16 October 2014

Alibaba Partners With Quixey, Aims for “Deep Mobile Search” in China

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is intensifying its mobile push with new technology to make apps–and the information buried in them–as easy to search as websites. The move increases competition with Google Inc. and others in the market for “deep mobile search,” in which China is a key battleground.

Large players including Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. also make such deep-search navigation possible on mobile devices, but the experience is inconsistent and the market is fragmented, with no one protocol dominating to enable apps to be indexed and searched in the same way “http” and “https” have made websites searchable.

Alibaba’s search product, which it has been building in partnership with Silicon Valley startup Quixey Inc. for the past year, is an attempt to change that. Alibaba is incorporating the so-called deep-linking technology into YunOS, its mobile operating system, to enable users to find relevant information embedded deep within apps without having to launch the individual apps.

The companies were set to announce the partnership at Alibaba’s developer conference in Hangzhou, China, on Friday.

The technology makes searching within apps faster and more complete for users by retrieving and presenting information that previously had been segregated in separate apps. For example, if a user searches for “Thai food,” Quixey’s technology can search through Foursquare, OpenTable, Urbanspoon, Groupon, Eat24 and other food-related apps and deliver a set of relevant results for Thai food restaurants on a single search results page.

Alibaba’s operating system is pre-loaded on tens of millions of devices in China, from manufacturers including Lenovo, Huawei and Philips Aurora. The new partnership with Quixey represents the first time such deep app search will be available on mobile devices in China, according to Alibaba Chief Technology Officer Dr. Wang Jian.

In the U.S., Quixey partners with Ask.com, Nokia, Microsoft, Sprint and others to use the same technology.

“This is potentially a huge deal in the short and medium range,” said David Schubmehl, a research director at IDC who covers content analytics discovery and cognitive systems. “Quixey and Alibaba have the opportunity to do something in China where the app [market] is at a more nascent level than where they are in North America. They may be able to scale quickly.”

For Alibaba, the effort is part of a push to increase its mobile business. The volume of e-commerce transactions coming from mobile devices accounted for roughly one-third of Alibaba’s total transaction volume during the quarter ending June 30, compared to 12% during the same period the previous year.

As consumers continue to shift their attention from the desktop to mobile devices, Alibaba must make its collection of mobile apps irresistible to shoppers or risk being left behind. In the past year it has acquired companies including mobile browser UC Web, navigation startup AutoNavi and mobile analytics startup Umeng.

Integrating Quixey’s search technology into its mobile operating system and promoting a standard that allows developers to build apps as part of larger network is a continuation of that strategy.

Along with announcing the product at Alibaba’s Worldwide Developer Conference in China on Friday, Quixey will also introduce its global developer program with the aim of making its deep-linking technology the dominant standard in China.

“Search is a critical piece of the whole mobile strategy that we’ve been putting together. It’s what we had in mind when we invested” in Quixey last October, Alibaba’s Dr. Wang said. “This is to define the future of mobile search in China.”

While Alibaba introduces the new tools and functions to developers in China, Google is continuing efforts to promote its own mobile-search technology.

Google Senior Product Manager Lawrence Chang said much of the core technology for mobile search is in place. Now, it’s largely a matter of developers adopting it.

“Android has supported it [mobile search] since day one, but there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on it because there weren’t as many apps and [developers] were focusing on other things,” Mr. Chang said.

Mr. Chang said as the app ecosystem has gotten more robust, more developers are realizing they need to include deep links within their apps so the apps and information in them can be more easily found.

“When you build the app, from day one, you should make it [search] top of mind. It’s a best practice,” Mr. Chang said. He added that app indexing and mobile search is still in the early days, similar to Web search during the late 1990s. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he said.

Other startups are also developing mobile-search technology, including Wandoujia, which raised $120 million from Goldman Sachs and others earlier this year to expand to search from its core app store business, and URX Inc., which is building technology to connect and route traffic between links.

Rich Wong, a partner at Accel Partners and a backer of URX, believes the market opportunity is massive.

“What’s ironic is that the Internet most consumers interact with is the mobile Internet, but 90% of those apps aren’t interconnected,” Mr. Wong said. “It was nobody’s intention to make it hard to connect on mobile. It just wasn’t something anybody thought about.”

He is waiting to see which of the deep-linking approaches now being considered will be complementary and which will be competitive with one another.

“We are still in the very early days,” he said.