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RISMEDIA, February 10, 2011—Facebook, Twitter, Zillow, Onboard Informatics, Foursquare, The Weather Channel: they may be an unlikely pairing of organizations, but all of these entities can impact your business through application programming interfaces (APIs). Why should you care what an API can do for your website or how should you choose the right API to help achieve your business goals? Let’s demystify.

It’s no surprise that the real estate industry is shining a light on APIs when they have skyrocketed from an estimated 105 up to over 2,500 in the last five years. As you can imagine, not all APIs are created equal. Finding the right technology mix to grow your company starts with understanding the API landscape, where business value is given and sacrificed, and how to decide which APIs will make the greatest impact to your bottom line and end consumers.

What does the real estate API landscape look like?
In general, there are three fundamental reasons APIs are produced:

-to generate traffic
-to build brand recognition
-to generate direct revenue

The first category, traffic-generating APIs or traffic pushers, are designed to support the business model of driving traffic back to their own sites. Yelp, Walk Score and Zillow are examples of these APIs. In this relationship, you get popular and compelling content at little or no cost, in return for sending visitors (through embedded links) to the content host’s website. This content is widely recognized and engaging, but you may lose visitors as they follow links to more details.

Brand builders are designed to draw attention to specific brands (think Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, The Weather Channel, The New York Times). Like the traffic generators, they are great for contextual information and possibly even SEO. On the flip side, you have no control over the relevancy. This could result in a hodgepodge of content that may not meet your goals. It may also be difficult to weave this type of API with others. For example, using these APIs may allow you to show the most popular neighborhood check-in from Foursquare and tweets in the area, but it is difficult to mesh that together into a great search experience. You also have limited or no control over the context of the content (think about what sort of things people might tweet about).

Commercial APIs like the ones we produce at Onboard Informatics are the final type, and are subject to performance and service agreements; therefore, accuracy and quality assurance are guaranteed. A couple other examples are ESRI, First American, LPS and Pitney Bowes. The “downside” is obvious: these APIs come with a price tag, but you are investing in keeping traffic on your site on your terms. You can use commercial APIs to deliver a wide variety of content to your site, such as showing someone their best place to live or recent home sales like we do at Onboard, or through advanced mapping like ESRI does.

What is the best type of API to meet my goals?
There is no cookie cutter answer. It comes down to two questions: What kind of content are you willing to accept on your site? And what role do you want it to play in your business?

If you are looking for a quick and simple way to add some context to your pages, a traffic-generating or brand builder API may be your best bet or even a starting point. Just remember that this approach may be counter to your goals by actually driving visitors off your site to get more complete information. If you have budget to invest and would prefer to create a unique—and controlled—experience, you can use a commercial API partner or partners.

Another thing to think about is that all three types of APIs gather business intelligence from API usage, but commercial APIs are the only kind that are likely to give the information back to you. Thereby, you’re not just investing in a user interface and experience that enhances your brand, you’re also investing in the ability to look at how users are interacting with that API. Knowing the hot price points or neighborhoods they are searching can put a bulls-eye on your marketing efforts.

While there are certainly pros and cons for each type of API, the “best” kind for a project ultimately depends on the goals. When the business value is aligned between the publisher and consumer, great things can happen.

Scott Petronis is the Senior Director of Product Management at Onboard Informatics. Petronis oversees Onboard’s APIs that can match a buyer to their dream home or best place to live, power local insight through a database of over 30 million recent home sales transactions, and those that can display millions of local establishments. He has over 15 years of experience managing B2B applications, SaaS, APIs, Web-based and mobile applications and content services designed to drive client business.

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