What is a Content API?

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Since joining Seabourne, I find myself spending a lot of time talking about content APIs. My social circle is not one of developers; knowledge of how to build a web application is often … lacking. Dinner conversation tends to result in lots of blank looks, so I’ve been working on a useful, non-developer explanation. It’s a valuable thing to wrap your head around because the use of content APIs is expanding rapidly.

In fact, APIs are all around us. You probably already spend significant time interacting with APIs and don’t even realize it. Plus, it’s easy to understand – an API is little more than a template.

What is an API?

As humans, we consume structured information every day in a variety of situations:

  • Flipping through channel listings

  • Preparing a recipe

  • Reviewing bus schedules

  • Checking last night’s box scores

For each of these items, because the information is structured in a certain way, we as humans know what to expect. The channel listings contain the name, time and maybe a short description of the program. Recipes contain ingredients, measurements and instructions. Bus schedules tell you the route number, stops and times. You’ve even created structured data to be consumed by someone else when you fill out a Girl Scout cookie order form.

The online services you use take advantage of structured information. Your iPhone consumes Facebook feeds in a manner similar to your consuming of channel listings. When you open Facebook on your phone, a lot of information streams from the Facebook server. Your phone discerns what’s a status update, check-in or comment because, like the channel listings, the information is structured with tags followed by content. This sort of standardized structure allows different web applications to talk to each other.

So, APIs provide structure to information so computers can use and understand that information, the same way you use and understand a recipe or bus schedule.

What is a content API? How is that different?

Traditionally, we’ve used APIs to transfer data between applications (such as those status updates, box scores and recipes) but not full-fledged content.

To exchange content between applications, we need to transfer not only the data but an understanding of the meaning of the data, inferring the relationships between the data (something humans do with great ease; it’s a tremendously harder task for computers). Those relationships between the data to be transferred can be described as the taxonomy of content. Stay with me here…

Taxonomies, similar to categories, are ways of classifying and understanding the content, kind of the like the Dewey Decimal System on steroids. Wikipedia has a really nice, simple example:

…for example, “car” might appear with both parents “vehicle” and “steel mechanisms”; technically, this merely means that ‘car’ is a part of several different taxonomies. A taxonomy might also be a simple organization of kinds of things into groups, or even an alphabetical list.

The inclusion of taxonomies with the content (“vehicle,” “steel mechanisms”) give it meaning and far greater detail than what we’ve been able to work with in the past. This structure allows us to use applications to draw much more powerful relationships between content than was ever possible.

And that’s what makes a content API valuable: it contains not only tags that tell a computer application where the title, main content and subheads are, but also information that gives meaning and context to the data in the content.

Why are content APIs so important? Why the emerging focus on them?

Another frequent question is, “But if I can understand the content, why do I care if the

computer can understand?” There’s one particular explanation that sums it up nicely: information discovery.

Because content APIs enable developers to expose greater amounts of information to users, you can find the content you’re looking for much more quickly.

And you can organize this mass of content in much more powerful and flexible ways — since the application now realizes there are taxonomies associated with the content it’s downloading. The application can sort, package and serve in new and different ways.

Content, when combined with other content, becomes dramatically more powerful. Take Google Maps. Google Maps has integrated the Wikipedia API, so when you look up a place and select “Wikipedia” from the menu, you get the information Wikipedia has alongside the Maps’ information. There are millions of these types of applications and reasons for combining content APIs.

As more and more content providers use this concept, content APIs will become a more powerful part of your daily life. Your computer, smart phone, iPad, and every other device you use to access the Internet will enable you to consume more and more dynamic information in the coming years.

We’re just on the edge of learning how to leverage application-aided understanding of the data that’s available, and the future is very exciting.

Who is using content APIs?

Content APIs are increasingly being created and refined by the largest and highest profile content creators on the web. To learn more about specific applications of the concept, follow these links: