Communicating between apps is often clumsy and usually results in breaking up the user experience and losing customers and users. However, “Deep linking” is changing the way that apps interact with each other, moving from a world of ‘closed gardens’ to a much more open and seamless platform. The way deep linking works is known to everyone who has used the internet: a link that takes you directly to a page deep within a website hierarchy, bypassing the upper pages to immediately take you to the content you wanted to see. It’s what the internet is built on, and the difference in user experience between that and mobile surfing is obvious: thanks to international standards for URLs, you don’t have to download a new browser or a plug-in every time you reach a new webpage, every browser can read anything in HTTP and take you you directly to the content you want. Unlike for mobile apps, at least until now …
Deep-linking for mobile is a URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) that links to a specific location within an application or app, as opposed to the generic homepage or simply launching the app and starting at its home screen. The technology has been going mainstream with recent coverage in the likes of the Huffington Post, which examined insights from a Deeplink conference and ReadWriteWeb, who called it the next big thing and a huge asset for marketers. Rightly so, as it promises to radically improve mobile app user experience and replicate the ease of navigation that the internet offers, but between applications.
As an example, imagine booking a restaurant table on the restaurant’s app. Once complete, the app shows you an ad for a cab company, and a fare from your home location to the restaurant in time for the reservation. Clicking on the link, there are currently a number of possible flows here: 1) the link takes you to the correct page in the cab’s app, which you have downloaded before, and retains time and location data; 2) you don’t have the app, so the link takes you to its download page 3) the link takes you to the cab company’s web-app (in a web browser), potentially losing your data for end location and time of booking. The second two effectively break the user experience, but if deep-linking is done correctly, you will be able to transition seamlessly from booking a table to booking a cab quickly and efficiently. The deep link, which would take the user to the native app or web-app, would point to the right page with all the necessary data, allowing you to book a cab with a single click after the initial one on the advert.
The technology is still in its nascent stage and is yet to be perfectly streamlined. There are a number of companies tackling the issue, all with their takes and solutions: URX for example will detect whether you have the correct app, and if not, bypass the download process entirely by taking you to the correct web-app page, without losing metadata. WildCards creates a “card” – effectively extracting a snippet of code from the app, allowing you to use it without having to download it fully. Button and Branch, which has a handy guide on Deep Linking basics, will install the native app, but without losing the metadata, avoiding having to re-enter it or search for the content again within the website. OneLink aims to produce a single “smart” link able to direct users to the correct URL, a solution similar to that of link-shortening giants Bitly who have recently thrown their considerable weight into the technology. Finally there is Applinks, which has the advantage of being open source, and DeepLink, who offer a wide support base with translation rules for pre-existing pages into deep-links.
These solutions, as with all new technologies, each present some issues. For starters, for cards and direct deep-links, the entirety of the mobile and web apps need to be coded to support it, which can be daunting for smaller developers. If the link does detect which OS your user has, it will need a native app for that OS. While UX may be seamless, it’s hard to track user information with deep links, decreasing the precision of your metrics and segmentation. Another very important issue is that Apple, for one, does not allow credit card data to be passed between apps: you may have to download the application, sign-up and re-enter details manually regardless of how streamlined the experience is, making “cards” more valuable for content-only websites.
Lastly, unlike HTTP, there is no settled, international protocol on deep linking and app structure, and what works for one app, browser or OS might not work for the rest. MobileDeepLinking, however is a collaborative industry effort attempting to bring deep-linking companies together to establish a standard, and is also a great learning resource on SDKs, implementation and protocols. The companies working hard to get the technology off the ground are listed below.
The Full List:
URX seamlessly takes you to the mobile website if the specific app is not installed, and does not lose metadata in the process. Very easy to implement with a drag-and-drop widget framework, URX’s API supports both iOS and Android with different SDKs and allows you to track actions and audience behaviour. As one of the pioneers of the technology, it also has extensive documentation in place.
Monetises deep-link “actions” and keeps user’s contextual data.
