It was inevitable that apps were going to become increasingly relevant to search at some point. And it seems that this point is now; not only did Google announce that it’s to begin indexing Android apps, but Bing has also revealed that it is to build a “massive index of apps and app actions” aimed at helping users to discover app content.
However, it’s not possible to have searchable links within apps and it’s pretty difficult to find apps through search due to this. This means that users have to trawl through the app stores and various categories in order to find an app they like. This also means that it’s actually fairly difficult to find an app which isn’t one of the top apps and hasn’t made it to the charts (or isn’t in the top 50).
For developers, this means that it’s increasingly difficult to make any cash from an app, no matter how good it is. If it hasn’t been picked up and caught the imagination of investment funders looking for the ‘next hot startup’ then it’s easy for an app to disappear almost as soon as it’s published.
With this in mind, Bing and Google are looking at crawling app content in order to give users more relevant returns and ensure that developers can get their work found. If the idea takes hold, then in years to come it’s likely that we’ll have an app index that’s searchable just like we currently have an index of websites.
What Does This Mean for SEOs?
Currently, not much really. There are immediate changes that you can make which we’ll talk about a little later. However, it looks like in the future it will become very relevant as app developers will need SEO professionals to help them to optimise content for apps. Currently, developers rely on a few things to help market their apps.
- Social media
- Landing pages
- WOMM (word of mouth marketing)
To launch an app can be expensive and whilst you can optimise keywords and descriptions for the app store (ASO – app store optimisation), that doesn’t help in normal search. Social media and AdWords campaigns can be used to raise app awareness and if the developer is versatile, then they can also apply growth hacking techniques to further boost marketing.
On the web, it’s natural to search for content, rather than the name of a website or the industry category that it’s in. This is the reason why companies write blog posts and other content and the reason that it should be highly relevant to the industry niche. Apps don’t contain the same kind of content that a website does though and according to Bing Blogs: appear as “walled gardens that hide the rich content that lives inside them from searchers.”
So in order for a user to understand what an app does and how they can use it, they first have to install it. Since only a few apps perform well in each category, this means that the user only comes across certain ones and these might not be the one that is best suited to the task that they need to perform.
Bing thinks that it has the answer to this by “expanding its Actions Intelligence to Bing and Bing-powered search (including Cortana).
” This will allow it to build a large index of apps and app actions and for developers, this means that you can use standardised markup on your site in order to “establish the link between your content and your app, as well as between your content entities and the actions your apps can perform on them.”
So that you can do this, Bing has leveraged two open standards and is encouraging developers to start using them on their sites. If you are thinking of offering ASO as a service to app developers, then you can offer to carry out this optimisation too:
- App Links allow users to open content with apps straight from web search results and use it directly on the device rather than in the browser.
- schema.org can be used to help app discovery using the ‘action vocabulary’ to look for an app based on the actions that it can perform on the content that’s being searched for.
App Links has already been used by Facebook in its ads for deep-linking into apps. According to Bing,
“It takes the well-known concept of the URL to create a relationship with a corresponding URI that points to the same content or activity in an app.”
In order to make the relationship between the URL and URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) you will need to add markup to a web page that’s already been published using meta tags, which appear in the head section of the HTML.
These look like this:
<meta property=“al: (platform) : (property name) ” content=(property value)” />
So, if you had an app, then you would map your web address – for example https://xen.com.au – to your app which responds to the URI xen://doc which on iOS would add the following markup to your web page in the <head> section.
<meta property=“al:ios:url” content=“xen://docs” />
<meta property=“al:ios:app_store_id” content=“123456789” />
<meta property=“al:ios:app_name” content=“xen app” />
So when the site is crawled, the bot will not only be able to discover content about the site, but also index the “web-address-to-app-address relationship.” This means that Bing will show the website URL and the deep links for the app in its search results. Bing has also supplied a helpful new tools to help you to test the markup, the Applinks Markup Tester. You can use this to help you to learn more about the markup and to validate the markup you’ve added.
It’s likely that you’ve come across schema.org markup before, even if you’re currently not using it. Schema is used to markup websites with structured data and last year, it announced the Actions vocabulary. In the context of apps, this can be used to apply an action that a user might be searching for.
