Non-developers have often heard the term “API” thrown around in meetings, or read it on software-as-a-service websites, but frequently are confused as to what an API is or why it’s useful. If one were to look up the term in a technology dictionary, they’d find that API stands for Application Programming Interface, but what does that mean, and how are API integrations useful when building a website?
In short, an API is a toolset that makes it easier for developers to use certain technologies. Sometimes, the result is simply a reduction in the time required to build a piece of software. Other times, an API is necessary to get data in and out of an external application. APIs are used by desktop application developers, mobile app developers, and web developers, among others, but today, we’ll focus on the basic concepts of how API integrations are used by websites to enhance functionality.
A Real-Life Website API Integration Example – Facebook Events on the Lake Geneva Country Meats Website
Regal client Lake Geneva Country Meats (LGCM) uses Facebook heavily in its marketing and customer relations activities. One facet of these efforts is posting event information to the LGCM Facebook page. For example, when LGCM hosts a wine tasting in its store, a Facebook event is created to publicize it, and allow people to share it with friends and declare interest in attending.
In addition to on its Facebook page, LGCM would like event information to appear on its website. One way to do this would be to simply create pages on the website for each event and manually copy and paste the data over from Facebook, but this feels like unnecessary work, and a poor use of time. Furthermore, if an event detail changes (for example, the event is rescheduled for a different date), as staff members would have to make this update both on Facebook and on the LGCM website. What if the LGCM website could automatically pull in event data from Facebook, but display it in a way that was easily consumable by a web visitor?
Thankfully, Facebook offers a free API (called the Graph API), which allows apps and websites to send and receive data from Facebook behind the scenes, and deliver it to the end user a way they see fit. One type of data that Facebook makes available via the Graph API is event data.
Regal wrote an API integration to communicate with Facebook’s API, pull in event data, and store and display it on the LGCM website. When an event is modified on Facebook, the website automatically reflects this change soon after. This results in the LGCM staff being required to add and maintain events in only one location (Facebook). If Facebook had not included event data as part of its Graph API, this would not have been possible.
Not all APIs are external – some are written by companies for internal use, by its own developers, only. For APIs provided by third parties, such as Facebook, however, it’s important to note that the third-party API may change or be disabled at any time.
In this example, Facebook could choose to cease offering the Events endpoint of its Graph API. Should this occur, the API integration described above will stop working. Furthermore, the data Facebook chooses to provide via its APIs is 100% up to Facebook, so an ideal integration may not be possible. Finally, the provider of the API may choose to limit what a developer may do with the data, or how they may display it. Some APIs are fee-based, and may include contractual agreements that guarantee data availability and scope over a certain period of time, however it’s always important to understand what can and can’t be relied upon when setting up an API integration.
Other Potential Opportunities for Website API Integrations
Here are just a few examples of ways you could potentially enhance your website via API integrations:
- Allowing users to log in to your website via an external service, such as Google or Facebook
- Providing third-party payment methods, e.g. Apple Pay, on your eCommerce checkout page
- Displaying Twitter status updates on your website, while having control over the visual presentation
- Automatically fetching the latest photos from your company’s Instagram account
- Integrating a third-party scheduling system into your website for users to book appointments
- Syncing stock levels between your eCommerce store and your brick-and-mortar store
APIs can provide incredible flexibility and functionality to website owners (among others). Want to ramp up your company’s web presence, or streamline operations by incorporating API integrations? Don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’d love to have a conversation about how we can help you use these incredible technologies to your advantage.