Mobility

How deep linking can fix mobile

In a world built on hyperlinks, the app experience can separate mobile developers from key revenue sources. Deep linking can help.

Tools for the web

Google has a problem. The more the world moves to apps, rather than the web, the harder it becomes for the search company to monetize mobile. According to Nielsen, we spend dramatically more time with apps than the web on mobile devices.

The key to resolving this conundrum may well be deep linking, the practice of "using a uniform resource identifier (URI) that links to a specific location within a mobile app, rather than simply launching the app."

To better understand the changing world of mobile, and how deep linking can help not only Google but all developers, I sat down with Mike Fyall (@mikefyall), head of marketing at URX, the company that bills itself as the "deeplink search engine for developers."

TechRepublic: The web was largely built on (and financed by) hyperlinks and search-oriented advertising. But in an app-centric world, the ability to tie app experiences together, and advertise against interests, is largely gone. How does deep linking help?

Fyall: Deep links are simply links into a specific place inside an app, just like a URL on the web. They let us navigate directly to where we want to go, instead of having to enter through the front door of the app each time. Things we take for granted on the web, like sharing an eBay listing with a friend or tweeting a link to a cool article, will soon be possible in apps.

Deep links also let search engines add links to apps into search results. Today, if the best answer to your question is inside an app, there's no way to find it. Google and others are working on this today and have started indexing apps and adding them alongside results from the web.

For advertisers, deep links shorten the path to conversion. On the desktop, no ad would ever take you to the Amazon home page — it would link directly to the product or category that is most relevant. This enables advertisers to create effective re-engagement campaigns on mobile in a way that wasn't possible before.

TechRepublic: What is the state of deep linking today? Are there standard approaches, or is it still a bit of a Wild West?

Fyall: Deep linking awareness and adoption is on the rise for two reasons. First, developers are focusing more of their energy retaining existing users. Anyone using social campaigns, push notifications, or advertising to bring people back into their app is implementing deep links today. Functionally, its fairly straightforward on both iOS and Android.

Second, Google, Twitter, and Facebook are raising awareness through their deep linking initiatives. They are incentivizing developers to expose their link structure so they can drive traffic into your app, a positive thing for developers. While there is no official web standard to do this, these companies all use basically the same methodology — adding a code snippet to a website that identifies the content on that page with a link to that same content in the iOS or Android app.

Today, 1 in 4 of the top apps have added these tags, and the sooner everyone does this, the faster the app ecosystem will become connected. A year from now, any app developer concerned with building a business will have deep links implemented.

TechRepublic: Do things like Facebook's App Links, Google's app indexing, and other such efforts largely obviate the need for HTML5? (One benefit of HTML5 being that it makes applications more like the web.) I noticed your blog referencing Facebook's App Links. Sounds like it doesn't go far enough. But why would developers opt for a smaller player's approach like URX's over Facebook's?

Fyall: There will continue be a place for native apps and websites. Developers aren't going to create native apps for all connected devices and can utilize HTML5 to create a great web experience.

App Links and URX offer different services to developers and both can be used at the same time. App Links helps developers find a particular deep link into a specific app. For example, if you click on a link to content in Flixster (an App Links partner) from Facebook, and you already have Flixster installed, you'll be taken inside the app. In order to use App Links, both apps need to have it integrated. App Links is ideal for developers who receive a lot of traffic from Facebook and want to provide a seamless experience into their app.

URX has built a search engine that developers use to find a deep link into an app for a specific context. For example, a developer could search for a place to "buy tickets to the San Francisco Giants," and URX might return a deep link into StubHub or SeatGeek. You could also use the URX Search API to find a specific app similar to App Links by limiting the set of search results. The URX Search API includes apps that use Google, Twitter, or App Links tags for the broadest possible results.

TechRepublic: How close are we to the Functional Web?

Fyall: Mobile apps have emerged to solve a single functional purpose or action, as users have shown a clear preference for apps designed to do one thing really well (e.g. Uber, HotelTonight). However, the challenge is that there is no standardized way of accessing or finding the actions or functions within apps. Developers are starting to do this today with APIs — for example, the Google Maps to Uber integration — but integrating APIs won't work at scale.

In order for the "functional web" to be widespread, developers need to embrace deep linking and will need tools to be able to facilitate inter-app communication. At URX, we aim to provide the connective tissue between apps and relieve some of the complexity needed today to make the app world function more like the web. So, we're heading the right direction, but we still have a ways to go.

TechRepublic: Look five years out. What will the mobile app development look like?

Fyall: Today, mobile means phones, tablets, and (increasingly) watches. In five years, mobile will mean a proliferation of connected devices. Whether it be connected cars, refrigerators, or TVs — we expect the web of tomorrow to have hundreds of form factors associated with it.

From a user's perspective, this is great, because it means that we will have many ways of accessing information or taking actions with ease. This will likely cause challenges for developers, however, as there will likely be a fragmented development (at least at first) that comes with this major shift in discovery.

One of URX's key product tenets is to work for any device that can make an HTTP request — that is to say, we hope to see URX powering things like cross-device intent resolution ("I just auto-ordered milk with Instacart because my fridge alerted me that I was out") and power new forms of discovery across every device type.

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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