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Remember, back in the nineties, when Google and other search engines didn’t exist yet? Back then, the only way for a user to reach another web page was via a hyperlink. All web users had, in terms of discovery, was a big list called Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web, now known as Yahoo!.
The way the internet evolved up to today makes it almost impossible to think of it as a big bunch of pages hyperlinking to each other. Thanks to search engines, content aggregators, social media, and discovery and recommendation systems we can now navigate billions of websites and still find what we’ve been looking for.
In a sense, the app industry is still in its nineties. The Apple App Store is a rich-media example of that first web directory from Yahoo!’s Jerry and David: it’s a huge list of apps. Apart from text, images and catalog-style links there’s not much contextual information available. Each day about 300 apps get published in the iOS App Store alone, but most of them never even get close to the Top 100 list. Many perfectly good apps go by largely unnoticed, due to the nature of the app stores.
The Long Tail Of Apps
You could see the app stores as a long tail market. The term “long tail” is based in statistics and economics, a power law that defines a distribution with two parts: the “hit head” and the “long tail”. In the head, the big brands and companies of this world reside, making up a large part of the market. The long tail, consisting of small niche companies, make up the other part of the market.
An interesting characteristic of a long tail market is that both the hit head and the long tail have an equal surface and size. In terms of marketing, it’s easier to focus marketing effort on a smaller niche market inside the long tail than on beating a huge brand inside the hit head. Another metric is this: the long tail is potentially infinite, given that you have a means to reach a niche market inside the tail.
A good example of the long tail at work is Spotify. Just like any other market, big artists rule the top of the charts. Smaller artists however can still serve a potential market, thanks to Spotify’s contextual recommendation and search engine. Music is defined with extra information: tags, genre, subgenre, beats per minute, ratings, curated content, content from 3rd parties, and so on. They’ve opened up the long tail of music to the general public, giving artists a means to define themselves in a niche market. It would not have been possible with traditional radio and TV. Traditional charts would only list the biggest hits and leave the equally big but smaller markets undiscoverable.
These days, there’s an app for just about anything. Unfortunately, most of these apps are undiscoverable because they do not expose any searchable contextual information. The app stores only focus on a Top 10 list and featured apps, and their search engines can only dig up keywords in plain text in an app’s description. The app stores follow the characteristics of a long tail distribution, because they have an endless potential for narrow niche markets. One thing is missing, however: discoverability.
Discovery: Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook
A great solution for app publishers to make their apps more discoverable, is to add it to their respective pages on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. Quite recently, Apple joined forces with Pinterest to allow users to install apps directly from within Pinterest with so-called App Pins. Any user can add an app to a board on Pinterest, and combine it with native Pinterest content. That means you can create pins, like recipes for pies, and mix them with a recipe app, for instance.
Twitter has App Cards, a card similar to native tweets. A company can mix their Twitter conversations with a promoted App Card, or pin the App Card to the top of their stream. A user and potential customer, already talking the brand, can discover a relevant app native to the conversation.
In the same way, Facebook allows advertisers to push their apps to an audience. It’s a great way to introduce an app in a contextual stream that already exists and is native to the platform, making the barrier to interact with a user to evoke an app install considerably lower.
Contextual Deeplinking Of Content: A Web Of Apps
The big link is still missing: interconnected contextual information. Like a search engine connects web pages on the internet, an app search engine could expose the content available in any app. Unfortunately, all apps are closed binaries: they expose little information about what’s inside.
Deeplinking means two things: exposing integral content from within an app, and creating a system that makes the content searchable and discoverable. When you read a pie recipe online, you should be able to search for that same recipe without having to download and install an app for it first.
The key element of a deeplinking system that’s searchable, is the discoverability of contextual content. Contextual content is different in every situation: for music, it’s genre and BPM, but for recipes, it’s ingredients and cooking times. The nature of content asks for flexibility of a deeplinking system, and introduces a great difficulty in categorizing all information available in apps.
Opportunities For App Publishers
A technical method for the first element of deeplinking, exposing content, is already available. Apps can expose a URL Scheme to other apps and web pages. They’re similar to ordinary web page URLs and look like this:
my-app://recipe/[recipeID]. When a user clicks on a link that has an URL that’s exposed by an app, the user is taken to that app. The app itself can then serve the right content, such as a news article.
URL Schemes have two downsides: they don’t work when an app is not installed, and there’s no structured way to “ask” an app what kind of URL Schemes it exposes.
Branch Metrics developed a system that makes it easy to refer a new customer to content in your app, by sending them to a “Tell A Friend” page. AppLinks.org, partnering with Facebook and Parse, attempts to create a big network of available deeplinks in apps with the Facebook Index API.
Combining these 2 technologies, app makers can:
- Let existing customers refer potential customers to relevant content in your app. When Alice finds an interesting recipe for Bob, she can send a deeplink to him and potentially bring in a new customer.
- Using AppLinks, map content from the web to your app by exposing URL Schemes to the Facebook Index API.
Startup Deeplink.me recently launched their product AppWords. It tries to do what Google did with AdWords: advertising deeplinks based on search context. With their platform, app makers can advertise native content and send potential customers directly into their app. For now, such advertisements only work when a user already has the advertised app installed.
Conclusion: Is 2015 Deeplink Year?
One hurdle still remains: adding meta data to the deeplink, in a way a search engine crawls a web page for tags, markers and categorizable information. Is 2015 going to be the year that spawns such a search engine?
For now, the opportunity for app makers remain: market your app outside the App Store, by making use of deeplinks. Expose the content inside your apps, and attract new customers by deeplinking directly to it.
About The Author
Reinder de Vries is an entrepreneur and app developer, who believes that there are not enough app makers in the world. He has developed 50+ apps and his code is used by millions of users all over the globe. When he’s not coding, he teaches aspiring developers how to make their own apps at LearnAppMaking.com.