Automate web actions with two apps: IFTTT and Zapier

Andy Wolber shows you how to automate processes between websites with the help of two utility apps.

From Manual to Automatic

Television used to be a very "manual" process. Turn on the television at a specific time. Select a channel. Watch a program. For many people, this is still how television works.

Video cassette recorders (VCR) - and later the digital video recorders (DVR) - let you automate the process. You can record a program to watch later: tell the device to select a channel at a specific time, then record for the duration of the show. You can automatically record entire seasons of TV shows with newer DVRs. Improved technology lets us focus on content, not broadcast time.

Working with web apps also can be a very "manual" process. Upload a video to YouTube. Go to Twitter. Tweet a link to the video. For many people, this is still how web apps work.

Automation and automate repetitive actions between websites. Doing something on one website triggers action on another. Uploading a video to YouTube triggers a tweet containing a link to the video. and let you focus on content, not repetitive actions.

IFTTT and Zapier perform similar functions. You create an account, connect web services, and then create triggers and actions. If a trigger condition occurs on one website, then take action on another website. On IFTTT, you create "recipes" with a "if this, then that" formula. (Yes, the website name is the acronym for "if this, then that".)

Zapier users create "Zaps" that "push new data" from one website to another.

Simple programming: Create a trigger, then an action

IFTTT and Zapier support different sets of web services. Both IFTTT and Zapier support connections to Google's Gmail, Calendar, Google Drive, Talk, and YouTube. IFTTT adds support for Blogger and Google Reader, while Zapier adds support for AdWords, Google Contacts, and Tasks.

IFTTT's "Channels" include 59 sites, including Instagram, Craigslist, Pocket, and Instapaper, along with a Yahoo! Weather channel. Zapier's "service directory" includes at least 151 services, including sites such as Constant Contact, FreshBooks, QuickBooks, and SugarCRM. (This information was current as of January 4, 2013.)

Some Channels

Broadly speaking, IFTTT is more consumer-focused, while Zapier is more business-focused. IFTTT is free to use, as is a starter Zapier account. Zapier offers paid accounts that increase the number of tasks that can be automated, as well as the number of times a task can be triggered each month. Zapier's paid accounts range from $15 to $99 per month.

The free versions of IFTTT and Zapier check whether trigger conditions are met every 15 minutes. Zapier's higher priced accounts check for triggers as often as 5 minutes. Business users will likely appreciate the more frequent checking.

Some Channels

Useful IFTTT "recipes" for Google Users

There are hundreds of IFTTT triggers and actions already created. Browse through the collection of recipes and click on the "Filter" button on that page to see recipes involving a specific "channel". Some 3,166 recipes have been created involving Google Reader as either a Trigger or an Action.

Filter IFTTT recipes to view Triggers or Actions involving a specific channel

A few recipes of particular note for Google users include:

Receive an SMS when you receive an email from a specific sender

There are thousands of IFTTT recipes. You can create your own, or adapt recipes that other people have already created.

Bottom line

IFTTT and Zapier let us connect disparate web services together in simple, yet useful ways. They give us a powerful tool to automate the web, just as the VCR and DVR revolutionized how (and when!) we watch TV. I look forward to the next evolution of both services.

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Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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