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API Keys 101: An Introduction

New to API keys? Get started with this guide to API keys. Learn what they are, how they work, and why they're important for modern apps.

API keys give you the ability to identify individual users and projects attempting to connect to your website or app. You can use them for behavioral segmentation, as well as marketing personalization and automation.

API keys work in conjunction with authentication tokens to better identify who accesses your project. Whereas user authentication tokens are trusted devices such as drives, discs, and physical items, API keys are digital constructs that are passed via software.

There are many advantages to using API keys to enhance your marketing efforts. This article covers what an API key is and how it works. You'll also learn how to create an API key and best practices for managing them.

Keep in mind that, while there are many advantages to using API keys to validate and segment individual users, they are not considered highly secure. This means you'll need to change them regularly to prevent unauthorized access.

Therefore, it's important to understand common issues that arise and to choose a secure, robust application, such as Mailchimp’s API for the best results.

What is an API key?

An application programming interface (API) key is a unique code that validates user identities and provides a unique identifier or authentication token.

It's easy to create them using API software that automates code generation, including the incorporation of tags you can use to segment users for marketing and other purposes.

An API key regulates API requests between programs, and they are common in Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications.

For example, you can generate Google or YouTube API keys through a key generator. Project API keys allow you to reject calls or API requests from unknown or unauthorized projects.

Applications use the designated API to identify the program, developer, or user requesting access to a website or application.

This process greatly facilitates open development and comes with a number of bells and whistles useful for marketing purposes.

Additionally, there are many tools available that greatly simplify key creation and management.

API keys are essential for many modern applications and services, but for those unfamiliar with the concept, they can be a bit confusing.

Whether you are a developer who is just getting started with APIs or a business owner looking to implement API keys into your platform, this guide will provide you with the foundational knowledge you need to get started.

How do API keys work?

APIs require a key before allowing developers to make requests. The developer's website gives you the information you need to get started. So, it’s essential to read the rules and apply them appropriately.

Typically, you sign up for an account and register your project along with any information requested by the API administrators.

Once your API request is processed, you receive a specific API key in the form of randomly generated characters tied to your project.

In some cases, you'll receive two keys, a public key and a private key. You can share public keys with customers and collaborators.

It has limited API access rights to data stored in the API but you should still pick and choose who to share it with. Private keys provide access to your data and developer account. You should only share them with key developers.

Hackers would love to take advantage of sloppy coding to swipe your server API key and wreak havoc with your application.

It's important to become familiar with the API documentation to understand how to include keys in requests for data. For example, you can create tags, or metadata labels, that allow you to segment or identify project API keys and users who access your website.

How can you use tags to segment and track your clients? Examples of tag keys include departmental identifiers such as “CostCenter” or “Project.” When coding, developers should keep in mind that these tags are case-sensitive.

Types of API keys

There are two types of API keys, private and public.

Private key

You use private keys to communicate between servers. It's important to safeguard private keys to prevent hackers or unauthorized users from gaining access to sensitive data.

Public key

API owners generate public keys for users and developers. They provide access to public data in an application.

Why are API keys important for businesses?

API keys can help ensure security and control access to software, applications, and websites. They can also help you analyze data and automate marketing tasks to give you a clearer picture of user wants, needs, and pain points.

Here’s a closer look at how your business can use API keys.

Ensure security

You can use keys to control access to your data. an API key identifies and authorizes users requesting an API service.

Each user receives a unique identifier with varying levels of permissions. This can help prevent hackers from infiltrating your system. However, API keys are not considered highly secure since users can share keys with third parties without your permission.

Control access

An API key is an easy way to control how users access your API. It is a secret token used to authenticate users and sets the access level depending on the identity of the individual or project making the request.

Analyze data

If you want more insight into who is using your application or accessing your website, use API keys to track individuals and projects. You can use this information to create metrics and improve your marketing strategy.

Automate tasks

You can use API keys to automate reporting, using tags to track how different users interact with your products. While you can automate key generation, you'll need to periodically assign new keys for API security purposes.

How to create an API key

The API publisher determines the rules that apply to each API key. Here are steps that apply to most APIs:

  • Log into a cloud-based console. For example, users can make requests to Google maps, using Google Cloud Platform Console.
  • Select an existing project or create a new one. This enables you to ask for an API key.
  • Specify which API you want to use to assign the relevant access rights to the key.
  • Restrict application usage to maintain the integrity and security of the key. Choose Application and API restrictions. Application restrictions limit connections to websites and servers with URL or IP addresses and iOS or Android apps. API restrictions provide access to APIs or SDKs.

Follow these best practices to create more secure keys:

  • Only use secured API keys.
  • Make sure you fully understand the rules set by the API publisher.
  • Assign access via user IDs and passwords.
  • Use authentication tokens to authenticate users.
  • Use encryption recognized by the API server.

How to use an API key

You can use API keys in your company’s applications and website. Doing so gives you more control over who can gain access to your software.

Although it's easy to recognize the advantages of this technology, it's important to know when to use it. For example, you can use keys to block anonymous traffic and secure the user authorization process.

By using an API key for each user, you can gather important information needed by your marketing team. Here's a closer look at how you can use API keys in your organization:

  • Block anonymous traffic: This can help you prevent hackers and bad actors from connecting to your website or application. This also comes in handy when you need to debug your app.
  • Control API calls: By controlling requests made to your API, you can manage traffic and validate the authenticity of each user.
  • Identify traffic: Using keys and tags, you can use patterns to block potentially malicious activity and other concerns.
  • Filter logs: You can filter API server activity by requiring a special API key.

It's also important to understand the limitations of an API key. For example, you can't use it for secure authorization, which requires a secure authentication token. Additionally, while API keys do a great job of identifying projects, they won't tell you who owns them.

Follow these best practices when creating API keys:

  • Restrict your API keys
  • Use application and API restrictions
  • Delete unused API keys
  • Change keys regularly
  • Don’t store API keys in cod or on the client-side server
  • Generate new keys after a data breach

Once you know the pros and cons of using these keys to tell you more about your users, you may wonder how you can simplify the process of generating and managing keys. Use Mailchimp’s user guides to get started quickly.

Common API key issues to keep in mind

API keys are not foolproof. You cannot use them for secure authorization and determined hackers can typically find a way to obtain API keys through user authentication or other methods.

Additionally, these keys don't tell you who owns a project making a request. However, there are many benefits to using API keys as part of your marketing research and market segmentation processes.

With the help of the MailChimp API, you can use tags to divide your audience based on different functions and interests.

This will help you personalize messages that appeal to your business clients. You can also enhance your marketing automation by using tags to segment your marketing campaigns.

Mailchimp has other tools to help you automate your marketing to find out what works and what doesn't faster. Contact us today to learn more about essential tools, such as API keys, that can move your business forward.

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