By Kerry Butters

Deep Linking in Apps for Improved Discoverability

By Kerry Butters

For independent app developers, discoverability is not an easy thing to achieve. In all app stores, particularly Google Play, it’s usually the case that a handful of larger, well-known developers dominate the charts. Research suggests that just 3% of the 250 top apps in the Play store were by new publishers and these accounted for just 1.2% of overall app revenue.

A study carried out by Tune found that 47% of users found apps through the Apple Store, whilst 53% of users found apps through Google Play. Other means of discovering apps included:

  • Reading about it online: 11%
  • Web search: 2%
  • App store charts: 10%
  • Featured apps: 1%
  • Recommended by a friend: 1%
  • Clicked through on an ad in another app: 1%

It’s clear that users are predominantly using the app stores to find apps. This is no surprise. While Google introduced deep linking in October 2013, it’s only recently that it’s improved enough for apps to be discoverable in mobile search. Now Google allows apps that are not installed on the user device to be discovered.

Bing has introducing deep linking, and Facebook introduced App Links at its F8 developers conference last year.

However, as of this time last year, just 22% of the top 200 iOS apps used deep linking, and just 17% of Android apps.

What is Deep Linking?

In search, apps appear as ‘walled gardens’ to search bots and the content that they contain is not presented to people searching. From a user perspective, this means that it’s necessary to install an app to see if it’s suitable to their needs.

Deep linking and app links allow a developer to make the content within their app discoverable in search. App links link website content to app content. Adding markup to a web page to link an app is simple. Using a set of ; tags to establish the relationship between the website URL and the app URI using the following format.

<meta property="al:(platform):(property name)" content="(property value)"/>;

The image below gives a more detailed example of how the tags link the page with the app. This allows search bots to index the web page in the usual way, but also index the relationship between the website and the app. It’s a simple way of ensuring that your app shows up in search results. Bing has helpfully providing a tool called Applinks Markup Tester so that you can test your markup and see exactly how Bing extracts the App Links data from your site.

Meta Tag Details

App links vs. Deep Linking

You can link app content to specific pages on your website. This is a more powerful approach and will return search results that point to specific locations within the app. The app link appears below the normal search results with a link to the app content, which when clicked opens up the app itself.

For example, if a users has searched for ‘flowers’ and part of your app content includes content about flowers then your web URL might read and when clicked, the app would open up to the flowers content page in the app.

Adding deep links to your app is platform specific so you will have to follow different methods depending on the OS. In Android, you’ll first need to register the URL scheme in the app manifest. Once you’ve done this, you’ll need to use intents to map routes to in-app activities.

Read the Android Developers documentationation for full instructions on how to add intents, test deep links and specify content for indexing.

For iOS, you’ll have to register the URL scheme in the project settings or in the info.plist file before implementing the openURL method in AppDelegate.

For more information on adding deep links iOS apps indexed (still currently limited) read the Google Developer’s instructions.

You should aim to create a URL structure that matches closely with the structure on your website.

For example:

Web link:
Deep link: yourwebsite://category/flowers

You’ll then have to add tags so that third party sites can send the relevant traffic to the correct page in the app. To do this, add these tags to the head section of your site as meta tags:

<meta property="al:ios:app_store_id" content="456788990" />;
<meta property="al:ios:url" content="sample://page1" />;
<meta property="al:ipad:app_store_id" content="234788990" />;
<meta property="al:ipad:url" content="sample://page1" />;
<meta property="al:android:package" content="" />;
<meta property="al:android:url" content="" />;
<meta property="al:windows_phone:url" content="sample://page1" />;
<meta property="al:windows_phone:app_id" content="12345678-1234-1234-1234-123456789012" />;

Sound too Complicated?

Perhaps one of the reasons deep links and app linking isn’t used widely right now is due to the extra work that devs need to put in. This is especially true if you develop versions of the app for iOS and Android. However, thus far we’ve not had any way to index app content and for indie devs this is a step forward as with a little extra work, it’s possible to boost discoverability.

