The screen-scraping vs. direct API integration debate: what’s the best strategy for your mobile commerce site?

Consumers have come to expect a fully optimised digital experience across all devices. Having a barebones mobile commerce site is no longer sufficient; the site must not only meet the consumers’ needs to the same degree as the desktop site but also provide value in mobile-centric usage scenarios.

When mobile web experiences first became a necessity, many retailers scrambled to take the fastest route to address their lack of mobile presence. Screen-scraping solutions were a popular choice due to their affordable initial price tag and speedy time to market. Retailers were pleased with this method to begin with, but the pitfalls of screen-scraping slowly revealed themselves over time.

> See also: Five steps to optimise your website for mobile

As retailers evaluate mobile web platforms in today’s mobile-first landscape, they must consider their entire mobile strategy and how the platform will impact the user experience from beginning to end.

Can you bend the desktop site without breaking the mobile site?

Retailers continually tweak both desktop and mobile e-commerce sites in order to achieve the best possible conversion rate and maximise revenue. When utilising a screen-scraping solution, small tweaks to the desktop site, even seemingly insignificant changes to the user interface layout, can bring the entire mobile site crashing down.

Screen-scraped mobile websites are rendered from the look and feel of their desktop counterparts, so even a slight modification to the desktop site can break this fragile connection. A significant redesign of the desktop site typically requires an entire reimplementation of the screen-scraping integration tier, often involving expensive services work due to the proprietary nature of most screen-scraping solutions.

While they are quick to implement initially, screen-scraping solutions can prove costly in the long run because of upkeep costs, loss of potential revenue due to fragility and poor performance, and rigid user interfaces that require you to re-shuffle the pages on your desktop site instead of starting fresh with a mobile-first outlook.

In software architectural terms, the main pitfall here is the fact that screen-scraping solutions attempt to create an Application Programming Interface (API) out of the desktop site’s user interface, so when the desktop site’s look and feel changes, the API can break. Direct API integration solves these issues since you are directly accessing your e-commerce platform’s data via supported APIs; thus, changes in the desktop site’s display tier have no effect on the mobile site and vice versa.

How much customisation will be involved?

Vendors who quote low rates and short timelines for new mobile website implementations are often able to do so because they’re implementing the solution by theming existing templates. This approach, while fast to implement, provides very short time windows for implementing a customised user experience.

The result of using these templates is that your mobile website will look very similar to everyone else’s unless you choose to customise the template; this customisation, however, is typically so costly and time consuming that the benefit of the time or money originally saved by utilising a screen-scraping solution is lost. If branded design and differentiation from the competition is a crucial part of your mobile strategy, then a template-based solution is not a wise choice.

Integrating directly with your e-commerce platform’s APIs is a superior option for a highly customised site since you have the ability to create a user experience tailored to the needs of your mobile users. Whereas screen-scraping approaches require you to use tricks to re-organise and re-theme existing pages on your desktop site, integrating directly with the API of your e-commerce platform allows you to start fresh and build whatever experience is best for your business.

Another major benefit of direct integration is that all of the business logic that you’ve implemented on your e-commerce platform will be used while accessing the APIs; screen-scraping solutions often require re-implementation of at least some subset of your business logic, which means that you’re now maintaining your business rules in two places.

Is mobile optimisation essential to your strategy?

E-commerce traffic trends are shifting rapidly; for many retailers, online traffic primarily comes from mobile devices, especially among shoppers under the age of 35. Consumers have come to expect a personalised experience that takes their shopping history, geographic location, and type of device into consideration when rendering the user interface.

Retailers who provide users with such an experience, including the right content in the right context, are more likely to see an increased rate of adoption and higher conversion rates. Because screen-scraping is simply creating a copy of a desktop site and re-organising it, the personalised aspects of the mobile experience are not provided.

Another challenge with mobile optimisation and screen-scraping is performance. Rather than directly accessing the supported APIs, a mobile website built on a screen-scraping platform must render a page on the desktop site, retrieve and process the data, optimise it for mobile use, and render the mobile page, all before it’s visible to the user.

> See also: 15 tips for developing and improving mobile applications

This process creates slower load times for both the mobile and desktop site (since each page view on mobile can require a view on the desktop as well) and is more costly and less efficient overall than directly accessing the data. Choosing a solution that directly accesses the API rather than rendering the corresponding desktop page means lower hardware and software costs in addition to fewer frustrated customers and missed sales opportunities.

In an e-commerce landscape shaped by mobile devices, a plug-and-chug approach is no longer adequate. A mobile web experience built from the ground up that can stand on its own is more flexible, supportable, scalable, and performant.

Mobile commerce platforms that use screen-scraping can provide a nice stopgap, but they will always fall short of a true mobile-first solution. Direct API integration produces the custom mobile experience that retailers want, often at a lower price with fewer headaches.

Sourced from Aaron Shook, executive software architect, PointSource and Kristal York, executive mobile strategist, PointSource

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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