Tagline: Intelligently Links Apps Together
URX is combining deep linking with monetization opportunities
Button‘s solution, which supports all platforms, is to “break out” the app silo. It’s DeepLink Commerce platform drives complementary app installations to increase functionality. It offers both server and SDK solutions for the technology, its API also allows for links with specific rewards for loyal customers. It has also partnered with Uber, among others, making it a key player in the business of corollary app installations.
Has both server-side API and app SDK implementation
Tagline: Building Connected App Experiences
Button is positioning itself as the leading deep linking platform
Branch allows you to personalise the flow through which users will see the links to your application and how they install. With a one-for-all-platforms system it will attempt to install the app if you don’t have it, but retains metadata in the process and brings users to the correct landing page. It’s link creation is also free of charge, and tracks a large number of stats including clicks, installs, referrals and conversion rates.
Incentivises referrals by monetising them, very easy implementation (three calls to add)
Tagline: Grow organically with referrals and invites
An example of a personalised deep link invitation flow
Deeplink offers custom translation rules allowing for your pre-existing app pages and standard URLs to apply to specific platforms, ad formats and campaigns. With a focus on coders, it was built with the intent to track LTVs and the routes users take to arrive at their desired content. It is also free up to 30k clicks per month, after which there is a scalable price plan based on volume. Their links support engagement analytics and card-based apps, as well as native-app retargeting.
Does not require an SDK to install
Tagline: The Largest Mobile Deep Linking Platform for iOS and Android
Deeplink’s two major services, deep-links and AppWords
Bitly has dived in to Deep Linking technology by applying it directly to its already extensive link-creation and brand management platform. Its “BitLink” takes the user directly to the page they want to see or the product they want to add in their basket via either downloading the relevant app or taking the user to the equivalent HTML5 page. It also carries contextual data through, analysing and segmenting it with Bitly’s tracking tools, and the company offers a huge support knowledge base in the forms of ebooks, webinars and slides.
Already integrated in its large Bitly Brand Tools Platform
Tagline: The Largest Mobile Deep Linking Platform for iOS and Android
Bitly’s three main resource tools
WildCard, as the name implies, creates “cards”: these borrow snippets of code from the target website, extract data and display it to the user on a “card” application such as Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and its own app. Though currently available only on the US App Store, it offers an immediate way of accessing a web app without having to download it, its library of pre-made cards and extractions rules is growing fast and it is very easy to implement using Ruby.
Different “extraction rules” depending on whether the content is video, text, or commerce-based.
Tagline: Browse a Better Mobile Web
An example of a WildCard Card
AppLinks is free and open source, is fully compatible with all platforms, and comes with the Facebook Index API, allowing for links to be checked to see if they are deep-linking compatible. It keeps metadata and supports mobile-only; if you don’t have a mobile website or app, it will translate your internet app via the use of Parse. It can also already count Spotify, GoodReads and Hulu among its top-line partners, and it has a strong support community on Stack Overflow.
Fully customisable API, down to the coding level
Tagline: Cross-Platform, Open Source and Simple Deep Linking
App Links Spotlight
OneLink is the deep-linking solution created by AppsFlyer. The platform creates one single “smart link” which directs users to the correct app or website native to their platform. With either direct or deffered links, it carries metadata through to the install, has an organic pricing plan which scales with volume and is already compatible with other deep linking platforms and code.
Smart links can direct to specific newsletters, QR codes or campaigns, not just landing pages.
Tagline: One Smart Link to Rule Them All
How deep linking changes flow depending on the user
Seamless surfing on mobile is not as polished as its internet big-brother, which benefits from an established standard. The technology however is moving forward quickly, with creative solutions to the “app silo” problem, increasing the quality of user experience for millions of app users worldwide. The current deep-linking solutions may not be flawless, but they take a step in the right direction in making mobile app browsing, buying and consumption as smooth as can be for users. This is surely a technology that is only going to get more sophisticated and now is the time to get to grips with it in your apps.