For the past several days this week I've been working on various APIs. So when I sat down to write a blog post, that is all that came to mind. It's kind of like when Rivers Cuomo got his second wind and all he did was write songs about writing songs. I thought it would be wise to go ahead and give way to the impulse and tell my readers a little about what APIs are and what their place is on your website.
The word API, as most technology terms, is an acronym. API stands for Application Programming Interface. It's a set of code (programming) that allows certain functionality (application) between two or more systems (interface). It's sort of like a go-between or a translator. Think of your operating system. Windows, Lion and iOS are all forms of user interfaces. Using code they allow you to do things on your computer. I know it sounds completely removed, but odds are you are not a computer programmer. You don't use your computer with binomial commands. You have an operating system that does that for you. It takes your commands (that you understand) and translates them into 1s and 0s (that your computer understands).
We computer nerds can, in theory, script anything. Right? ... so why use an API? The critical part of the API is the Interface part. APIs allow functionality and access to information that is not part of your website or hosted on your server.
Site to Site:
Sometimes these interfaces are simply site to site constructions. Common examples would be Google Maps, Twitter Feeds or Facebook Like Boxes. All three of these APIs allow information from other sites to be displayed and put to use on your site. Can you imagine going up to the National Gallery and asking to use their Lorenzo de' Medici in your foyer? You would be laughed out of the building. But, call up Google and ask for their entire map system and you've got it!
Site to Store:
Perhaps the most profitable correlation would be site to store. The better way of saying that might be site to cash-register! There are companies like Vanco and PayPal with APIs that allow purchases, contributions and other forms of payment through your site. If you don't really want an online store but do want the capability to collect money, these are great options. My clients that use Vanco have been very pleased.
Site to Systems:
The most exciting interfaces to me are site to system. This allows your site to communicate with your internal computer system. Right now I am working with ICON on a couple of APIs for a church outside of Atlanta. The APIs interfaces their website with their own computer systems. They will be able to (for example) display all of their calendar events and password protected membership information without having to update or sync their site.
APIs matter because they add functionality to your site. They give people reason to come back to your site. In the end this helps your brand, your SEO and your wallet.