“Application programming interface (API) is a set of subroutine definitions, protocols, and tools for building software and applications.” – Wikipedia
If you’re not a developer or programmer, you may be looking at that sentence and thinking to yourself; I still don’t know what that means. APIs can seem like a complicated piece of developer jargon, but their varied uses, and ability to elegantly solve business needs, make them something worth knowing about. Programmers use APIs to build tools which allow us (marketers, users, businesses) to do jobs more easily.
What Is an API and How Does it Work?
An API is code that has been created to tell websites and applications how to talk to one another, and what information to share when they do talk. Generally sites don’t share all their code, but they still want some of their information to be shared with, and used by, other sites.
APIs work by receiving requests and sending responses. They may limit the number of requests (pulls) to help with volume so that they don’t get overloaded with billions of asks a minute. If you have a toddler, or have spent anytime around them, you know that too many questions at the same time can be crazy making. They also specify the types of information that is returned, and in what form. Keeping the information they return consistent is important because if they send an answer a different way each time, it will be impossible for the people making the request to really use the data. For example, how would you feel if every time you went to your local coffee shop you ordered the same thing, but each time they delivered something different? When you’re expecting a sweet coffee drink and get a bitter green tea instead, it just doesn’t give your day the start you want.
Who uses APIs and Why?
Say for example you have a site that sells books. You want people who come to your site to be able to see the reviews that have been posted to a popular book review site. That review site though? It’s huge, and it’s not about to share all its information with you. Now what? Now you need access to that site’s API, that’s what.
Most sites are using at least one API, and most people have seen an API in action, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time. Have you ever added an event to your calendar, submitted a form on a website, or linked your social accounts so that you only had to post in one place and have it show up on every account? If you’ve done any of those things, you can thank an API. If you’re feeling really nice, thank the developer who created the API, and the one who created the pull request.
Ready to Dive Deeper?
This is a quick look at API Integrations and what they mean for you. There’s a ton of information out there, here are a few places to start if you want to get further into APIs.