Android smartphone owners will have noticed that when you click on a link, say to a Twitter profile, your device will ask you whether you want to open it in your browser, the Twitter app, Hootsuite, or whatever other compatible apps you have installed.
The technology behind this feature, app indexing, is a simple and obvious way to improve how apps work, but one that will also have deep and complex implications for how media firms compete.
Until recently, apps lived in a curiously old-fashioned isolation. They were like islands with few connections to services elsewhere on the Internet, a bit like the walled gardens of AOL and Compuserve in the 1990s.
Their contents did not appear in the search results of Google or other search engines. Users could share links to specific items via Twitter, Facebook, and other means, but these would direct to webpages rather than to content within apps.
App indexing promises to change this, by cataloguing, analising, and exposing the content of apps to make them searchable, shareable, and generally more open.
Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter are each investing in their own approaches to the concept, while start-ups Branch Metrics, Deeplink.me, URX, Quixey, and Yozio offer cross-platform alternatives.
This sounds like good news for media firms competing for the increasingly divided attention of consumers. Google claims that traffic on the Yellow Pages and Etsy apps increased by 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, after they began using its app indexing technology.
The bad news is about control over the user experience. Say you operate a movie rental app. In an un-indexed world, a consumer looking for a movie to watch would have to open your app to discover its contents.
Your app would open to a homepage, highlighting new releases, promotions, and other items aimed at ensuring that the consumer makes a purchase instead of looking elsewhere.
Over time, your systems will personalise this homepage to reflect the user’s tastes, making your app the go-to destination for movie rentals for that customer.
In a world where apps are indexed, a consumer looking for a movie to watch might instead look or seek recommendations via search engines and social media.
If they do choose to open your app instead of one of the many others they might come across, it will be via a “sidedoor” direct to the content they were looking for. Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al will have taken on the role of the homepage.
It’s already a reality for media firms that compete via the Web, where linking is a fundamental part of the medium.
The media - not for the first time - recently proclaimed the “death of the homepage” after an internal New York Times report revealed that traffic to the newspaper’s homepage had halved in less than two years.
Visitors from social media and search had helped stabilise the overall number of page views, but other data suggests that such users visit less, read fewer pages, and spend less time at news sites than those that arrive direct.
One way for media firms to defend against this outcome is to make sure consumers enjoy using their apps as well as the content in them, by investing even more heavily in personalisation, curation, and the overall user experience.
The challenge is that Apple, Google, Facebook, et al will be doing exactly the same to ensure they become the favoured gateway for consumers to discover content, wherever it might be.
An alternative would be for media firms not to allow their apps to be indexed. But preventing your content from being found or talked about online doesn’t sound like a terrible wise strategy.
By Rob Gallagher - Research Analyst, Ovum