There are resources that can help provide a framework for you to work from. Deeplink offer a platform for devs to add deep links to their apps whatever the OS. Prices are charged per click so it’s not a free resource.

According to the’ blurb,

App Links is an open, cross-platform solution for app-to-app linking that gives you the tools you need to expose deep links in your app or to link out to others.

App Links aims to make app linking much easier for devs and it’s free.

App linking and deep linking is a positive step for app developers and the web overall. App success has become the domain of the larger and more popular developers and it’s incredibly difficult to gain any traction with a new app. Having the ability to discover apps in normal search is sure to alter this, and once it takes off, it’s likely to mean that we’ll see a shift back to native apps over web apps.

Those devs that can jump in and learn how to add deep links will be the ones that should find more success for their efforts in the future.

Further reading:

  • M S i N Lund

    So this it not really actually functioning linking, like we have on the web since almost a quarter of a century?

    Keeping in mind that no one likes links that prompts you to install their extra special shit on your device, when you click it.

    Now, if this technology made it possible for people to link to, say a cat picture in their extra ultra special cutest-cats-app, from a webpage.
    And that link would take you to that cat-picture pronto, without requiring anyone to install their extra ultra special cutest-cat-app, that would be a killer feature!

    • Haha :) No it’s not fully functional as yet due to the way that apps are built – the whole ‘walled garden’ thing. But we’ll get there and I think that the sooner indie devs can add deep linking the better – it’s not easy getting discovered in the app stores, let’s face it. The idea isn’t that it auto-installs but links to the app content so that people have the choice to decide whether the app is for them or not.

      Not a perfect system I agree, but surely one that has legs and will improve over time?

      • M S i N Lund

        Or we can just use the web.

        Its right here, sporting 100% of every single one of the web-like features those kids are struggling so with bolting on-top of their crippleware

        Installing things is so last millennium.

        • Evan Barry

          @kerrybutters:disqus and @MatsSvensson0:disqus I would keep an eye on Branch Metrics. It looks like that are starting to solve that exact problem.

          • M S i N Lund

            Typical vaporware-site.
            Not one single working example of any of their products.
            Impossible to just read on any page what theirs stuff do.

            They claim they provide links to content in apps that shows you the content even if you don’t have the app?

            OK then , question numero uno, in the mind of every visitor to a site with such claims:
            – Show me ONE such link so that I might go forth and… CLICK it.


            Besides, there is ZERO chance a product from one single company can fix this.

            Question 1:
            How would i bookmark such a link?

            Question 935755:
            What happens to the “link” when that company folds, or is bought by Google/Facebook/twitter and all their services terminated?

          • Evan Barry

            Challenge accepted, try on desktop or mobile (take out the spaces since Disqus won’t let me post links) https: //bnc. lt/m/LZLSBWaDXl

          • M S i N Lund

            The link redirects to what appears to be a commercial for shit-eating grins worn by celebrities.

            Or are they selling something else?

            The page looks exactly the same when visited directly without going trough the bnc-crap.


          • M S i N Lund

            Regular link to the same crappy site:

      • Evan Barry

        @kerrybutters:disqus the new product is now live. The walls of the garden are a little less imposing

  • Evan Barry

    @kerrybutters:disqus I’m going to respond on a different comment because M S i Lund is scaring me a bit in the other one. I work for Branch and have a lot of technical content about deep linking on our blog for developers that may be of interest to your readers. Email me at evan at branch dot io if you’re interested. Would love to provide you some content for your next piece!

    • Thanks, I’ll check it out – wish I’d found your blog before writing up the post, looks like you have a lot of interesting content there :)

      • Evan Barry

        Thanks! Please reach out if you’re interested in writing about deep link again. Also, lmk if you’d like to cover the release hinted at in the Venture Beat article below. Should be coming in a few weeks ;)

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