Why the Dark, Mysterious & Broken World of App Discovery Needs SEO

Searching for an app in app stores is a bit like searching on the web used to be. It’s basically a black box – you never know what you’re going to get. In fact, your search can be exceptionally specific and still not find what you’re looking for. For example, see what happens when I search for Adobe Analytics on the iTunes App Store.

search for adobe app in app store

Case in point: App discovery is frustrating, agonizing, and probably the least user-friendly digital process we have today. But that’s not for lack of trying. App discovery is in its infancy. So we, as consumers and as marketers, are relatively powerless.

But that’s not an excuse to remain so. By 2020, there will be 50-200 billion connected devices, according to Intel and Cisco. Users are projected to spend more than 101 billion dollars on mobile apps via app stores.

The world needs a better search, and not just four years from now. We need it now. Eighty-eight percent of our phone use is app driven – a surprising number when you think of how infuriating it can be to actually find the app you’re looking to use.

App discovery needs a makeover, and it’s up to a select group of marketers to do it: SEOs.

App Discovery & SEO

As the digital world becomes increasingly more mobile, it continues to enforce a new definition of SEO. SEOs don’t just optimize the web – we’ll optimize everything, especially as we move toward The Internet of Things. We’ll be the key people responsible for connecting users and brands in an elegant way. That’s how SEOs will make the world a better place.

Today, that starts with app discovery.

For a lot of SEOs, app optimization is still the new frontier, the Wild West. It has all of the same ambiguity and mystique of Google’s algorithm. Despite increasing app usage, it is still this futuristic idea for most of us. We know technically what it means: we want our app to appear naturally in search results along with other websites. But how does app optimization really differ from traditional SEO? Is it really different than how Google crawls and indexes traditional websites?

App optimization, like traditional SEO, is constantly changing, and there are a lot of resources out there with differing information. With this post, we’ll break through the clutter and dig out what we really need to know about how to make app discovery more user friendly.

So, What Is App Indexing?

You may already understand that app indexing refers to the way search engines discover and index content within Android and iOS apps. But how are search engines indexing that content? App indexing, and deep links as an extension of that, is what is making app content accessible to users.

Ensuring search engines can access app content is what puts your app in search results. By allowing the crawling a indexing of the URL patterns provided, search engines use API calls from your app to make content within it available to both existing and new users. More specifically, if an app utilizes URLs for content, smartphone users can go directly to those deep level “pages” from search results.

Why does this come in handy? Because over 200 million apps were downloaded in 2015 alone. Because the average person only uses 26% of their apps daily. Because one in four apps are never used at all after installation.

By ensuring your app appears in search results, you’re not only re-engaging existing app users, but you're also generating new users. This is how you increase your install base as well as usage rates.

How Does App Indexing Work?

The first step in understanding app indexing is to understand deep linking. Deep linking is using a specific URL to link to specific screens or content within an app, specifically for apps with comparable webpage content. These links direct users to specific content within the app rather than simply launching the app home screen. Google indexes these in-app pages and displays them to users, and this is what allows app content to rank in mobile search results.

Leveraging deep links means users searching on Android devices that do not have the app installed will see links to the app appear in mobile search results. This is how businesses and app creators generate new users beyond the decaying app store model. Android users who do have the app installed will see autocomplete suggestions from Google when they search.

Note: the benefits of reaching a new user base only apply on Android devices. On iOS devices, only apps that the user already has installed appear naturally in search results — meaning the primary benefit of ensuring app indexation is implemented for iOS is reengaging existing users.

 App Indexing Implementation

1. Add Support for Deep Links

The first step is simple: Support HTTP deep links in your mobile app. For Android devices the process is simple. First, you define intent filters to explicitly state the URL patterns for your app and add logic within the app to handle those intent filters. From there, associate the app and the site in Google Search Console and Play Developer Console. This allows Google to automatically start indexing URLs to the app.

For iOS, you establish support for deep links by explicitly setting up support for "Universal Links”, which are HTTP links that have a single URL and can open both a page on a website and the corresponding view in an app.

2. Implement the App Indexing API for Android

Next you need to set up actual app indexing using the App Indexing API for Android or by integrating the App Indexing SDK for iOS 9. Remember, this is what enables search autocomplete for users. This is also what will allow us to define the app’s meta data including the title, description, URL and type for appropriate activities.

This step, although not technically a requirement to have your app indexed, is highly recommended as Google publicly announced that mobile apps utilizing the App Indexing API “may receive a rankings boost in organic search results”.

3. Map App Pages to Equivalent Web Pages

Lastly, you will explicitly map your web pages to their corresponding app pages using one of three methods: the rel=alternate tag, your XML sitemaps, or Schema markup. This process is similar to optimization for a unique mobile site setup. If your site utilized an m. domain, these are the steps you would take to ensure the mobile URLs are mapped to the primary domain URLs.

Currently, Google does not support app indexation for apps that do not have corresponding web content / static pages. Unfortunately, this means that, if you have content only available in-app, it will not be eligible to appear in natural search results. However, Google is constantly evolving, and they are working on this. They have tested the water with a select few apps that offer app-only content.

Find a more detailed explanation of implementation for Android and iOS here.

App Ranking Factors 

The accessibility of your app is considered one of the primary ranking signals and dictates how users see the app whether it’s installed or not. At a more granular level, there are a few “known” positive ranking factors that have been inferred, such as installation status, technical implementation and meta data.

Although one of the benefits of leveraging app indexing is increasing visibility among users who do not have your app installed, Android apps will rank higher for users who already have the app installed. And similar to traditional SEO ranking factors, technical and descriptor elements play a heavy role in how your app appears in the SERPs. This means you have to confirm implementation of deep linking and the App Indexing API are correct, and markup your app content with descriptive and user-friendly title tags and descriptions.

There are also a few common pitfalls to avoid that can have a negative impact on your app’s ranking ability such as app content incorrectly matched to web page content and overuse of certain advertising elements.

When mapping your app content to site content, it is imperative that the content actually mirror one another. Google will not index deep links to apps that don’t mirror the defined site content. On the bright side, Google will explicitly tell you if there are “Mismatch Errors” in Google search console, making it an easy fix.

Both Google and Apple greatly discourage overuse of JavaScript banners, interstitials and pop-ups in apps. This type of overlay on content creates not only a poor user experience, but it can prevent Google from being able to match the app content to the corresponding site content, causing those Mismatch Errors mentioned above. Much like traditional SEO, if it creates a poor user experience, chances are it will also have a negative impact in your app’s ability to rank organically.

The Future of App Optimization in SEO

As app usage continues to grow, app indexing and deep linking will become a core part of optimization strategies. As SEOs our focus should be on improving connection signals between apps and websites to ensure we’re sending users to the most relevant version of content.

If you’re looking for more information on App Indexing, I highly recommend checking out the Search Engine Land three-part series on App Indexing & The New Frontier of SEO, co-authored by Emily Grossman and Cindy Krum. Part One can be found here: Apple Search + iOS App Indexing.

Written by Stephanie Wallace on May 3, 2016


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Written by
Stephanie Wallace
Vice President, Marketing