Last November, Google announced it would begin hosting some mobile apps on its own servers, enabling Android smartphone owners to use the apps without having to download them. The initiative is the latest development in an "app indexing" process the company started two years ago to address the fact that more search traffic comes from mobile devices than from desktops these days.
The goal has been to provide Google searchers with results that originate inside mobile apps — so-called "deep links" — in addition to standard results from the open Web. According to a Google blog post, the company has indexed 100 billion such links, and 40% of the searches Android users perform result in content from apps.
Until now, deep linking has required app developers to match the content in the app with content on their website, explained a Google spokesperson. However, many apps contain much richer content than is on the website, not to mention that many apps do not even have corresponding websites. By hosting the entire app on its own servers, Google is able to serve up content that does not have, or need, a Web presence.
The results are delivered as streaming video, but users can interact with them as though they actually had the app on their device. If the searcher already has the app, on the other hand, clicking the search result opens the app and loads the page containing the result.
Apps hosted so far include HotelTonight, Weather, Chimani, Gormey, My Horoscope, Visual Anatomy Free, Useful Knots, Daily Horoscope, and the New York MTA Subway Map. These hosted apps offer most of the same functionality as the standalone versions; for example, a user can search for hotels in HotelTonight and carry through to booking a room. According to the Google spokesperson, most app features should work, but certain device and app permissions, such as user location, may restrict some functions.
The hosted apps are not really intended to be alternatives to downloading and using apps in the standard way; Google is not trying to compete with app developers. Rather, the hosted apps are meant to improve results from an organic Google search in the browser, and if that keeps the searcher in the browser using Google rather than an app, so much the better for Google.
The popularity of smartphones has Google on the horns of a dilemma. Data from app analytic company Flurry in 2014 showed 86% of a U.S. mobile device user's time is spent on apps. That somewhat overstates the case, says Ethan Hays, head of digital products at B2B marketing agency gyro. "When you look at how the app usage actually breaks out, it turns out that there are relatively few apps that people use, but they use them a ton," he says. For example, Facebook and other social media apps account for more than a quarter of all time spent on apps.
Nevertheless, time spent on apps is time not spent in a browser, and tracking browser activity and enabling advertising based on it has always been Google's primary business model. Google's mission has always been to organize the world's information for users and make it accessible to them, and if the information is locked up in apps, the company cannot do that.
"Google is king of the Web, but not king of the Internet," says Mike Grehan, CMO and managing director at digital marketing agency Acronym Media. "I wake up in the morning, grab my iPad, and check my email: that's an app. I go to Facebook; that's an app. I do something on Twitter; that's an app. I can spend an entire day using the Internet without ever having to open a browser."
The challenge for Google, says Hays, is "How do I give you, the user, visibility into that closed world without making you take a bunch of steps you're probably not comfortable with?" Since Google was unable to reach into the apps, the answer was to bring the apps into Google.
There is another benefit of this app search capability to Google, says Grehan: "They're trying to get into the transaction space." People are increasingly reliant on mobile apps to reserve hotel rooms, book flights, buy movie tickets, and so on; hosting apps like HotelTonight will let Google get in on that trend as well.
The initiative can also solve a problem for app developers. "An average smartphone user in the U.S. has 30-some apps on their phone, but they do not actually use more than a quarter of them very regularly, and another quarter they never actually use," according to the Google spokesperson. "This is a big problem for app developers."
"Historically, apps have existed in the silos of the app stores," explains Adam Fingerman, founder of custom mobile app development company ArcTouch. However, he said, if a common organic search can lead a user to content within an app, especially if it comes with an easy way to install it, that widens the app's exposure. "This technology helps with app discovery and trial, by reducing the barriers for someone to try an app before making a commitment," says Fingerman. "Discoverability is generally not a problem for the top 1% of the apps in the store, but for the rest, increased discoverability and easier marketing would be a huge boon."
Good for users
App stores do not offer free trials, so "downloading an app has always been an exercise in blind faith," says Fingerman. Being able to use a streaming version can serve the purpose of a free trial.
It is also a way for a user to "discover" apps they might already own but do not remember. "Once people find an app that does something useful, they're happy to use it," says Hays, but with half of installed apps either seldom or never used, it is also easy for them to overlook tools they already have. Frequent travelers would not be likely to forget they have installed a hotel-finding or flight-booking app, for example, but infrequent travelers might. Since the Google search results open the app if it is present, it can help bring those forgotten apps out of the shadows.
So far, providing app content as streaming video is "experimental," says the Google spokesperson. Because streaming video uses a lot of data, the hosted apps will only be delivered that way if the user has a strong Wi-Fi signal.
"There's a small number of apps involved so far," says Hays, "but ultimately if this does seem to have merit in terms of people actually using it, then it becomes an interesting launch point." He says the trend towards apps is particularly strong in the developing world. "If you're in a less-developed country so your data plan is more restricted and expensive, that method of content delivery is better, from a data plan perspective."
Moreover, especially in China and India, some businesses only have apps because mobile devices are more common there than desktops. In that scenario, where the open Web just does not have the data, hosting the apps could be a way for Google to reach otherwise inaccessible users.
Jake Widman is a San Francisco, CA-based freelance writer focusing on connected devices and other smart home and smart city technologies.
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