Toward the end of 2012, I read an interesting article theorizing that Google will be crawling APIs instead of mobile websites in the future.
API means Application Programming Interface which allows software, including websites and mobile apps, to provide direct integration based on functions permitted by the API.
Websites and mobile apps use APIs predominantly to share content including photos and videos from one site to another, for example, posting a Flickr photo from that site or mobile app/operating system directly onto Facebook, as well Mashups. This often includes permitted sharing of personal information to do so.
In this article, Dan Cristo of Catalyst believes APIs are/is the mobile search puck we should skate to, while I feel APIs may ultimately sharpen the search engines’ skates in getting to the best mobile Web “puck.”
How APIs Could Influence Mobile Search
1. Direct access to information
APIs can provide timely, immediate access to database information, which in turn the search engines can use for real time results. For this to work in scale, APIs would need a uniform standard and either open or express permissions for search engines to access.
2. Integration signals
The ease of integration APIs provide can be a signal to the search engines as to how popular and trusted it is. The number, frequency, and quality of services using that API can become a metric, in addition to or, in place of text links for ranking that service in mobile search results.
3. Improved Social Integration
APIs allow mobile applications and websites to easily perform social sharing functionality, which provides an enhanced and direct social signal to the search engines. These APIs are often a means to an end that the search engines can already access either through direct agreements with social sites or with their own services.
Will APIs Become A Dominant Factor In Mobile Search?
There are several reasons why APIs will not likely become dominant in mobile search.
No Uniform API Standard
Today, there are thousands of APIs with XML, the leading data format, and REST, currently the dominant protocol; but, there is no defacto standard a search engine could crawl and easily discern information. As Mr. Cristo points out, there would need to be an agreed standard similar to Schema.org for microformats.
While the Web is consolidating around the open source WebKit browser rendering engine, and HTML5 has become specification complete in 2012, this not only provides uniformity, but speed and rendering through the browser that can ultimately provide a near app experience as well.
Personal Information & Security
To function, most APIs require the user’s permission and placement of a local file as a key to access personal information. Search engines would not be able to access or understand this information without users’ permission. This would limit APIs’ general usefulness as search engines will either get direct agreements with important providers, such as Bing with Facebook and Twitter, or get sidedoor access to that data, such as Google with Google+ and Android.
Not Every Site NEEDS An API And/Or App
Where I strongly disagree with Mr. Cristo is when he replied to my comment on his article with the following statement:
“It really comes down to whether or not native mobile apps will completely replace webpages or not. I think they will eventually, and I think human wearable computers will put the nail in the coffin of the legacy Web, so to speak.”
Creating a mobile app for each platform has a cost, as the major major operating systems, like APIs in general, have different formats; and then, customization for device types would be needed to continually update each combination. A correctly set up mobile website is singularly created and updated to work across all operating systems and device types.
Also, the practicality of creating an API in lieu of a website for mobile, or in general, doesn’t make sense for 99%+ of those currently with websites.
Where Does This Leave Us Now?
An API and native app does make sense for chronically used services/software, but those are few and far between. Most searches are for one off use, which is much quicker for the user to search via the Web as opposed to going to an app store, download the app(s), install, then finally running. For example, on mobile devices, when a user is looking to do something automobile related, s/he uses Web browsing 92% of the time over an app.
I personally see mobile apps, in general, peaking out shortly, as mobile computing power and network Internet speeds become strong enough to remove the need for native software. Exceptions will remain with robust gaming and productivity tools requiring a native app, similar to the current experience on desktops/laptops.
In the future, APIs may play a factor in mobile search results, but it would be in combination, not in lieu of replacing the mobile Web.
What do you think, will there be an app for that?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.