for building the cabinets, specific instructions about where to get marble tiles or how to install them, or provide the details about how to acquire stainless steel appliances. All of these specifics are left up to the contractor.

With an API, the developer is like the contractor. This means that the merchant will likely need to hire a professional developer to build the connection from one application to another that the API describes.

Summing Up

APIs allow all sorts of web-based applications to interact. This interaction can allow a merchant to add features to a site or improve business automation. But in most cases, connecting via an API will require a professional web developer. For merchants, the key is knowing where an API exists so a connection can be made.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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