Back in 2012, I predicted that Google would use an API to crawl app content. My thinking was that Google’s current method of crawling Web pages with a spider was not only inefficient, but it was based on hyperlinks. Apps don’t use hyperlinks to connect content as Web pages do, so a much better way for Google to discover content in an app is through an API.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Google has released the ability to index app content through an API called the Mobile App Indexing API. It’s a little different than what I had conceived back in 2012, but the premise is the same.
My vision in 2012 was Google requesting access to a brand’s content API in the same way mobile apps use APIs to populate content within the app from a Web server. However, Google’s Mobile App Indexing API works differently in that developers notify Google of where content lives within their app and what URL that content correlates to on their website. Google then has the option of sending users to view the content on a Web page or inside the app.
How It Works
From Google’s App Indexing API site (emphasis mine):
“The App Indexing API provides a way for developers to notify Google about deep links in their native apps and allows the Google app, version 3.6 and above, to drive re-engagement through Google Search query autocompletions, providing fast and easy access to inner pages in apps. The deep links reported using the App Indexing API are also used by Google to index app content and are surfaced in Google Search results.“
The first thing developers need to do is enable deep linking for their app from the Developers Console. The next step is to connect your app to your website. Then make sure the app is set up to work with Google Play services. Now comes the fun part…
Your developers will need to set up actions called “intent filters” that tell Google when a user is viewing a section of content, what the content’s title is, and if there is a Web page on your site that has the same content.
When a user views a piece of content in your app, Google will be notified via their app indexing API that the content exists in the app.
Later, when a person using Google search is looking for the corresponding content on your website, Google can offer them the option of viewing the content in your app instead. If the user selects that option, the app is opened up and the user is taken directly to the content they are looking for.
As far as I can tell, the app isn’t actually sending any content to Google other than the title and the location of the content. So Google isn’t really analyzing any content at this point; it’s simply keeping track of where the content lives on your site and in your app. In that sense, the API is truly just “indexing” and doesn’t appear to be tied into their search algorithm yet.
Where We’re at Today
Google’s Mobile App Indexing API is more about helping users navigate to content it already knows about deep inside an app, as opposed to Google using the API to discover and analyze new content it didn’t know existed.
In other words, Google is going to have a really hard time figuring out whether your app’s content should outrank a competitor’s Web page, but if Google already knows that the content on your site outranks a competitor’s, it’s happy to direct a user to read the content on your app instead of your own site, because it’s a better experience.
This signals the beginning of a major shift in search.
This signals the beginning of a major shift in search: apps will start competing with traditional websites for rankings and traffic. That obviously means that brands need to know how to optimize their own app content to show higher in Google’s search results. However, there are a few factors to consider right now:
- While Google can point a user to content within an app, the ranking itself is still primarily based off the Web version of the content. One would assume that things like whether the user has already downloaded the app and how much time they spend in the app would factor into the ranking as well, but there really isn’t any hard proof of that yet.
- It is possible that content inside an app doesn’t have a corresponding Web page, in which case the app content could outrank other Web pages, but it’s unlikely at this point.
- With websites Google can look at links, user behavior, social activity, page structure, site themes, and a ton of other signals that tell them if it’s a high-quality piece of content worthy of a number one ranking. With apps, a lot of those signals don’t exist yet.
Therefore, right now, app SEO is less about optimizing the app itself, and more about optimizing the Web-based version of the content and linking that content to the identical content within the app. Then Google can decide which version of the content to show the search, depending on the device and behavior of the person performing the search.
What’s in Store for Tomorrow
Building the infrastructure for developers to submit their app content to Google is a huge step toward bringing app content to the search results.
In the future, it’s not hard to imagine a day when Google allows developers to submit full content and meta data through the Indexing API. This opens the door for Google to begin ranking app data independently of website data. I would argue that this step is needed for Google to keep up with the evolution of the Internet, considering many apps don’t have a fully functional Web counterpart.
The move also answers one of the biggest obstacles facing developers: How can people find my app? Let’s be honest, the Apple App Store’s search functionality is pretty bad as far as search engines go, and Google Play isn’t much better. By tying app content to existing website content, Google can use Web-based search signals to improve Google Play store rankings.
One of the things that held companies back companies from making websites in the early days of the Internet was search was so horrible that nobody wanted to use it. With nobody using search, many websites could not get discovered, and that discouraged companies from investing in a site early on.
Today Google is working to solve the same issue with apps. If app search becomes great, users are more inclined to look for apps, which incentives companies to invest in a strong app presence.
The New Generation of SEO
I believe Google’s App Indexing API will change the conversation of what true app SEO is and how it will evolve. Instead of just optimizing the title and description of an app’s listing in the app store, now we can actually talk about optimizing the content inside the app itself. It will be as if a giant SEO reset button has been pushed, as Google begins analyzing app-specific ranking factors. There will be new tactics, metrics, tools, and reports. In many ways, it’s the beginning of a new generation of SEO.
What do you think? Can we anticipate app SEO to finally emerge as its own branch of optimization?