As a search engine, Google seems nothing if not unbeatable. But the search engine giant may have more to worry about when it comes to the market for mobile search and advertising. Will a tactic called deep linking see other companies edging in on Google’s dominance, or just give Google, which is already at work on deep linking itself, another opportunity to innovate?
CNBC’s Ari Levy refers to mobile advertising as Google’s “Achilles heel,” one that’s being targeted by a crop of startups like URX, Deeplink, and Branch Metrics. According to Levy, each of these companies operates on the premise that “search on mobile is kind of lame” and focuses on the 86 percent of time that users spend in apps instead of the 14 percent that they spend on the mobile web. Their thinking goes this way: When you’re on your smartphone or your tablet, you don’t go to Google and type in a search query, like you would on your computer. Instead, you open an app — a travel app, a shopping app, a music app, or a news app — to find the information that you’re looking for.
The mobile advertising industry is projected to more than triple, from $32.7 billion this year to $108.8 billion in 2018, and Google is expected to control half of the mobile ad market this year with its Android operating system and apps like Google Maps, Gmail, and YouTube. For both Google apps and others, traditional modes of advertising — like banner ads and video ads — are expected to be changed by the advent of a capability called deep linking.
So what is deep linking? Let’s start at the beginning. The Internet is made up of billions of web pages, connected by trillions of links. Links to a site’s homepage and links to the pages deeper in a site’s hierarchy are functionally the same, and any web page can link to any other web page by pointing to its Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. Links have not only enabled Google to build the algorithms that its search engine uses to determine which pages are important and relevant, but have also enabled advertising networks to build huge businesses by directing traffic around the web.
However, the mobile apps you use on your smartphone aren’t built on the same Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) structure as web pages, nor do they have the same default ability to link to one another with hyperlinks. Instead, apps use a series of screens and states, not pages, to let users navigate through their content, and linking between apps has traditionally been pretty limited. Links between apps could direct users to landing pages to download and install the app, or if the user already had the app installed, could direct users to the home page — neither of which were particularly useful in linking users to relevant content.
As Chris Sell, lead product manager at URX, writes for Information Week, the app world has been proving since 2007 that it can match the Internet’s robust ecosystem. Sell notes that the app world has both produced enough content — with developers producing more than 2 million apps — and attracted a large enough audience — with iOS and Android each logging more than 50 billion app downloads — to prove their staying power. And while app marketers have focused mainly on driving app installs, the app ecosystem and the way advertising works within it stands to take a big step forward with deep linking.
Deep links are a way to connect the 2 million apps that currently don’t communicate, don’t share traffic, and don’t understand each other’s content. Innovative app developers are already enabling deep links to send users directly to specific pages within their apps, rather than to generic landing pages, from which users have to search and tap to find what they’re looking for. Deep linking makes it significantly easier for users to find and access relevant content in apps by eliminating unnecessary navigation — and thereby also goes a long way toward reducing similar barriers in the conversion process for advertisers. Sell projects that in the next three years, apps will make their first trillion links.
In a paper co-written by URX and MobileAppTracking by Tune, the companies explain the technical requirements of deep linking. Briefly, app developers create a custom URL scheme, register it with the app’s operating system, and map routes to destinations or activities within the app. The paper explains:
“Experienced developers should be able to set up deeplinking in an iOS or Android app fairly easily. Android developer documentation indicates how to add intent filters to map routes. On iOS, the openURL method of the app’s AppDelegate is launched when a user deeplinks into the app. The developer can either manually parse the URL or use Turnpike, an open-source framework from URX, to map the URL to defined routes.”
Developers then expose the deep link structure publicly so that third parties can use it to drive traffic to the app, and then route traffic to the app themselves via social media, emails, push notifications, paid advertising, and even search results.
Google, and other companies like Facebook and Twitter, have already developed and released products that help developers make it easier for others to access their apps’ content. Facebook, in partnership with Parse, Quip, and Dropbox, is behind App Links, an open-source, cross-platform tool for developers to expose the deep links in their apps and link to others, enabling them to “link anywhere on mobile.”
Google offers App Indexing to help Android developers get users to discover or re-engage with their apps through deep linking, which will send users of Google’s mobile search to relevant pages within registered apps. Twitter enables developers to specify deep links on Cards. Even Apple enables users to move between apps with deep links and extensions in iOS 8.
As CNBC’s Levy notes, using deep linking well necessitates significant knowledge about the user. The technology would need to know what apps the user downloads and uses, and would have to decide whether it’s better to send a user who doesn’t have the app in question to the App Store page to download it, or to the service’s mobile website. And Levy says that while Facebook, Google, and Twitter are focused on in-app links that help their own mobile users get to relevant information or activities within apps, it’s a range of startups that is tackling deep linking with a wider focus. Deeplink can “crawl” the apps on a user’s phone to find out what apps they’ve installed and how they use them. Soon, the technology will start to connect apps.
Branch Metrics‘ deep linking tech tracks where users who install an app came from, and what drove them to download the app, providing valuable insight to developers. Branch Metrics’ solution also boasts the benefit of being able to direct users to the correct place in an app even if it wasn’t installed when they first clicked the link. URX has developed an App Search API that enables developers to find and link users to relevant actions in other apps, and the API supports both Google’s deep links and Facebook’s App Links.
So are other innovators in deep linking technology really a threat to Google? It’s still early in the development of the deep linking technology that will soon connect mobile apps, but deep links are going to fundamentally change the way both mobile apps and mobile advertising work. As tech companies, both those long-established and those newer in Silicon Valley, develop and expand their deep linking offerings, they’ll be competing to attract developers and advertisers.
For Google, it will be important to keep innovating in the area of deep linking — both in the interest of mobile ad market share and in pursuit of Google’s goal to index the world’s information and make it available to everyone.