Both Apple and Google have worked simultaneously on improving app linking, and essentially blurring the lines between content displayed in an app and content in a mobile website.
I’ve written about deep link strategies before and the challenges and tactics employed for linking to and searching for content available in apps. Facebook developed applinks a protocol designed to address this problem, twitter cards make it possible to link directly to your app from a tweet, google app indexing makes it possible to display app links in google searches,iOS8 extensions allow apps to specify what actions they support, the smart app bannerpromotes a websites app and can link directly to content within that app.
Websites that implement Apples universal links protocol new in iOS9 and Androids applinks protocol coming in Android M can specify that a web link (http and https) open an app directly instead of opening a web browser. Users who use a browser to surf your website are unaffected but any user who clicks on a link via another app (for example sms, mail, facebook, twitter etc) will be sent directly to the app. This feature should dramatically increase the number of people using your mobile apps. You will first need to convenience users to download your app.
App linking in Android M
Currently Android apps (using intents) display a dialog prompt box asking users which app they would like to open a link with. The user can choose to always use the same app to open these kind of links.
In Android M, website owners who have implemented app Linking can auto-verify which app should be opened when a user clicks on a link (http and https). So the user will not be prompted to choose an app, the link will simply open in the app belonging to the website without displaying the prompt. Apps can now be verified as the official app associated with a website. For example users can tap on a twitter link in a mail and the official Twitter app will automatically open. This setting can be turned off for each app from the system settings in Android M. Christopher Orr has created a detailed post outlining how to implement app linking in Android M.
Universal linking in iOS9
Apples universal links protocol works similar to Android app links. It involves the creation of a server side file on your website that maps out what web content is also available within your app.
If a user clicks on a link (using https or http) to your website on a iOS device that has your app installed the app will automatically open, if the app is not installed on the device the link will fallback to opening the link within the browser. Apps that have been opened via a universal link will display a system back button so users can easily open the originating app. There is also a link to open the http link in safari. If users choose to open the link in safari the OS will remember this choice so that the next time the user opens a similar link it will open safari. The user can always change this by clicking on the ‘Smart app banner’ open in app link on the top of the webpage. From that moment on links will automatically open in the app. The user is in full control over how they wish to read your content and they can easily switch between browser and app.
Current solutions that use URL schemas do not guarantee that the correct app will open as any app can adopt the same schema. With Universal links the ‘official’ website will tell originating apps what schema to use and what web content is available in the app. This connection together with the smart app banner helps apple index your app content in search results. There is also a privacy benefit in that the originating app doesn’t need to check if the user has the app installed to link to it. Apple have simultaneously clamped down on the amount of url schemas used in an app, apps will be limited to using 50 url schemas per app.
For more information and details of how to support universal links see “Use Universal Links to Enable Your App to Handle Links to Your Website”. You can also check out the WWDC video about universal linking.
There are many reasons publishers are promoting use of their apps. Safari extensions coming in iOS 9 that make Ad blocking technology possible in mobile safari, the popularity of apps with “time spent in apps up 63 percent over the past two years”, the in general better user experience possible in apps, push notifications, the possibility to deliver improved tracking and ad solutions e.g location based advertisements. Universal links from Apple and applinks from Android make it possible to promote use of your app without compromising the user experience. I hope that many app developers will support app linking, so that users become accustomed to this form of navigation.