Apple iOS 9’s deep linking feature is invaluable for driving audience engagement

One of the biggest and most powerful developments in iOS 9 is undoubtedly the arrival of deep linking. Yet a survey of the world’s top-ranking news apps found that only four of the top 10 are currently using it to their advantage (ABC News, BuzzFeed, Flipboard, and Fox News), and only 11% of the top 130 overall. 

Why so few? While you could argue that deep linking is one of the most groundbreaking updates to Apple’s operating system, it’s probably one of the least understood. Still it’s a feature begging to be explored, because its implications for the app landscape (and newspaper apps in particular) are huge.

Here’s how it works.

Imagine yourself, phone in hand, scrolling through your Twitter feed. Now imagine you spot a share from a fitness-type person of her most recent Nike+ run. Previously, tapping on the link would have launched Twitter’s Web view, and this is true even if you also happen to have the Nike+ app installed on your phone.

Twitter has no way of interpreting the link as anything but a Web redirect, but for iOS, there’s a new layer of intelligence. In an instant, iOS can recognise that the link is associated with Nike Plus, launch the app, and route you to that exact activity along with a helpful “back to Twitter” button in the top navigation bar, just in case you want to resume your Twitter perusing.

The benefit here should be obvious. Instead of having your audience trapped inside Twitter’s built-in Web view, you can get them to the native content inside your app instantly, in one fluid and intuitive tap.

In this way, iOS will keep mobile app experiences proprietary but make the navigation between them incredibly seamless, ensuring the app ecosystem provides a beautiful, easy, mobile-native user experience at every tap. But maybe most importantly, deep linking will also profoundly change the “Spotlight” search function.

Google has largely had the prerogative on finding content – the behemoth can theoretically crawl and index any URL that your browser can view.

But what about the content inside an app? There’s an entire world of valuable content hidden inside apps metaphorically out there in the cold, never appearing in returned search results because it heretofore could not be indexed by Google (or anyone else, really).

Apple has risen to this challenge, releasing the Core Spotlight Framework (developer toolkit) that changes all of this; developers can now flag content that’s most popular and most engaging to iOS through tagging, markups, and metadata.

For example, a sports app with a terrific article on a popular team could signal it to iOS, prompting its images or headlines to appear in a Spotlight search for related terms on phones where it’s installed, and hopefully entice the searcher back into the app.

But there’s always a hitch: None of this is automatic.

As with any new third-party update, there will be some effort needed to leverage its power, and it’s no different with the advent of deep linking and Spotlight search.

Your developer partner will need to create path mappings between your Web and native experiences. This will enable iOS to automatically launch your app or send users to a specific place in your app from a Web link (or even give them an option to download it if they don’t already have it).

You’ll also want to take the time to index trending topics and articles, and even add additional metadata to the most useful and engaging parts of each individual story (like image and video), so your chances of not only appearing in a Spotlight search but of also compelling a user to investigate your specific result are much higher.

Think of deep linking as the ultimate tool to re-circulate content and increase the awareness of your app and its general use. The value is self-evident. Deep linking isn’t just another switch to flip; it’ll be the new standard for driving audience engagement.

About Sarah Riley

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