What Is an API, and Why Does It Matter?
We’re living in an incredibly fast-paced world, where nearly every phrase seems to be abbreviated to save time. Whether purely social (LOL, OMG, TTYL) or strictly business (ROI, CTR, CPA), shorthand has become ubiquitous in the language of business.
But what about API? Perhaps lesser known—but no less powerful—this acronym is the driving force behind virtually all social platforms. Here’s everything you need to know to about these three little letters that pack a whole lot of punch.
What Is an API?
API stands for application programming interface. As it’s a rather complicated concept, let’s break it down by looking at each of its parts.
If you have a smartphone, you are well acquainted with what applications are, i.e., the tools, games, social networks and other software that we use everyday.
Programming is how engineers create all the software that make our lives so much easier.
An interface is a common boundary shared by two applications or programs that allow both to communicate with one another.
So an API is essentially a way for programmers to communicate with a certain application.
API: A Technical Perspective
Kevin Stanton, API Chapter Manager at Sprout Social, offers further insights into the underpinnings of this term.
“API is a precise specification written by providers of a service that programmers must follow when using that service,” he says. “It describes what functionality is available, how it must be used and what formats it will accept as input or return as output. In recent years, the term API colloquially is used to describe both the specification and service itself, e.g., the Facebook Graph API.”
Every time you want to access a set of data from an application, you have to call the API. But there is only a certain amount of data the application will let you access, so you have to communicate to the operator in a very specific language—a language unique to each application.
To help visualize this concept, imagine an API as the middleman between a programmer and an application. This middleman accepts requests and, if that request is allowed, returns the data. The middleman also informs programmers about everything they can request, exactly how to ask for it and how to receive it.
Example of an API
At Sprout, we give people the ability to run reports on their social media as often as they want. But in order for us to get the raw Twitter data needed to populate these reports, we must pull that information from Twitter’s database.
Of course, we can’t send an email to the folks at Twitter whenever we need that information, and for security reasons, they can’t give us the access to go in and help ourselves.
That’s where the API comes in. Our developers have written unique code that streams data from Twitter in real time so that whenever people request analytics from us, our platform is ready to package it all together nicely.
What Is an API Call?
Whenever a developer or tool requests information from an API, they need to call (or, more technically speaking, create a request to) that API. Many open APIs have strict limits on how many times people can make a call in order to limit traffic and not overwhelm the API with requests.
Why Are APIs Important for Business?
Do you use an application that tells you what the current traffic looks like? Or how about an app that shows when the next bus will be at your stop? Most tools like these rely on open APIs to run and pull the most accurate data. Those are both good examples of how open APIs might help you in your everyday life, but here’s how they can help you in business.
1. Businesses Create Apps With APIs
There are many businesses out there that build software and tools that rely on pulling data from open APIs to help streamline a business process in some new way. In fact, without APIs, Sprout, as we know it, would cease to exist.
2. Business People Use Those Apps
APIs are important for business because they allow programmers to build amazing tools that help us do our jobs more effectively. A good example is this keyword tool that accesses Google’s search API to suggest keywords your business should target.
3. Businesses Rely on Open APIs
APIs are also important for the businesses that provide them, because third-party developers build out applications that further the use of the company’s core product. This saves the API provider both time and money. For example, before Reddit came out with its own mobile app, it relied on other tools created by companies looking to monetize that work.
Learn to Use APIs
With the growing popularity of websites that teach people to code, learning to use an API can be done from the comfort of your own home. The site Code Academy even offers lessons that show people how to use APIs to create their own applications.
Of course, if you’d like to use a tool that already has access to all sorts of social media APIs, consider starting a free, 30-day trial with Sprout to gather deeper insights that will further empower your business.