More time is now spent on the Internet through smartphones than on PCs; that includes both work and leisure time. But it’s not necessarily easier to connect with your customers—in fact, the opposite is often the case. The problem, according to Nielsen and other sources, is that 86% of mobile usage is through mobile apps, with the mobile web representing only 14%.
Why is that a problem? While the mobile web is searchable because of URLs and links, mobile apps are for the most part discreet little boxes that are neither searchable nor connected. The problem is simple to define: you can’t access what you can’t find. “Deep linking”—hypertext that links to website content beyond the homepage—is much harder to achieve in apps. Deep links on the web use a standard format based on HTTP guidelines, but mobile deep links have no standard format. In most apps, deep links simply don’t exist at all. According to the blog URX, of the top 200 apps only 17% of Android apps and 18% of Apple apps provide deep link tags, and the numbers deteriorate after the top 200.
But consumers love apps. There are over 1.3 million apps in the Android store and 1.2 million apps in the Apple store. And the categories of interest to most marketers—Education, Business, Lifestyle, Entertainment, and Health and Fitness—represent 40% of all apps. Advances in mobile technology have produced an ironic consequence. As people spend more time on their mobile devices and in their apps, the Internet experience is regressing, becoming more isolated, disorganized and ultimately harder to use—like the web before search engines.
The isolation of content, data, and interactions within apps hobbles some of the most crucial marketing innovations. For example, the retrieval and analysis of Big Data is limited on mobile platforms as the engines that gather the data are shut out of billions of mobile interactions. Content marketing and distribution is similarly handicapped as the curating and aggregation of online content is largely restricted to web-based sources. Similarly, programmatic media buying that drives targeting and retargeting is not possible with the majority of apps that live outside huge ecosystems like Facebook, which offers its own powerful version of programmatic buying (but within a closed environment). Proxy analysis—the analysis of relationships between seemingly unrelated behaviors—is difficult if not impossible in a system dominated by walled-off entities.
Basically, the web is divided into layers, with up to two-thirds of it unsearchable. According to worldwidewebsize.com, search engines have indexed about 4.4 billion pages. While no one knows how large the total web actually is, Forbes estimates that Google indexes between 30% and 40% of it. About 13% of those searches are erotic in nature, to put it nicely—off limits to mainstream marketers—so the practical reach is more like 20%-30%. Using the layers analogy, below the 4.4 billion pages that are presently indexed there is a subterranean world called the “Deep Net” that is virtually unreachable. Within the Deep Net the “Dark Web” represents websites that are broken, outdated, abandoned, or inaccessible using standard browser technologies—a virtual junkyard. The “Dark Net,” a place you don’t want to go, is an invitation-only underworld populated by criminal activity of all stripes. Considering that 86% of all mobile activity is through apps, the portion of the Internet inaccessible to mobile users is vast.
There are other fundamental problems with apps’ dominance. As the columnist Jim Edwards points out in Business Insider, Apple and Google maintain tight-fisted control over what apps are allowed to exist and what apps are promoted. The result is a censored, paid, controlled experience. Apple and Google also take up to a 30% cut of download revenue from apps—basically a tax on new media—representing another ironic example of advanced technology that runs counter to the spirit of the web.
But let’s get real: apps are here to stay, so marketers have to learn to deal with them (or around them). Software companies large and small, from Google and Facebook to tiny start-ups, are scrambling to solve the “app problem.” While efforts vary in scope and practicality, one thing is certain: a lot of players are emerging with starkly different business models. When Google revolutionized search as we know it, the web was a much less complex world that adopted what is basically one standard; but there will initially be multiple standards and platforms for deep linking. Facebook is attempting to create an open standard of deep links that connect apps to one another, but we know who the winner would be if they’re successful: Facebook. Google has deployed Google App Indexing, a Webmaster tool that is used to search and return deep links within apps. However, only about 15% of apps are now indexed with this tool, and only on the Android platform.
Many apps do import data through links, but that data resides within the app’s specific environment. And there are some ingenious apps that integrate the best features of multiple apps, presenting an opportunity to collect valuable data from external sources. One example is Venmo (venmo.com), an app designed to easily transfer and collect money from friends and family. Owned by Ebay, it’s a great alternative to Ebay’s aging PayPal service. What Venmo discovered is that users—especially millennials, its primary audience—like to share comments and photos as they reimburse their friends for pizzas, Uber, and just about anything else—and they can do so via SMS, the medium they love to use. Since Venmo uses Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail contacts to set up exchanges, Venmo is a mashup of social media and financial transaction tools. Such integration provides access to not only the user’s financial data and buying habits, but to a wealth of first-party and third-party information that is just waiting to be harvested. According to Forbes, Venmo has hinted that it may start lending money—leveraging the data that reflects directly on a borrower’s responsible use of money as well as their attitude toward money. But Venmo is another example of a walled-off world that will share access and data only on its own terms.
There are clear advantages to directing users into an app environment. According to comScore, 46% of US shoppers are less likely to shop around for other options when they’re using a company’s mobile app. By driving a customer into an app when a purchase decision is about to be made, loyalty is established and enforced. And by driving a customer into the app via the web, technologies such as programmatic buying and proxy analysis can be employed and used for further transactions within the app.
It’s clear that “the app problem” will someday be solved, though it will be a process that’s neither neat nor efficient in the short run. Meanwhile, marketers need to do what they do best: recognize the problem and find unique solutions that mitigate the limitations and—in the best scenarios—capitalize on the competition’s inability to do the same.