App Development

How to Take Advantage of the Biggest Mobile Opportunity of 2015 - App Indexing

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For years, apps have existed as individual silos, with their data all but invisible to search engines. Recently, however, Google and Apple have made strides in indexing app content. Now, users can find information in an app as easily as they can on a website, or be directed to a native app for content they searched for on the web.

There are several pieces to App Indexing that make implementation complicated, but understanding these pieces is critical as the results are potentially massive. What we are looking at is one of the largest SEO opportunities in years.

Local App Search (iOS only)

iOS apps can now let the OS index their content (even when the app is not installed!) so it can be searched in Spotlight (Apple’s top-line search iOS search function). Indexable Items include:

  • Activities or app features (e.g. “shopping”)
  • individual items (e.g. “a dress for sale for $199” or ”Flight to Maui")
  • Locations (e.g. “Bubba’s BBQ in Nob Hill")
  • Media (e.g. “Taylor Swift’s new album”)
  • Long form content (e.g. news articles)
  • Other custom objects

How It Works

  • The app declares certain items that can be indexed. It can update these items whenever it wants.
  • When the user searches for something in Spotlight, the app’s results may appear.
  • If a user selects one of the app’s results, the OS will open the app and provide it with the information from the selected search result so that the app may take the appropriate action.
  • The app will need to add code to support this, and the client will need to tell us which content should be indexed. It is important to note that one should not “index everything,” because search priority is given to the results that are most frequently selected.
  • More Notes from Apple: https://developer.apple.com/library/prerelease/ios/releasenotes/General/WhatsNewIniOS/Articles/iOS9.html

Website-to-App Linking (both iOS and Android)

Google’s “App Indexing”:

  • A way for websites to direct users directly to their app from a google search or the chrome browser
  • Android is currently supported, iOS is in Beta

How it works

  • The website specifies alternate URLs to use if the app is installed
  • When a supported page is entered, it will open in the app instead
  • Either the app needs to decipher web URLs into app URLs, or the website needs to provide agreed-upon URLs that the apps can also open

Other Notes

Apple’s “Universal Links”

  • A way for websites to open appropriate pages in their app instead
  • Universal links also allow other apps to automatically open website URLs directly in the website’s app without going to the browser.

How it works

  • The website specifies which of its URLs can be opened in the app via a “app association” JSON file.
  • If a supported website page is opened in the browser, safari automatically routes the user to the app instead. The app must decode the URL and take the appropriate action.
  • The app must know how to parse website URLs into app URLs

Other Notes

Website SEO Enhancements (iOS only)

Web Markup

  • Apple only: Allows a website to have their search results show up in the device local search.

How it works

  • Websites add markup to their content, apple’s bots crawl the website and store it so search results can be shown when searching in Spotlight or Safari.

Other Notes

To Do

  • Develop a Strategy: It’s critical to develop a strategy now around how app indexing could work with your app and on your website before the next mobile operating systems roll out this fall. Map which content your app users (or potential users) may be searching for. You need to be judicious though, because there will be SEO penalties for simply indexing all content. Both public data, such as general information and resources, and private data, like travel or movie tickets purchased, customized news content/blogs, or even messages, can be indexed.

  • Create a Cross-Team Implementation Plan: Your SEO, web, and app development teams will need to support each other. These services are typically provided by different internal and/or external teams, so early coordination is critical. For example, app developers can provide your web team the necessary deep links into the app, while the SEO team can help the mobile developers identify key titles and keywords to use when tagging app content. Only by putting together a cross-functional team will you be able to realize the full opportunity of significantly increasing your mobile SEO.

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