More than a decade ago, Google‘s search engine solved one of the most frustrating characteristics of the web: its fragmentation. Now, the mobile industry faces an even more striking crisis as mobile users spend more and more time in often hermetically sealed applications.
The problem has shaped the trajectory of the industry. A deluge of vertical-specific applications now aim to not only help you find and discover content but also evaluate and buy goods and services. And without a central search engine to route traffic, application developers are spending billions of dollars to acquire new customers spawning a multi-billion dollar app download industry that now accounts for a large swatch of the revenues of Facebook, Twitter and others.
But that may change soon. San Francisco-based URX is one of handful of companies using web crawlers to index the information within applications and allowing developers to find and link to content in other applications. These “deep links” could allow a dating app, for instance, to surface restaurant recommendations from Yelp within the app and then allow users who have the Yelp app downloaded to open the app on the booking page.
We caught up with John Milinovich, chief executive at URX, to talk about the potential of deep linking and what it could mean for Google and the rest of the local technology industry.
Tell me a little bit about the threat which the fragmentation within the mobile ecosystem poses to some of the larger Internet companies today?
When you look at the biggest difference between desktop and mobile usage, the biggest thing is that you do not have to install a website to view its content. For Google, its biggest existential threat has always been vertical search. You go to Amazon to find that pair of red shoes instead of going to google to end up on Amazon. All of these vertical search engines — Yelp included — are often times much better at fulfilling that user intent but those are also the highest value queries for Google.
Fast forward today, the fact that you have install and app and then go into the app to figure out what’s inside it means this is an inherently distributed or vertical search-world that we live in. You’re not going to Google to search for content in apps. The big challenge for Google, whose dominance relies on being that central place where people go to find information, is figuring out what to do with mobile traffic
Is deep linking simply meant to replicate the structure of the web? Is this a correcting of a problem in the mobile environment?
That’s part of it. But I think deep linking goes deeper than just replicating the web. There’s so many things that mobile devices, and applications, can do that the web just can not. There’s so many more signals that are at a developers disposable when they’re building an app and so many things that are sensitive to a user’s context that an app can do that a website could never complete. A lot of the opportunity is to utilize and exploit the things that make mobile unique as a form factor to make these user experiences better.
I think location is the most important thing that mobile is sensitive to that the desktop and the traditional web world is not. There’s such as sensitivity between me and my device, and my device and my location. The ability to take that location as a signal and understand what context actually means as another layer of understanding of what i’m actually looking for was not possible before.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a handful of vertical-specific mobile applications build experience that pair discovery with fulfillment. Do you see that as something endemic to mobile or a momentary response to a broken mobile ecosystem?
The reason people yell from mountain tops about the need to build companies around different parts of the purchase funnel is a reaction to the fact that it’s a broken experience and still nascent space. If you’re able to understand that a user is in search-mode based on the types of content they are viewing or the words on the page, you can imagine how you can connect the top of funnel research mode to down the funnel fulfillment. There’s all of these interesting signals that exist just implicitly based on the apps which are installed on your phone.
If you can begin to surface not only the apps themselves, but what’s inside those apps, to what a user is doing at any point in time — that’s a huge opportunity. That way you can compress the funnel in a way that people have been trying to do for your but it has not been possible especially on mobile.
URX and Google both index information, but URX does not expose that information to the consumer through search. Talk a bit about the strategy here.
The opportunity for us is to become that connective fabric to connect apps together. That means both the organic ability to link app A to app B, but also the organic ability for app A to pay app B for conversion. The apps that succeed today are the ones that can do one very specific thing. You cannot do more than one thing if you expect to grow hundreds of millions of users. But there’s all of these adjacent actions, that because of the paradigm that apps are built today they cannot be housed in the same experience.
Imagine deep linking succeeds. Is there something unique about mobile where a single company, say Google, would not have dominance search on mobile to the same extent as the web?
That question is in much more in the hands of the operating systems than in the hands of developers. As a user, I would never open one app in order to search for things inside another app unless that thing was ten times better than Google. In my opinion, to build a ten times better search engine than google is a losing prospect when it comes to consumer facing search.
It’s something that’s much more up to Apple, in terms of what they are going to do with spotlight search, or to android, as Google continues to push forward on app indexing. But until then, as a user i will still have 45 apps on my device and i’ll still go directly to them to find something in order to do what i want to do.
Let’s talk about Google for a moment.
One of things that Google has focused on is how do they take their money maker, Ad Words, and allow that to utilize deep linking. That’s a huge opportunity for Google, but it’s also something that will be a multi-year endeavor. They need to make sure it’s ready to roll out internationally, adopted by their sales team, et cetera.
There’s a lot of things that Google is doing to take its current properties — mainly, Google Now and Google Search – and drive user back into apps. But these days, they’re much more focused on how to make it work on their own properties before figuring out how to make it work for third-party developers as well.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.