Breaking Down E-Commerce APIs

This guest post comes from Marc Mezzacca, founder of NextGen Shopping, a company dedicated to creating innovative shopping mashups. Marc's latest venture is a social-media based coupon code website called CouponFollow which utilizes the Twitter API.

E-Commerce covers a broad range of inter-connected processes which eventually leads to a transaction between two or more parties. Recent enhancements in technology, specifically social interactions on the Web, have increased the complexity in analyzing these processes and describing E-Commerce as a whole. And, to be honest, there is a lot of confusion within the terminology of “E-Commerce” itself. The exact definition of E-Commerce varies depending on your source, and you might hear words like e-business, e-retailing, and online shopping all used interchangeably. Mind you, they all have different meanings.

When describing E-Commerce myself, I like to take a very simplistic view. At a very basic level E-Commerce consists of three core players: the Purchaser, the Seller and often the Publisher. Purchasers are those looking to acquire a good or service, while Sellers are the ones looking to distribute their goods or services to the Purchaser for a fee. Publishers are the new-age, virtual middle men. They can be bloggers, they can be application developers, and they can really be anyone else that provides a layer bridging the gap between the Purchaser and the Seller.

All of the roles mentioned can consume E-Commerce APIs in different manners, which leads to a fourth supporting role, the Developer. Today there over 200 open APIs under the E-Commerce umbrella, all at the Developers’ exposure. From pulling product listings, to pushing sales, these APIs perform a wide-range of various functions within the E-Commerce eco-system. They help to enable innovative new shopping applications, as well as ease the transition of shopping data from Platform to platform (eg. the web to mobile). I must point out that the next statement is the most important take away of this article. E-Commerce APIs are key to future enhancements in the way in which transactions occur, and will help accelerate commerce far beyond what we can see today.

Before I get any deeper into things let's first step back and categorize APIs within the shopping vertical into two groups: APIs for Publishers and APIs for Sellers. I will stay within the shopping vertical although you may note that travel, event, shipping and other verticals usually intersect or fall within the large realm of e-commerce.

APIs for Publishers

If I had to describe the APIs available for Publishers in five words or less I'd say they "let users access Seller information." As a Publisher you'll have access to sellers’ business data such as product listings, reviews, pricing, historical prices, as well as, coupons, deals, promotions, and much more.

These APIs are very popular. Why you ask? Well these APIs are very content rich, and many of them come with a revenue model baked right in! From day one you can start utilizing the APIs to generate revenues through Affiliate Networks such as Commission Junction or LinkShare. And large merchants like Amazon, Zappos, and Best Buy offer their own APIs in which you can earn commissions directly through their affiliate programs.

On the surface everything seems wonderful. Content-rich APIs that you’ll generate revenues from! However, this is kind of a double-edge sword. On one end you have (at least part of) a business model from the start. On the other end, you can expect a high-level of competition for any profitable APIs, often including the API provider itself. If you plan on using a popular Shopping API straight away, don't expect much love from Google in terms of organic rankings. You'll have to get creative with your usage of these APIs, and that is exactly what Sellers want you to use their data for.

APIs for Publishers spread across several sub-categories including Affiliate Networks, Product Search and Pricing, Group Buying and Deals, Reviews, Classifieds and Location-based Shopping. Lets break them down. Note that some of the companies mentioned below have APIs that spread across multiple categories, and even offer APIs on the Sellers side as well.

  • Affiliate Network APIs available from LinkShare, Commission Junction, Affiliate Window, and others offer access to data such as commission reporting, as well as product search and promotional feeds from Advertisers.
  • Product Search and Pricing APIs available from Amazon, eBay,, Shopzilla, and others offer robust shopping platforms that allow for retrieving rich product information as well as pricing (some including price comparison features).
  • Review APIs offered by Yelp, GoodGuide, CityGrid, Epinions (via and others allow access to rich information about customer experiences related to local businesses, services, products and more.
  • Location-based APIs available from Milo and Retailingence both offer access to local shopping and product information from brick-and-mortar retailers, while an API (coming soon) from Zaarly offers buying and selling of anything with people nearby.
  • Group Buying and Deal APIs offered by Groupon, as well as aggregator sites like Yipit, The Deal Map (recently acquired by Google), and MyDealBag, offer access to daily deal and location-based group-buying information. This segment is relatively new and I expect API maturity and adoption here to continue to grow rapidly over the next year or so.

APIs for Sellers

When I think about E-Commerce APIs for Sellers, I immediately think eBay and PayPal. They are likely the most historically well-known. Since their initial success (many years ago), naturally others have popped up. From large giants like Amazon and Google, to niche players like Etsy and BigCartel, it has never been easier to bring your business online, and automate commerce processes through the usage of these APIs.

A general difference from APIs on the Publisher side lies in the fact that most APIs for Sellers have both read and write functionality, so developers can manipulate data through the API itself. In this manner these APIs really help businesses to seamlessly facilitate commerce online. Virtually any processes involved within the e-commerce ecosystem can be accomplished through these APIs, behind the scenes. This includes listing products for sale, handling payments, and even producing and shipping the goods out to the Purchaser.

  • Merchant Service APIs offered by eBay, Amazon Marketplace, BigCartel, Etsy, and others, make it simple to automate the process of pushing your product listings online.
  • On-Demand Printing and Manufacturing available from CafePress, Zazzle, Lulu and others allow developers to outsource the product creation, shipping and payment. These APIs will give you programmatic access and manipulation of products, designs, and stores. You can create an entire business without worrying about warehouse costs, supply chain, or logistics. Sellers can even utilize other businesses’ APIs to expand their own. For example, M&Ms uses Zazzle's API to allow customized gear, like mugs or t-shirts, to be purchased with user-generated M&M characters.
  • Transactional and Payment Services APIs available from PayPal, Google, Amazon, and others allow the payment process handling to be streamlined, including invoicing, billing, credit card capture, and refund processing. Smaller players like Fortumo are finding other channels to accept payments on, namely Mobile, to allow Developers to easily integrate mobile payments with any application or game. And things are already in motion towards making the entire transactional process even more seamless for the end-user, as Mashery just recently launched a Distributed Commerce offering which lets Developers bring transactions inside their applications.

Concluding Thoughts
These APIs play a crucial role in the way transactions occur now and will even more so going forward. In the future our refrigerators will tell us what foods are missing and we’ll be able to connect to Peapod or FreshDirect to refill our needs right from the LCD screen on the door panel. If we are sick and can’t wait, we’ll be able to connect to Zaarly to have a local neighbor go pick it up for us and PoundPay will deposit funds as soon as we confirm the delivery. Behind the scenes the E-Commerce APIs will handle all the dirty work and provide a smooth and seamless end- User Experience.

Wow, I really want the refrigerator I just described… Can someone get on that one?

Be sure to read the next eCommerce article: Using Daily Deal APIs to Get in on a Hot Market