New functionality available in the next version of both Apple and Google mobile operating systems (iOS9 and Android M) will have dramatic consequences for publishers trying to get users to use their apps instead of a mobile Web browser.
The next version of the iOS and Android operating systems will take deep linking to a new level. Both Apple and Google have worked simultaneously on improving app linking, essentially blurring the lines between content displayed in an app and content on a mobile Web site.
I’ve written about deep link strategies before, and the challenges and tactics employed for linking to and searching for content available in apps.
Facebook developed App Links, a protocol designed to address this problem. Twitter Cards make it possible to link directly to your app from a tweet. Google App Indexing makes it possible to display app links in Google searches. iOS8 extensions allow apps to specify what actions they support. The smart app banner promotes a Web site’s app and can link directly to content within that app.
Web sites that implement Apple’s universal links function new in iOS9 and Android’s app links function coming in Android M can specify that a Web link (http: and https:) open an app directly instead of opening a Web browser. Users who use a browser to surf your Web site are unaffected, but any user who clicks on a link via another app (for example SMS, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) will be sent directly to the app. This feature should dramatically increase the number of people using your mobile apps.
You will first need to convince users to download your app.
App linking in Android M
Currently Android apps (using intents) display a dialog prompt box asking users what app they would like to use to open a link. The user can choose to always use the same app to open these kinds of links.
In Android M, Web site owners who have implemented app linking can auto-verify what app should be opened when a user clicks on a link (http: and https:). The user will not be prompted to choose an app; the link will simply open in the app belonging to the Web site without displaying the prompt. Apps can now be verified as the official app associated with a Web site.
For example, users can tap on a Twitter link in a mail and the official Twitter app will automatically open. This setting can be turned off for each app from the system settings in Android M. Christopher Orr has created a detailed post outlining how to implement app linking in Android M.
Universal linking in iOS9
Apple’s universal links function works similar to Android’s app links. It involves the creation of a server side file on your Web site that maps out what Web content is also available within your app.
If a user clicks on a link (using https: or http:) to your Web site on a iOS device that has your app installed, the app will automatically open. If the app is not installed on the device, the link will fall back to opening the link within the browser. Apps that have been opened via a universal link will display a system back button so users can easily open the originating app.
There is also a link to open the http: link in Safari. If users choose to open the link in Safari, the operating system will remember this choice so the next time the user opens a similar link, it will open Safari. The user can always change this by clicking on the smart app banner open in the app link on the top of the Web page. From that moment on, links will automatically open in the app.
The user is in full control over how they wish to read your content, and they can easily switch between browser and app.
This is an example of a www.vg.no link opened from the Notes app. The top right-hand corner displays a link to Safari and the top left-hand corner displays a link to the previous app (the Notes app).
Current solutions using URL schemas do not guarantee that the correct app will open as any app can adopt the same schema.
With universal links the “official” Web site will tell originating apps what schema to use and what Web content is available in the app. This connection, together with the smart app banner, helps Apple index your app content in search results. There is also a privacy benefit in that the originating app doesn’t need to check if the user has the app installed to link to it.
Apple has simultaneously clamped down on the number of URL schemas used in an app. Apps will be limited to using 50 URL schemas.
For more information and details of how to support universal links check out the WWDC video about universal linking.
There are many reasons publishers are promoting use of their apps: Safari extensions coming in iOS 9 that make ad blocking technology possible in mobile Safari, the popularity of apps with “time spent in apps up 63% over the past two years,” the generally better user experience possible in apps, push notifications, the possibility to deliver improved tracking, and ad solutions (such as location-based advertisements).
Universal links from Apple and app links from Android make it possible to promote use of your app without compromising the user experience. I hope that many app developers will support app linking so that users become accustomed to this form of navigation.