Even if you don't realize it, you likely encounter APIs constantly throughout the day. These Application Programming Interfaces constantly work behind the scenes to improve your digital experience. APIs can help you do everything from embedding Instagram photos in your app to allowing your customers to pay using PayPal.
If you're building a web app and facing the question of which API to use, you might feel pretty stumped. Maybe you feel pretty confident that you'll want to incorporate major APIs like the Facebook API or Google Map APIs, but you also need some more specific interfaces at the core of your app. While using existing APIs can speed up the development process quite a bit, there are also some drawbacks and risks associated with going this route.
Wherever you are on your API discovery journey, let's look at the factors you'll want to consider to choose the best API for your web project.
An Application Programming Interface (API) is a mechanism that allows two different software components to communicate with one another while also allowing users to access an application. The role of API has a huge range, encompassing everything from online payment processing to incorporating location-based data.
When you search for an API for a specific task, you'll probably find that there are plenty of different options to choose from that offer different levels of support, documentation, and more.
You'll find that the right API can significantly speed up your development process. However, there are also drawbacks to the different API options out there, and you'll want to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each before making a decision.
In some cases, you might find that building your own API makes sense for your web project. While this can be more expensive upfront, you'll likely find that your web app is more future-proof and resilient. We'll discuss this option a bit more later on in the article.
Developers typically work with four primary types of APIs that are categorized by both their scope and their intended audience.
Private APIs are APIs that organizations use internally to improve transparency and productivity. These APIs aren't accessible to third-party developers and are just for private, internal use.
Open APIs are available for external use. Also known as public APIs, these sometimes require a subscription fee, usually tiered based on uses. Some open APIs, on the other hand, are free to use.
Partner APIs are shared externally, but only with third parties that have a business relationship with the API provider.
Composite APIs allow you to compile data from different applications as well as bundle calls or requests. Rather than needing to make a number of separate API calls one after the other, a composite API simplifies the process by only requiring that you make one API call.
For the less technologically inclined, it can be difficult to understand exactly what it is that an API does. Though we may not realize it in our day-to-day life, APIs are hard at work just about everywhere you look these days.
One common example of API usage is weather data. You can find weather snippets on Apple's Weather app, Google Search, and on your smart home devices. For instance, if you google "weather" plus the name of any city, you'll see a rich snippet at the top of the search results that contain the forecast and current weather conditions in that location.
This information is sourced from a third party through the use of an API, which quickly communicates up-to-date weather information that Google can then easily reformat.
Another example of an API at work is paying through PayPal. When you are on a site purchasing a product or service, and you see the "Pay with PayPal" button, you are witnessing a function that is built with APIs.
Similarly, anytime you are on a website that lets you log in using Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or some other platform, you're encountering another instance of API usage. When an application uses this type of API, the API will check to see if the user is already logged in through a specific platform every time the app loads. If the user isn't already signed in, a pop-up will appear that asks the user to confirm that they want to log-in using their social media username and password.
Once the user confirms that they want to sign in using this method, the API sends the identification information to the app so it can proceed with the login process.
If you've ever looked at an app that has Instagram posts embedded in the app, you're also looking at an API in action. Businesses can embed user-generated content into their apps to encourage leads to convert through social proof using Instagram APIs and get help with analysis, metrics, and more.
Finally, a fifth example of API usage that most people encounter at one point or another is travel booking. There are tons of travel sites these days that are able to show you the cheapest travel options for thousands of flights and destinations in no time at all.
If you've ever wondered how this is possible, the answer is often by using a third-party API. These APIs collect tons of data from providers about hotel and flight availabilities and are able to communicate with the provider should you choose to book accommodations or flights through these means.
It's essential to make the right choice the first time when choosing an API for your web project. When you choose the wrong API provider, you could find yourself in vendor lock-ins that are difficult to break free from. At best, choosing the wrong API can still be a major source of time loss.
There are a number of different factors you'll want to consider when you are comparing and selecting APIs.
