Coders Balk at Making Apps Searchable

Google and Microsoft push app developers to reveal their content

An attendee in line for the Google I/O conference in San Francisco on May 28.

An attendee in line for the Google I/O conference in San Francisco on May 28.

Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg

The giants of the Web have been pressing developers of mobile apps to index their content so it can be parsed by search engines or linked to from other sites. That’s already possible with most Web pages, thanks to pieces of embedded code known as deep links. Imagine a future in which a Google search for a “tulle mini” would call up results from Wish, a fashion app, along with links to e-commerce sites. A Facebook user who wanted to share a recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies from the Yummly app would be able to post a link that would take viewers to the relevant page instead of forcing them to download the app first.

So far, the effort has been a bit like herding cats: Only a few thousand apps—a tiny fraction of the millions out there—have adopted the competing tech protocols that Google, Facebook, Apple, and others are pushing.

Apps accounted for seven of every eight minutes Americans spent interacting with media on a mobile device in 2014, according to a survey by ComScore. But because they’re essentially walled gardens, there’s little visibility into who frequents them and what they do there. That’s frustrating for Google and Facebook, which make money by helping businesses target digital ads to the most receptive audiences.

Google’s pitch to developers is that deep links benefit them by driving more traffic to their apps. The company says traffic on the Yellow Pages and Etsy apps increased by 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, after they began using Google’s indexing. Rajan Patel, a principal engineer at Google, says more than 1,000 apps—mainly those designed for its Android mobile operating system but also some for Apple’s iOS—use its deep linking. “To us, the main advantage that we see coming from this is removing friction—not having to find the app on your phone and fire it up,” says Atul Kakkar, principal product manager at Eventbrite, a website that helps people publicize and sell tickets to yoga classes, tech conferences, and other happenings. The company plans to start indexing its app to enable Google searches.

Some developers have resisted using deep links because it’s costly and laborious to create separate code for each mobile platform. (Android and iOS are the predominant ones.) Inserting the links eats up as much as 5 percent of the time it takes developers to build an app, says Alex Matjanec, managing partner at AD:60, a New York-based ad agency that creates apps for clients.

More than 1,000 apps use the Facebook App Links feature, which the company and its partners rolled out last year, to embed deep links, says Eddie O’Neil, a product manager. Startup URX says its deep-links technology has been deployed by hundreds of apps; Yozio, which allows developers to create deep links that work on all platforms, says it services about 600.

Vincent Wehren, a product manager at Microsoft, announced in May that the company had embarked on a push to build “a massive index of apps” on its Bing search engine. At its annual developers conference in June, Apple said the new generation of iOS will be able to pull up content within apps—even if they’re not installed on the handset—provided developers have added the necessary code.

Still, the majority of app makers have resisted deep links, because they could reveal information they’d prefer to keep to themselves. Open Garden, maker of the FireChat messaging app, isn’t making its product searchable—at least, not yet—saying it doesn’t want companies like Google to have access to data on how many people use the app or what conversation topics are popular. “We prioritize features that are necessary over nice-to-have features that might please Google,” says Stanislav Shalunov, Open Garden’s chief technology officer.

Roger Kay, president of market-research firm Endpoint Technologies Associates, says the Internet used to be like a vast open range, and Google had access to all of it. “Then gradually the farmers showed up and started fencing things,” Kay says. “And these fences were put up by folks that were fencing in the best pastureland—that is to say, the highest-value search items.”

Facebook’s O’Neil predicts that, despite the pockets of resistance, deep linking will eventually become the norm for apps. “Developers will continue to adopt it,” he says. “It’s sort of inevitable.”

The bottom line: Only a few thousand mobile apps—out of several million—have links that enable their content to be searched.

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