January 11, 2021

Webhooks and API's: what are they, and why do we need them?

Shane Bird

The pace at which we are able to communicate has increased 10 fold in the last two and half decades. Being able to communicate with people in different parts of the world in real-time really is something a fair few of us take for granted.

Technology has further advanced this communication by making it possible for different applications to communicate and share data amongst each other. The communication between apps has been made possible through APIs and webhooks. If you are a developer or a tech enthusiast, you heard these terms multiple times, and in this case, this article probably isn’t for you.

Product and development teams alike invest heaps of time in keeping up with the latest technologies available, we are hit with “new and shiny” tools and concepts on what seems to be a daily basis, and it’s not slowing down. Deciding which to use and which not to can be tough, one thing you can be sure of though is that APIs and webhooks are here to stay.

To remove any confusion between the two and help you have a better understanding, let's break it down and look at the different technologies behind the communication of separate systems, and why they're crucial to today's world.

What is an API?

API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. An API is a software intermediary that allows two applications to communicate with each other.

Let’s say you make a request to an API for a list of products in JSON format. Typically, the server will check if you have the proper credentials, and if you do, then gives you the list of products you requested.

In layman's terms, an API is a messenger that delivers your request to the provider that you're requesting it from and then responds to you.

An API defines the correct way for a developer to request services from an application and expose data within different contexts and across multiple channels. Therefore, a good API makes it easier to develop a program by providing the building blocks.

For instance, Facebook has an API that websites can use to get user login information as long as the user is willing to share their Facebook information with the websites. This kind of arrangement makes it easy for users to sign up on different websites on the internet without having to rewrite their login information.

Why are APIs important?

●     APIs help developers to add new features to their apps easily. Rather than building something from scratch, a developer can access a useful API to save them development time and ensure that key functionality works effectively.

●     By using APIs, developers help reduce fragmentation across the Internet and improve navigation through an interconnected ecosystem of sites, platforms and mobile apps.

●     Finally, APIs can also help stitch the internet and mobile app economy together on behalf of users. They underpin essential online behaviours – such as share buttons or social login options. Even using mapping data in e-commerce apps requires an API, and as such, APIs have become essential to users.

Some examples of APIs include:

●     Facebook Ad insights API - which helps marketers track the performance of their Ads right from their websites. This API saves time for the marketers because they don't have to always log in to their Facebook to get this data.

●     Google Maps API helps other applications get access of location data that is available on Google Maps.

●     Dropbox API for interacting with files stored on Dropbox. Other websites can use this API to help their users save and get files from Dropbox with ease.


What is a Webhook

Just like an API, a webhook is also a piece of software that enables applications to share data. What makes these two different is when they send data. With an API, data has to be requested by the client whereas with a webhook, the data is automatically sent when a certain set of conditions are met.

For example, a webhook can be used to automatically send a text message to a user when they share a phone number to a website. So, with a webhook data is shared in real-time when a certain event occurs without any request being made by the application the data is being sent to.

In simple terms, a webhook broadcasts an action was taken on a server.

Why are Webhooks important?

●     Webhooks are best used when an application needs to get real-time information from another website without having to make the request manually. For instance, if you need your site to constantly display the changing value of a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, such data needs to be updated in real-time without making any requests.

●     Webhooks can also be used in situations where there is no existing API to get the data that you frequently need on your website. Or even in situations when the existing API is poorly designed and may not be able to serve the purpose. The only downside with webhooks is when the source of data is offline or has a technical fault.

Common examples of Webhooks

●     PayPal webhook that sends information to your accounting applications whenever one of your clients pays you.

●     Shopify webhooks that provide data to apps that want to get real-time information from Shopify. Some of the information that apps may need from Shopify may include; sales, orders, etc.

●     Facebook webhooks that provide other apps real-time HTTP notifications about any new events happening on the Facebook account associated with that app


Final thoughts

Both APIs and webhooks are vital for app developers, more so if the app is going to rely on data coming from multiple sources in order to operate. Without APIs and webhooks, the functionalities of most web applications on the internet would be incredibly limited. Just imagine a world without the Google Maps API. It would be extremely hard for apps to get location data.

The decision between using an API or a webhook should largely depend on whether the information needed is to be provided in real-time or on request. If the required set of data has to be sent in real-time, a webhook could potentially be a better option. But suppose the information is needed only when the user requests it. In such a case, an API would be a better alternative.


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