In your search for how to improve your site’s performance, you may have come across the acromym API.¬†Your instincts may have told you that this was something pretty geeky, and it probably didn’t concern you. But if you stopped reading the article at that point, you might have missed an important new tool or feature that you could incorporate into your site for your customers. So here’s the non-technical explanation of what an API is, what it isn’t, and how APIs can improve your customer’s experience on your website.

Meet Mike, Online Entrepreneur

Mike has an online store. He sells parts for musical instruments. Most of the time he has what his customers need. But every once in a while he gets a request for something out of the ordinary. So Mike has to call up his supplier to see if they can special order the part. The sales representative has to put Mike on hold, look up the part in her computer, then tell Mike whether the part is in stock, and how long it will take to ship to his store. Mike then looks up his customer information, tell it to the sales representative, and complete the order.

Fast forward a few months. Mike’s store was featured in a local newspaper, which led to an online interview, which in turn created a jump in business. Except that all of the press focused on his ability to locate “hard to find” instrument parts. Now, Mike is calling his supplier twelve times a day, and when they don’t have the part, he has to spend more time hunting down the part from other suppliers. Business is doing great, but there has to be a better way to help customers.

Mike hires Marc to streamline the process of ordering special items. Marc calls the parts supplier and talks to their technical person, who tells Marc yes. there’s a search API for looking up parts, and sends him instructions on how to create the code for the search page. Marc adds a private web page to Mike’s website, and when Mike wants to look up an item, all he has to do is go to the private search page, fill out the form that asks the same questions the sales representative keeps asking Mike when he calls; manufacturer, part name, instrument type, color, size, etc. When Mike hits the search button, the form sends all the information Mike entered directly to the computer at the supplier’s warehouse. The form already knows Mike’s customer information (Marc programmed it in), so he doesn’t have to keep it on a sticky note attached to his screen. The web page receives the response, then formats it so Mike can clearly see what the supplier has in stock. Now instead of two hours on the phone, Mike can handle the same number of requests in a fraction of the time.

As time goes on, Mike has Marc open the search page up publicly, so anyone can do a search. Marc also ties in the search API to the ordering system, so now when a customer places an order, the special order part is ordered immediately from the supplier, reducing Mike’s turnaround time for his customers. Mike even had Marc build an API for his site, so now other online music stores can do a search on Mike’s site.

API, Plain and Simple

API stands for Application-Programmer¬†Interface. Simply put, it describes a set of rules that a programmer (that’s me) can use to retrieve (or submit) data from (or to) an app, program, or website that he or she hasn’t built. Programs like rules, and programmers like rules. The rules typically involve how a particular request is structured, so the receiving site will be able to understand the request and fulfill it successfully, much like the form in the example. It can also specify how the information is returned, so that the programmer can then process the information for his or her customer’s site without too much hassle.

Using an API from a trusted source doesn’t open your website or computer up to anything malicious. You’re fetching data, which can’t be run like a computer program or virus. If you need to send data, you will almost certainly have to send some sort of user credentials so your request can be applied to your account. Setting up that information is the responsibility of your developer. Also, an API doesn’t typically download a tremendous amount of data at once, so your pages will still load quickly.

One of the greatest benefits to using an API to retrieve data is that you aren’t responsible for the constant maintenance and upkeep of the data. Years ago, companies with data would make huge spreadsheets available for download. Programmers would have to schedule the download, then process (parse) the information into their own sites. That meant a missed or failed download would create a discrepancy in the data, and even if everything went according to plan, the data could still be a day out of date, which was especially frustrating when it came to prices and inventory/stock.

APIs exist for hundreds of services of all different types. Marc Gottlieb Creative Solutions has built systems that use APIs using Google Maps, a private dentist database, an advertising service, a CRM, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, Authorize.net, YouTube, Amazon, eBay, PayPal, mailing lists, weather, and currency, just to name a few. Others exist for everything from accounting to SEO analysis. Most APIs are free up to a certain number of requests per day, typically ten thousand or so, depending on the nature of the data. If your site is busier than that, then it’s likely you can afford to pay a small fee for more daily requests.

Using data from other sites to enhance the service you provide is a smart way to improve your customer experience, without having to curate and maintain your own content.