Of course, one important piece of information is how much the various API options you're considering will cost you. Different APIs have their own pricing methods, ranging from charging a monthly rate to pricing per request.
Tying your web app to an API isn't a small decision, and you'll want to make sure that you can afford the cost in relation to your worst and best-case scenario projections. You'll also need to consider whether there is room to grow with any given API based on your expectations for your web app.
Additionally, you'll want to consider whether an API provider can choose to increase your pricing down the road or if you are locked into a specific rate. Considering that switching APIs isn't necessarily an easy or affordable feat, you'll want to make sure that any API you choose to use won't surprise you with a rate hike in a few months or years.
One important factor to explore with your different API options is the API limits that employ a request threshold per IP or API Key. These caps exist for several reasons– both to prevent abuse and sometimes to influence you to upgrade your subscription.
Though these caps are useful in certain regards, they can add complexity in the eyes of a developer. Essentially, they have to keep an eye on the request rate to ensure that they aren't going beyond the API limit.
You might decide to find an API that has a higher limit or no cap at all to reduce the extra time and cost of monitoring your request rate.
When you're choosing an API, it can be easy to overlook the question of customer and community support. However, you're definitely going to want to know that someone will be there to answer your questions promptly if anything goes wrong.
Whether you have questions about timeouts, broken requests, API limits, or anything else, there are certain questions that only your API provider will be able to answer.
During your research process, look into whether there are support forums hosted by the API provider. Search around for information from other users about the provider's reputation for responding to support tickets in a useful and timely way.
You can also look into whether there is a robust community surrounding the API that is active and comprised of helpful users. While this doesn't necessarily take the place of direct customer support, it can be good to know that there is a place you can go with questions to receive advice and relevant answers.
Before choosing the first API that seems to fit your needs, you'll also want to make sure that you're making an above-board decision. Verifying that the data you're purchasing was acquired legally and wasn't illicitly scraped is essential.
Determining what country your API provider is based in is also important information to collect.
Have you been working with a developer on your web app, but it just isn't working out? Be sure to read our guide to changing app developers mid-project.
When choosing an API, take a look at how comprehensive the documentation is for your various options. The ideal API will have properly explained parameters and plenty of clear examples for you to look through.
It can also be useful to have support for your programming language of choice in the form of example scripts or an SDK. You can save a lot of time by using existing libraries, both by reducing the amount of time you spend debugging and decreasing the time input during the development process.
Another absolutely essential consideration is what happens to your web project if your API disappears. Building a strategy to deal with losing an API you rely on is important to make sure that your project and business aren't destroyed in the process.
API shutdowns can happen for a number of different reasons. One common culprit is that the company simply goes out of business. It's also not uncommon for APIs to be shut down when the tech underlying the API becomes obsolete. Twitter's "share count" API was one major example.
Are you in the beginning stages of developing your web app? Check out this guide to learn how to build a product development roadmap to keep your project on track, on schedule, and within your budget.
APIs allow developers to build off of someone else's work when creating a web product or app. You might find that it makes sense to build your own API to use internally in order to gather the necessary data on your own. One company that has an internal API that isn't available to external developers is Quora, which uses its own API to allow different parts of the site to communicate with one another and keep the data in their web and mobile apps in sync.
When you build an internal API, you can ensure that your web app is far more immune to problems that could crop up with third-party APIs in the future.
While it can cost more upfront to develop your own API, you might find that it's well worth the price due to the fact that you can avoid limitations, data caps, and potential cost issues.
It's worth noting that there's also the possibility that you could sell access to your API after development. This can be a great way to recoup your investment and even potentially turn a profit, depending on the nature of your API.
You've got a great idea that you want to turn into a reality. You have a lot of choices to make at this juncture– namely, do you want to learn how to develop a web app on your own, or do you want to hire it out? Should you compile a team of freelancers, or should you hire a web app development agency to get the job done?
If you're trying to determine who to partner with in the creation of your web app, you've come to the right place. At Planetary, we love helping companies of all sizes turn their brilliant ideas into actual digital products.
Interested in working with us? Feel free to say hello and tell us about your project!
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