27 October 2014

The Startups Trying to Make Searching Apps as Easy as Searching the Web

To understand just how far behind the times in-app search is, it might help to think what Web search would be like if it were in the same situation.

If that were the case, when you entered a search into Google, you wouldn’t get back a direct link, but rather just the name of a website or two that might have the result you were looking for buried somewhere within its pages.

That’s pretty much where things are when it comes to searching for information within a mobile app. Smartphone users have tons of information on their phones, but the tools to find that information are rudimentary at best.

Your favorite restaurants, for example, might be stored in any number of apps, such as Foursquare or Yelp. Likewise, travel plans might be stored in an airline app or a travel app, such as Expedia or Orbitz. Finding that information requires first that you remember which app you used, since today’s search engines can’t penetrate the walls set up around each mobile application.

One of the main problems is that, while Web pages have a well-understood structure that search engines can crawl, apps are kind of the Wild West.

Luckily, a bunch of companies are working on this issue, including Facebook and Google as well as startups such as Quixey and URX.

Recently, a number of methods have emerged for finding information within applications. Such approaches are known as deep linking because they point not just to the right app, but to the specific place within an app’s structure where the information is stored.

Unfortunately, each of the major players has its own approach for how deep links should be structured. Google has its app indexing, Facebook has App Links, URX promotes omnilinks and Quixey is pushing AppURL.

To further complicate matters, it’s not only about the method for linking, it’s also about figuring out the right business opportunity. To search engines like Google that profess to catalog the world’s information, apps have been a threat — silos that need to be opened. Meanwhile, startups see an opportunity to get there first.

Quixey, for example, got its start as means of app discovery, but its real goal is to become the app to search other apps. Quixey CEO Tomer Kagan has raised a significant war chest and hired more than 200 people, but says that, even after three-and-a-half years, he is just getting started.

“For a company to do deep search, even for us, you are really talking about a multi-thousand-person company,” Kagan said.

San Francisco-based URX, meanwhile, takes the position that it is not one search app that is needed, but rather a common glue that can be used by all manner of applications to connect to one another.

“We believe that mobile search is a bigger opportunity than any single app can take advantage of,” CEO John Milinovich said. It’s not just about search, he argued, but about apps being able to do more than just connect to each other’s front door.

“There is no way to go from one thing you like in one app to another thing you need in another app,” he said. “You end up in these broken experiences.”

In-app search and deep links are a big deal that you should expect to hear a lot more about. We are going to get more into all this at Code/Mobile on Tuesday where the heads of both Quixey and URX will be speaking.

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