EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 79 - September 22, 2002 - ISSN 1528-6703     2 of 6

The ABCs of eBay's API

By Ina & David Steiner

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Every time an auction is launched to the eBay site, eBay resources are being used. Listing, bidding, searching, sniping, even checking to see how your auctions are doing: all these activities make demands upon eBay's servers. In an effort to reduce the burden on its systems and to make it easier for software vendors to keep up with code changes, eBay developed an Application Programming Interface (API). This article takes a look at how the API works, and why eBay charges fees for using it. If you use auction management software, this article is worth reading.

What is the eBay API?

To put it in technical terms, "the eBay API consists of a set of functions for querying the eBay platform. These queries include getting information on listed items, listing items, managing feedback, and more. The API functions are executed via a secure HTTP transport protocol request from an application. An XML data format is used to standardize requests and the data in result sets."

The API is, in essence, a direct pipeline to eBay. The data travels in XML format, making it a consistent, efficient exchange of data. This benefits eBay, the vendor, and of course the end-user.

eBay launched a Beta version of the API in November 2000 and opened it up in Spring 2001 in a contained way. Vendors must apply to the eBay Developers Program, and their software must go through a certification process. eBay has certified about 200 vendors, and there is currently a waiting list.

To API or Not to API, That Is the Question

Vendors who are not part of the eBay Developers Program must access eBay's database through Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the same way we browse the Internet. Because it is an automated process tied into their own application, the process is referred to as "scraping." But what is the difference between accessing eBay via API and scraping?

Think of it this way: Suppose your are driving from one end of your state to the other. Do you want to take a local access road, full of stop lights and slower speed limits? Or are you willing to shell out some money for a clear shot on the toll highway? eBay charges vendors to access its site via the API. First, a vendor must apply, with no guarantee of being accepted. eBay also requires products to go through an independent certification process, for which there is a minimum fee of $300, possibly up to $5,000.

eBay also charges an annual fee and monthly usage charges. For example, a top-level, or Gold membership, costs a company $10,000 per year plus $2.90 per 1,000 API calls.

API calls are database requests made through the API to eBay's database. According to eBay literature, seller management tools typically use three or four API calls for every item listed (over the duration of the item listing). Merchants using the API for their own selling typically use one to two API calls per item listing. API calls that involve adding or relisting items to eBay are free.

eBay spokesperson Kevin Pursglove said eBay will likely restructure these fees in the future, but said there is no timetable. "We want to offer vendors flexibility," he said. "No announcement is imminent, however."

Why Charge for the API?

eBay's Pursglove explained that the fees are cost-recovery based. "eBay runs a fiscally disciplined operation, and the charges cover the cost of creating and maintaining the API program." The program offers developers documentation, sample code, technical and operational support, a test environment and production environment hardware and software.

There is another reason for charging fees to use the API, according to eBay literature: "Without an incentive to do so, some developers might make a thousand calls per minute when it may not be necessary. This could result in production issues for not only the API machines but also eBay.com as well. We have seen many developers reduce their database request volume by two-thirds after joining the Developers Program, without sacrificing any functionality."

However, it isn't always smooth sailing for certified vendors. This past week, we reported that several eBay Preferred Solution Providers were having problems accessing eBay via the Application Programming Interface (API) http://www.auctionbytes.com/pages/abn/y02/m09/i19/s01. And when eBay implemented its Checkout features in October of 2001, it caused havoc with the checkout features of all third-party software vendors, including certified developers.

Will Free Tools Disappear?

eBay requires vendors to use its API and has taken a number of steps to warn companies against scraping, according to Pursglove. Nevertheless, many companies continue to scrape. There are a number of free listing tools that are popular with small sellers, and as eBay opens up the API program to more vendors next year, as Pursglove indicated they would, the fate of these free tools seems uncertain.

Other Developer Tools

eBay has also created some developer tools for Web sites. Its Merchant Kit allows sellers to display their eBay items on their own Web sites http://www.ebay.com/api/merchantkit.html. If you go to Ritz Camera's Web site at http://www.ritzcamera.com, you can see an example of their use of the eBay Merchant Kit by clicking on "Ritz Auctions at eBay."

eBay also markets an Editor Kit. This allows publishers to display contextually relevant eBay listings on their site with very little development work. "The Editor Kit places interesting, fresh, targeted content to your web pages, leaving site editors in control of specifying the search parameters without requiring time-consuming and costly implementation." http://developer.ebay.com/integration/contentsites.html.

eBay uses its API program to ease the burden on its platform and to control which vendors use its site. In true eBay fashion, it has figured out how to get vendors and their customers to pay for it.


About the author:

Ina and David Steiner are publishers of EcommerceBytes.com and have been writing about ecommerce since 1999.


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