If the action was to listen to an audiobook then the ‘Listen’ action would be added to the markup to establish a relationship between your site, your app and the action that a user can take when they use the app.
“Expressing the relationship between entity, action, and your app using schema.org is a bit more involved than App Links markup, but it is extremely powerful in that it allows your web page as well as app to rank a whole new range of entity action-oriented queries.”
The app developer would be required to ensure that the app will open at the right location and it is device/OS specific. For further information check out the App Links website, which contains detailed instructions for certain actions and platforms.
You can start to use App Links and Schema for apps on Bing immediately, so why not head on over there now – get experimenting early and it’s likely that you’ll win more customers. App developers have had it hard in the past few years and there’s very few that make a good amount of money from apps alone. Having the ability to make apps more visible in search should make the market more competitive and allow developers to market them online more fruitfully.
Apps on Google
Google has begun to index Android apps and it’s thought that 15% of searches carried out on Android devices show deep app links. Further to this, the last quarter of last year (2014) showed a 10x increase in deep app link clicks.
Again, these use URIs to enable an app to perform actions such as playing a video on a mobile device. For example, Spotify uses deep app links to take users directly to content that they’re searching for, such as specific content by an artist such as their music or biographical information.
You will need to ensure that the developer has added deep linking to the app and then it’s just a case of connecting the app’s website using Google Play and Webmaster Tools. According to Google,
“For those pages of your website that correspond to your app, you should indicate alternate content available from your Android app with deep links. This helps Google Search display the right content for mobile users searching for you content using the Google App or the Chrome browser.”
You can do this in one of three ways:
- Use a <link> element in the <head> section of a web page
- Use an <xhtml:link> element in the sitemap URL element and specify the page
- Use schema.org for the potential action
Since Bing also uses Schema, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with it anyway so that you can also use it for Google, if you don’t already. You will also have to ensure that your site is the “official application” for your site by connecting the app to your site through Google Play Console and Google Search Console. This allows Google to notify you if any errors show up in the app and it also allows you to use the simple debugging workflow in Search Console.
Currently, Google isn’t analysing any actual app content, other than the app title and location information, according to Dan Cristo. He says that the information sent is used to keep track of the app content on the website and in the app, as all of the content within the app isn’t yet indexed and tied into the search algorithm.
Instead, actions known as intent filters are set up by the app developer which allow Google to know when a user is viewing app content. The corresponding website is then checked to see if the app content’s title matches a page on your website. This in turn allows Google to be notified when a user views content on the app and add the content to the indexing API. However, you should note that it doesn’t necessarily index all of that content and as such, you should pay particular attention to titles when creating app content (and keywords).
Once the app has been added to the index, then Google can offer a user the option of viewing that content to a user by opening the app, as it knows that it exists there.
A Return to Native Apps?
We’ve seen a slight shift take place in recent years from native apps to web apps, as HTML5 and CSS3 have become more widely used. However, with all of the attention that the major search engines are paying to apps when it comes to discoverability, we could see the focus shift once more.
Currently, we’re seeing the same players at the top of the app charts and there’s little room for small, independent app developers to make a good living. However, with these improvements to search, we should start to see this get better again in coming years and the market become more competitive. For SEO professionals, this means that you can expand your current client base by offering both ASO and enhanced search for the developer’s website.
For brands, it’s important that marketers understand how search is likely to shift in coming years if they are to compete with an influx of optimised apps. However, it’s worth pointing out that Google looks primarily at the content on the corresponding website so this should be optimised to suit.
Remember that app indexing and linking is new and if you consider how search worked years ago, then it’s likely that we’ll see a lot of hiccups before it’s really useful. We’re also likely to see the spammers jump on the bandwagon too and attempt to trick the system like we did with search, which has of course become much better in recent years. As Dan points out, search engines use 100s of signals that influence ranking and to determine a site’s worth. However, those signals just don’t exist for apps as yet – we’re still in the learning phase (although with apps it’s a more informed kind of learning than when web search first came about).
Get learning about it though and how to add markup to sites, and it could prove to be a lucrative area of business in the years to come.