Tearing down the mobile app silos

The rush to leverage deep linking in mobile drew headlines again last week when the San Francisco-based startup URX closed a $12 million funding round that valued the company at roughly $40 million. The latest round was led by Accel Partners and upped URX’s total funding to $15 million.

URX is one of a handful of smaller players battling a few behemoths in the world of mobile deep linking, which is very much in its infancy. Twitter began toying with deep links last year and recently expanded its offering by enabling users to install ads directly from a tweet. Facebook has made huge gains with the app install ads it launched 18 months ago, and last week it launched App Links designed to be placed in shared content to direct users inside apps rather than sites on the web. And Google, which has been trying to catch up to the early leaders, recently announced plans to expand deep linking functionality to its AdWords business.

What deep links are and why they matter

Web deep links direct users to a particularly page on a mobile site, but mobile deep links use a uniform resource identifier (URI) to link to a specific part of a mobile app. (If the user doesn’t already have the app, the link often directs users to the download page inside an app store.) The recent rush to embrace deep linking is due partly to Facebook’s success with app install ads, which have fueled the impressive growth of its mobile advertising business by delivering users directly to a specific page inside an app store and making it easy for them to download the app with a click or two.

In a broader sense, though, deep links are becoming something of a wrecking ball to raze – or at least punch holes in – the silos that are mobile apps. Unlike the Internet, mobile apps don’t have a single standard technology for linking to other apps. Google has built an empire on spiders that can crawl the vast web and return highly accurate search results, for instance, but apps are often impenetrable silos. That’s a problem because we spend much more time using mobile apps than we do on the mobile web (through a browser), as Flurry confirmed once again last week.

As my colleague Stowe Boyd wrote last month, deep linking technologies promise to change mobile search and discovery by serving as a kind of conduit between apps, enabling users to access information from various apps through a single user interface. An app that effectively integrates that information from other apps and presents it cleanly and simply could emerge as “the social stratum of business and personal communications and coordination,” Stowe predicted convincingly.

What developers and advertisers need to know

It’s clear that mobile deep links are already creating big opportunities for developers and advertisers, and those opportunities will only increase over the next few years. Leveraging deep links is a challenge for developers, however: Each solution requires a new bit of code, so developers looking to take advantage of every offering will have to invest some time to update their apps. And as WebProNews pointed out last week in this in-depth look at Facebook’s App Links, the world of deep links is complicated, fragmented place where many wrinkles will have to be ironed out.

Meanwhile, advertisers should already be working to take advantage of deep links. Retailers, for instance, should consider ads that take users directly to a page inside an app that lets them buy a specific item with just a few clicks. And restaurants could place ads that places them inside the Open Table app, where they can quickly make dinner reservations. Deep linking is still in its early days, and harnessing its power requires some time and effort. For developers and advertisers willing to make the investment, though, deep links could pay off in big ways.