By Gigi Sukin
Late last year, Google announced it would make search results and advertising on mobile devices more relevant by indexing Android apps with or without corresponding Web content. Google also began allowing users to "stream" apps that are not already installed on users' mobile devices. The move raises an important question for developers: Should they support this new technology? Some are certainly excited by the technology's prospects.
An example of app indexing.
But one thing is clear: Google needs to add apps into its search results. "A significant amount of content is now only available in mobile apps, and not directly accessible via the Web," explained Shawn Davison, CEO of DVmobile, a cloud-based SaaS solution. "Google must embrace this shift to remain the search kingpin."
This isn't the first of Google's experiments with app indexing, with tests beginning in 2013. But, until recently, the global giant only indexed apps with matching Web content. Now, Google is providing "deep" links that take Android smartphone users to an app when it is relevant to their query.
"It's my opinion that Google's recent announcement for app indexing is a direct result of Apple releasing Universal Linking in iOS9," Davison said. "Google's App Indexing SDK leverages Apple's new universal linking capability. Without it, they wouldn't have the capability to index both iOS and Android content."
According to Davison, app indexing, which is presently "rudimentary and very early stage," is a "developer-dependent activity today. Unlike in the early days of Google website crawling ... app indexing only works if developers have created the required hooks in their apps, which include intent filters and association files that link a particular app to an Internet domain name."
Websites will continue to be indexed as they always have; the difference will be in search results, as browser sites will now compete with native apps for a spot at the top.
With or without the app downloaded to a mobile device, Google will also allow users to "stream" an app's content, so long as a reliable Wi-Fi connection is available. Google is teaming with nine launch partners to offer app streaming: HotelTonight, Chimani, Gormey, My Horoscope, Visual Anatomy Free, Useful Knots, Daily Horoscope, and New York Subway. When one of the apps appears in search results, it will be accompanied with a stream button, built into the Google Chrome app. Then users can take actions as they would on a website.
If the experiment is successful, Google will expand this offering.
HotelTonight, Chimani and others outline their experience with app streaming
"We are always interested in finding ways to make great user-experiences and bring HotelTonight to even more users," explained Amanda Richardson, VP of Product at the last-minute travel booking app. "App streaming gets HotelTonight in front of a whole new set of users in a fast and seamless way. The market potential is huge. However easy it may be, people don't always choose to go through the process of downloading an app, so the increased search functionality helps to offer up our great experience to as many users as possible."
Milan Loveless, a developer with Quick Left, a custom software development firm, agreed that Google's app indexing is noteworthy because it can expose apps to a prime new source of inbound traffic, through Google Search, "without needing to have an HTML facsimile of their content for the purpose of indexing/SEO. This is most beneficial for people developing native-only apps, [as] up until now, it has been almost universally required to have browser accessible content."
Started as a hobby in 2010, Shaun Meredith, alongside Kerry Gallivan, developed a mobile company called Chimani that prides itself on high-quality content, bringing in travel writers and experts. "What makes us unique is that we work entirely offline," Meredith said of Chimani. Today, the mobile travel guide app has just less than 1 million downloads and a quarter-million active users.
In 2013, "I had been reading a blog post on the Google Development blog that talked about app indexing and at the time it was really for people who had apps and a Web presence, not purely an app," said Meredith, CTO and co-founder of Chimani. Shortly thereafter, Google directly offered Chimani the chance to participate in the app-streaming opportunity. "There's a lot of content, including ours, that wouldn't normally be indexible by Google ... So it works well for us. The app streaming piece is very valuable."
He added that within a few hours of turning on the app streaming functionality, there was a significant amount of new interest. Though fewer individuals and groups go on national park adventures as it starts to get colder, and therefore downloads have historically trended downward for Chimani this time of the year, "We didn't wind up seeing a dip at all," Meredith said. "In fact, there was a steady increase." At the end of December, Meredith said Chimani had welcomed roughly 20,000 new users, which he attributes to the new app indexing and streaming.
The implications of app indexing and streaming
Undoubtedly, Google seeks to maintain its search dominance as users move their digital activities in droves to mobile devices.
"Native apps and browser sites offer different content to different to users," said Loveless. "Browsers have been dramatically shaped by how content on the Internet was initially conceived. In the beginning, pages on the Internet were static documents. It was thought that this would always be the case. At this time, a fairly cumbersome API was inflicted upon developers: The Document Object Model (DOM). Native applications, at least those that do not rely on webview, are not restricted by this limitation. There are things that native apps are just better at."
Of app indexing and streaming, Loveless said, "The user experience implications are many and dramatic," including "the potential for a larger amount of non-authenticated user interaction with the app." He added that the impact for businesses could mean the decision not to design browser accessible versions of a given app, thereby decreasing the number of developers required for launch.
"The overlooked, interesting question might be: When people stop trying to design static document user experiences for native applications, will static text-based searches still be relevant for finding these apps?" Loveless said. He added this "context switch" might be jarring in some cases.
The stakes are high for Google. If the most useful information is housed inside apps, Google wants to help users navigate. Meanwhile, the gauntlet has been thrown by several tech startups, such as Fiiser, that intend to become the gateway to mobile apps.
"While Google is currently in no danger of being left behind, like many things in the tech industry, this could change quickly," Loveless said. He added, "Ultimately, it comes down to picking the right tool for the job. The Web to app paradigm shift won't happen overnight, but developers are now much more free from the constraints of the browser."
Loveless suggested developers should not limit their concepts for user-experience and interaction to maintain continuity for browsers.
Davison added his prediction that SEO tools will be developed over the next few years to automate app content management, and said that in the interim, SEO firms will have to become more mobile friendly.
"As a developer, I want this capability to be transparent and configurable by non-developers," Davison said. "I expect this will emerge as a mobile plug-in and eventually be subsumed into the respective OS. It isn't a Google specific issue. It impacts the entire mobile industry."
Top image: The New York Subway iOS app's augmented reality function showing subway locations in Times Square.