It was discovered earlier this week that Google had deprecated its SOAP search API, closing new signups to the project on December 5. A Google Code blog post confirmed the decision, saying that current users can continue to use the API, and there is no plan to turn it off, but developers should move over to using the new AJAX Search API.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between the SOAP API and the AJAX one; in fact, they are completely different products with almost nothing in common. Web developers used the SOAP API to gain direct access to Google results in creating online applications and tools, much like the Google Maps API is used to create mashups. The AJAX API is more of a powerful site search box, allowing sites to create some pretty cool and fast searches within their own site, but does not provide the raw search results some applications have used to fully leverage the Google search engine. In fact, the AJAX API terms of service don’t allow you to do anything with the output, just display it exactly “as is”.
The fact is, there were a lot of cool things that could be done with the now-defunct API. Hundreds of books used the API as solutions to given problems, solutions that are now impossible because readers of those books can’t get an API key. Google Hacks was almost entirely based on the API, with so many of the more advanced hacks requiring it. Google has killed the service and made a lot of documentation obselete, which will make web developers unwilling to rely on Google APIs in the future.
The fact is, while raw data APIs are very useful for developers, they are mostly a mistake for companies like Google. The API usually gives away the farm, all the indexed data and algorithmic ranking, in return for practically nothing more than a little promotion. Most companies have not monetized their APIs, instead leaving them limited to a small enough number of uses that developers could never monetize them either.
Google’s move seems to be an admission that such APIs just won’t work in the real world, that there needs to be a business model for everyone, which is why they want you to switch to the more controllable AJAX API. Web developers who want to create powerful applications are going to have to do a lot of the legwork themselves, or recode for APIs other than Google’s.
Don’t be surprised if this is a bit of a turning point. I’ve always thought APIs were too powerful to be free and open, like giving away an RSS feed of your entire corporate data. In most cases, it doesn’t make sense to give away these raw APIs out of goodwill and community with no real benefit. You might see a few more APIs shut down, and a few smart companies start charging for their APIs. Yahoo’s got a real opportunity here to open a new revenue stream with a powerful, no-limits API that charges for use.
UPDATE: Philipp has a good post on this, including the tale of one person who got a commercial API key and was told by Google they were “productizing” the API and he would be able to buy more usage of it. Obviously, that plan failed, a decision was made, and the API deprecated. It looks like Microsoft is charging hard, developing a commercial API of its own for Windows Live Search.
Good for them. There are a lot of great things to be done, and a lot of them will not be done by Google. On the path Google is currently going, they are giving up good changes and letting their competitors steal markets they are already in, like with Yahoo Answers, and not competing successfully in areas their competitors do well in, like Yahoo Finance. There needs to be some accounting of this, and why Google’s attempts are failing, and why Google is being forced to close services.
UPDATE 2: Barry Schwartz points out in his blog (and in the comments below) that you can technically still get an API key by following a certain link. Still, Google is shuttering the service, so now is not the time to be signing up for it, if you ask me.