These days, Google doesn't just index web pages — it also indexes the content of mobile apps. What does that mean for developers and how can you take advantage of it?
Phone picture from Shutterstock
Google began experimenting with indexing app content from Android apps, a process also referred to as "deep linking", back in 2013, and introduced it to Australia in 2014. Earlier this year, it began testing the same feature for iOS devices, and it has now made that generally available across iOS 9. That means developers on the two most popular mobile platforms can now have content from their app indexed by Google, and it will potentially show up in search results.
That can work in a variety of ways. If someone searches for the name of your app on their mobile device, it will show up in the search results with the ability to install directly. That's potentially a means of having people discover your app which isn't dependent on it becoming prominent within Google Play or the iOS App Store.
However, the more interesting outcome is when Google actually shows content from within your app. If you search for a pizza restaurant in Dubbo on your phone, Google might surface results from restaurant-finding apps. If you have the relevant app installed, clicking on that link will open the relevant information directly. If you don't, you'll have the opportunity to install it.
That's obviously more beneficial for apps which offer some kind of information than for games or utilities. But how can you go about adding that feature, and what issues should you bear in mind?
At this week's SearchLove conference in London, Will Critchlow from Distilled discussed the implications of Google's approach. He noted that the ability to index app content opened up new possibilities for exposure. "It's the public index that's the big opportunity, because this is where the long tail is." Since the vast majority of apps never make money or become profitable, creating one that does requires you to ensure that it's visible in as many places as possible.
Indexing can also cover more than just app content. It can track app actions (such as playing a video or making a call).
However, that potential for expansion doesn't mean developers should neglect the basics — beginning with making sure that apps are visible in app stores and tagged correctly and carefully.
"You should absolutely do it. Put in the right meta information and check it carefully," Critchlow said. "It's just as easy to do it right as do it wrong."
In practice, building an app may not be the best business decision. "The app is a specialised browser designed just for browsing our content, and we need to have the fallback of it working on the mobile web as well." Critchlow said. "We should be thinking universal URLs. It should open anywhere."
A universal URL will work whether it's opened in a desktop browser, a mobile browser or a mobile app. The app version might be able to offer additional features (for instance, it might integrate with other apps such as email.) However, you don't necessarily need to build an app to integrate features; web-based APIs can be used for features such as geolocation. That has the advantage that you don't need to constantly maintain apps for multiple platforms.
If you do decide to build an app and have it indexed, you need to make sure that the experience of jumping from browser to app works for users. An app that demands users sign in to view content will interrupt the flow.
You also need to ensure that users can go back to their original search from within your app, Critchlow noted. That's relatively straightforward on Android, since users can use the hardware back button. For iOS, however, you need to make sure you implement a suitable button or gesture.
App indexing on its own isn't likely to make your app a success. But in a competitive marketplace, anything that encourages people to use your app more is worth testing.
Angus Kidman is editor-in-chief for comparison site finder.com.au and finder.com, a former editor for Lifehacker Australia and a man who still likes to think about how developers can make money. Follow him on Twitter @gusworldau.